Hockey Canada has appointed lawyer Andrea Skinner to serve as its interim chair amid public pressure for a leadership overhaul to address the troubling culture in the country’s national winter sport.
The organization’s board made the appointment on the advice of Hockey Canada’s 13 provincial and territorial member branches. The next board election is scheduled to occur at the sports body’s annual meeting in November.
Ms. Skinner is the first woman to hold the position at the organization, replacing former chair Michael Brind’Amour, who resigned last week over Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual-assault allegations.
“Since 1914, Hockey Canada has been the organization that Canadians have trusted to lead, develop and promote positive hockey experiences,” the national governing body for hockey said in a statement Tuesday. “Recent events have called that trust into question.”
Hockey Canada has also come under fire for its use of a special multimillion-dollar fund – fed by player registration fees – to settle sexual-assault claims. The scrutiny has led to calls for more transparency at the board level and for more diversity among the senior management team.
Ms. Skinner was elected to the board in 2020, after a bylaw was passed the year before requiring a minimum of two female directors. The change at the helm is taking place as the world junior hockey championship gets under way in Edmonton, after the tournament was halted last year because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
When Team Canada takes the ice against Latvia on Wednesday, the players won’t see the typical slew of advertisements plastering the boards. That’s because several major sponsors, including Scotiabank and Tim Hortons, have suspended or withdrawn their support for Hockey Canada or for its events.
In addition to backlash from individual Canadians and corporate partners, the federal government has frozen funding to Hockey Canada as it conducts a financial audit to ensure taxpayer dollars weren’t used to settle a recent sexual-assault lawsuit.
In May, Hockey Canada paid out a settlement to a woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted by eight Canadian Hockey League players after a Hockey Canada fundraising gala in 2018 in London, Ont. The players weren’t named in the suit and haven’t been publicly identified, but they include members of the country’s 2018 world junior team.
A federal committee launched public hearings into the allegations, calling Hockey Canada executives, league representatives and federal Sport Canada officials as witnesses. Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge has been clear that she believes the organization must undergo leadership changes.
Even after Mr. Brind’Amour stepped down ahead of the end of his final term in November, Ms. St-Onge said Hockey Canada’s top brass must reflect on whether they’re the right people to guide the organization through the changes it has promised in recent weeks. “We are starting to see cracks in the fortress,” she said over the weekend. “That’s how the light gets in.”
Hockey Canada chief executive officer Scott Smith, who has faced calls to resign, told the federal Canadian Heritage committee in late July that he believed he still had the confidence of the board of directors and of its member branches. The Department of Canadian Heritage oversees Sport Canada, which provides funding to national sports organizations such as Hockey Canada.
NDP MP Peter Julian, who is a member of the Heritage committee, said he has no issue with the new board chair but is skeptical that the appointment will fundamentally change the culture at Hockey Canada. “It’s not a change in one position that makes a difference,” he said. “And we have yet to see any indication that Hockey Canada understands that a change in leadership is required.”
Another committee member, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, said that while Ms. Skinner has “excellent credentials,” he doesn’t believe the move will solve the overall governance issue at Hockey Canada. “There needs to be much broader change than one board member stepping down and being replaced by another board member who was there when the recent settlement was agreed to,” he said.
Ms. Skinner is a partner at Toronto-based Aird & Berlis LLP, where she practises in the areas of municipal, land-use planning and expropriation law, and also chairs the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee.
She has played at an elite level in several sports, including hockey. At Cornell University, Ms. Skinner played four years of varsity hockey and was captain during her senior year. She’s the older sister to NHL star Jeff Skinner of the Buffalo Sabres.
In its statement, Hockey Canada said Ms. Skinner was recruited to the board by the organization’s independent nominating committee. A spokesperson said in an e-mail that Ms. Skinner was unavailable for an interview. Ms. Skinner did not respond to an e-mailed interview request.
After news of the settlement was made public, Hockey Canada released a 19-page document outlining an action plan to address the code of silence and toxic behaviour in the sport. The plan includes a commitment to a third-party governance review, which will be led by former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell.
Ticket sales for the world junior tournament, typically held in the winter, have been poor. Several hundred people attended Tuesday’s contest between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and half as many showed up for the Finland-Latvia game, leaving chasms of empty rows in Rogers Place, the Oilers’ 18,500-seat arena. There are still thousands of tickets available for Wednesday’s Team Canada opener.
Ms. Skinner’s interim appointment was welcomed by fans at the tournament. Aaron McKay, who is from Edmonton but became a Czech hockey fan at a young age, described the move as a “big shift.”
“Having a woman in charge will be better,” the University of Alberta student said. “They treat one another better than men do. … She won’t put up with much for sure.”
Marty Hackenberg, an engineer who is originally from the Czech Republic but has lived in Alberta for 17 years, also supports the appointment. “I’m all for it,” he said. “The change is good.”
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