As he lay motionless on the ice, Neil Doef knew something was terribly wrong.
Seconds after crashing headfirst into the boards, his body went numb. He felt a burning sensation, then a tingling. Then nothing.
A teammate raced over. “Doef, what’s going on, are you okay?”
“I can’t move,” he said. “I can’t feel anything.”
At that moment, the 17-year-old from Smiths Falls, Ont., was a few shifts into the biggest hockey game of his life. It was December, 2014, and Doef had been chosen to represent Team Canada East at the World Junior A Challenge, a top international tournament.
Doef, who grew up shooting pucks in the driveway and carving circles into backyard rinks, dreamed of one day pulling on a Team Canada jersey and playing in front of pro scouts. The National Hockey League’s Central Scouting Bureau listed him as one of its players to watch heading into the tournament in Kindersley, Sask. “Always a scoring threat,” the synopsis said. “Willing to battle.”
But as he raced to beat a Swiss defender to a loose puck in the corner, the two jostled for position. In a flash, Doef lost his balance and went hard into the end boards. The force of the collision crushed part of his spine.
That was eight years ago. Since then, Doef and his family have been fighting Hockey Canada for money to help pay his medical bills, including the future costs expected from a lifetime of paralysis.
He’s come a long way since the injury, when he initially had no feeling from the chest down. Doef can walk now, but his left leg remains mostly paralyzed. Stairs are a chore requiring patience and concentration.
He has extensive nerve damage below the waist, affecting everything from bodily functions to his ability to sense heat and cold in both legs. The injury has affected his arms as well. The fine motor skills he once took for granted are now diminished. Small tasks such as buttoning a shirt are sometimes a challenge.
But when the family sought help from Hockey Canada through the insurance coverage players pay for in their registration fees, they were blocked.
Hockey Canada carries up to a million dollars of coverage for paralysis, but Doef was offered just $30,000 for his damaged left leg.
His broader paralysis claims were refused on the grounds that Doef’s injury doesn’t fit the wording of the policy the way Hockey Canada and its insurer, AIG, see it.
Beyond the policy, Hockey Canada says there is little it can do.
In legal documents, it maintains that “as a not-for-profit amateur athletic organization, Hockey Canada has finite financial resources.”
But with the drumbeat of revelations about Hockey Canada this year – including millions of dollars spent to settle sexual assault claims, financial reserves totalling more than $143-million and vast sums of money held in obscure funds that are not fully disclosed – Doef and other injured players wonder why they have been refused help.
When Hockey Canada quietly settled a $3.55-million sexual assault lawsuit this year against eight players on the 2018 World Junior team, it tapped a little-known internal war-chest known as the National Equity Fund. The claim was settled in three weeks for an undisclosed amount.
But it wasn’t until a Globe and Mail investigation revealed the inner workings of the National Equity Fund, including that it was built using millions of dollars of player registration fees without disclosing to parents or players how the money was used, that the extent of this reserve became known to the public.
Subsequently, Hockey Canada was ordered to explain the fund, which exceeded $15-million some years. At parliamentary hearings in July, MPs accused Hockey Canada of using the National Equity Fund to cover up the alleged sexual assault, and of not conducting a full investigation into the matter.
Hockey Canada has said the fund is for liabilities that are either uninsurable or are underinsured. In other words, it is a reserve that exists for times when the organization’s insurance won’t cover a claim.
But the National Equity Fund wasn’t only for sexual assault, Hockey Canada said. It was also for injuries, helping players who are underinsured whose costs exceed what the policy covers.
That has left Doef, his family, and other seriously injured players across Canada wondering why they were never told about the fund. And why, when they need it, the money is not available.
‘I just knew’
After the collision, Doef was taken by ambulance to Saskatoon and rushed into surgery. Doctors told his parents the prognosis wasn’t good. Doef was paralyzed from the chest down and would never walk again.
His mom, Bobbi-Jean, remembers sobbing when she heard the news. His dad, Bruce, recalls walking out to the parking lot and throwing up.
At first, Hockey Canada seemed eager to help. Tom Renney, the organization’s CEO at the time, met the family at the hospital and asked what they needed. Bobbi-Jean wanted Neil’s three older siblings there, so Hockey Canada offered to fly them out from Ontario and made accommodations.
“Early on, they were good to us,” Bobbi-Jean said. “They said they had a small fund that they could provide us with some help.”
Immediately, though, Bobbi-Jean became concerned. If there was money available to help Doef, she wanted all of it to go toward his rehabilitation.
Bobbi-Jean said when Hockey Canada booked hotel rooms, she quickly cancelled some of them. The family would bunk together and buy groceries at a nearby Wal-Mart to save money as best they could.
“I remember saying to him, if this is coming out of a pool of money that is going to help my son, we don’t need four rooms in a hotel,” she said.
When Doef moved to a hospital in Ottawa, Hockey Canada covered the cost for him to be transferred by air ambulance, since his condition left him unable to travel on a commercial flight.
“We thought, well, they’re taking care of us. They know what they’re doing,” Bobbi-Jean said. “At the time, we had the utmost respect for these people that they were holding our best interests.”
As hockey parents, Bruce and Bobbi-Jean never contemplated what would happen in the event of a catastrophic injury. They just knew their registration fees went toward insurance coverage, and believed it would be enough.
But they say an offhand remark in the hospital by Hockey Canada’s senior vice-president of insurance and risk management, Glen McCurdie, gave them cause for worry.
“I don’t remember the conversation but I just remember how it ended,” Bobbi-Jean said. “He said, ‘You know, I’m really sorry this has happened to your family. But you need to know, at some point, I will wear a different hat.’”
Still, a few months later, the family says it was given assurances they would be covered. In the spring of 2015, Doef’s parents travelled to Hockey Canada’s offices in downtown Ottawa and met with McCurdie and another executive.
McCurdie, who retired last year, told them not to worry. Hockey Canada’s insurance covered up to $1-million for paralysis, with an extra $500,000 if claimants signed a release promising not to take legal action. Though it was ultimately AIG’s decision, they say Hockey Canada saw no reason for concern.
“They said, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s okay. We’re going to get you the full amount.’” Bruce said, recounting the conversation.
As the months wore on, Doef continued his rehabilitation, determined to get better.
One particular day he’ll never forget, he was able to wiggle his toes in the hospital. Eventually, through intensive physiotherapy, he slowly began to regain movement in his right leg. At home, Doef willed himself out of his wheelchair, hobbling around the house using a combination of specialized braces and walkers, trying to get stronger.
With the help of doctors and physiotherapists over the course of many months, Doef learned to walk again, but he’ll never be the same. The spinal cord damage has left him unable to fully bend his left knee and ankle. He has the gait of a man who appears to be wearing a full leg brace, even when he is not. Each step involves swinging his hip and coaxing the leg to follow, landing on a weakened foot that threatens to give out.
It is the permanent fallout from his injury.
Then, in December, 2015, a year after his last game, Hockey Canada informed the family that the insurance situation had changed.
According to his medical records, Doef suffered varying degrees of neurological injuries to all four limbs, from nerve damage in his hands and right leg to significant paralysis of the left leg. But Hockey Canada and its insurer saw it differently.
In their opinion, Doef didn’t meet the requirements for full coverage, in part because he hadn’t completely lost the use of his limbs.
Instead, he would only be covered for up to $30,000 under its accidental death and dismemberment coverage.
A protracted legal battle has ensued since then. Seven years after it was launched, the case is now grappling with the question of how much damage is required for Doef to be eligible for more coverage. He has suffered significant neurological damage, but is he paralyzed enough? The policy is unclear, his lawyers say.
Facing mounting medical bills, Bobbi-Jean feared something like that would happen. “I just knew in my head, they’re going to find a loophole,” she said.
She thinks of how hard he struggled in rehab to get out of the wheelchair.
“It’s almost like they penalized him for that,” she said.
Doef’s lawyers argue Hockey Canada failed to obtain appropriate insurance coverage for its players. Hockey Canada denies the allegation and said it won’t comment on the case because it is before the courts.
With only $30,000 offered to cover his extensive injuries, Doef is now, by definition, the type of player the National Equity Fund purports to support. He is underinsured. Medical costs in the first few weeks of physiotherapy alone exceeded that amount, Bruce said, with bills for an electro-stimulation brace, a wheelchair, and other expensive items and treatments piling up. If it wasn’t for the community of Smiths Falls starting a fundraiser for the family, he doesn’t know how they would have coped, or where they would be today.
The family says it was never told the National Equity Fund existed to help when a player is injured and the organization’s insurance isn’t enough, as Hockey Canada told MPs this summer.
“If I could know then what I know now,” Bobbi-Jean said.
Funds are limited
Hockey Canada has never been fully transparent about the National Equity Fund – neither to players nor the government nor the public.
When executives were called to federal hearings in June to explain their handling of the sexual assault allegations against members of the 2018 World Junior team, MPs accused Hockey Canada of trying to quickly cover up the problem in order to protect its brand.
The World Junior team, composed of the top young players in the country and an echelon above what Doef played, is one of Hockey Canada’s most valuable assets. In years when Canada hosts the tournament, the organization’s revenue jumps by more than $30-million.
Hockey Canada executives acknowledged at the hearings that they didn’t fully investigate the 2018 allegations, nor did they force the players accused of rape, who are unnamed in the lawsuit, to co-operate with a probe into the matter. Nevertheless, it settled.
Chief financial officer Brian Cairo said Hockey Canada “did believe harm was caused” and sought to protect the young woman from a difficult and potentially traumatic legal process.
But Hockey Canada was vague about where it got the money for the settlement. It told the government in June that no taxpayer dollars were used, and reassured sponsors that no corporate dollars were tied to sexual assault claims. Executives never mentioned the National Equity Fund by name.
After The Globe revealed how the organization accumulated the fund using millions of dollars of player registration fees each year, Hockey Canada was forced to reveal the full extent of how it used the reserve.
At hearings in July, Cairo told MPs that Hockey Canada paid nine sexual assault settlements totalling $7.6-million from the National Equity Fund since 1989, with the bulk of those related to disgraced coach Graham James. That figure did not include the new settlement reached this year.
A few weeks earlier, MPs hadn’t even heard of the fund, and Hockey Canada made no effort to disclose it.
“The National Equity Fund caught everyone off guard,” Conservative MP Kevin Waugh told the hearings, frustrated by the lack of transparency.
MPs accused Hockey Canada of turning to registration fees to cover the lawsuit, hoping to sweep the controversy under the rug and protect its image, rather than hold any of the 2018 players accountable.
“When you have a fund that pays off victims so that perpetrators don’t have to face any consequences for sexual assault you are not only condoning that behaviour, you are enabling it, you are institutionalizing it,” Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner said.
But Hockey Canada characterized the National Equity Fund as more than just a reserve for sexual assault; it also existed to help injured players.
“We haven’t used money to protect our image, we’ve used money to respond to and support victims,” Scott Smith, Hockey Canada’s CEO at the time, told the hearings.
“Insurance doesn’t cover everything. We’re in a situation where we want to make sure that we provide and support families. In some cases, we’ve made payments out of the equity fund for injuries that may not be covered to the extent they need to be, from an insurance point of view.”
When asked last week how often the National Equity Fund has been used for injuries, Hockey Canada wouldn’t say. At the July hearings, executives gave an example of a player who became a quadriplegic and received money, but otherwise provided no further details.
However, statements Hockey Canada has made about the fund this year have proven to be untrue.
In an attempt to put a positive spin on the National Equity Fund for the public – a strategy uncovered in records the government ordered it to turn over at the hearings – Hockey Canada said the reserve covered various health and wellness programs for players. But a governance review conducted this fall by retired Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell found no evidence of those programs in Hockey Canada’s financial records.
Hockey Canada later admitted to Cromwell that, in fact, the National Equity Fund had not paid for such programs, even though it told the public and the media that it did.
Amid calls for his resignation, Smith departed in October, while the board of directors announced it would step down.
The organization’s audited financials describe the fund as being created to handle claims stemming from “sanctioned hockey activities.” At federal hearings in November, Hockey Canada was asked if it considered the 2018 alleged sexual assault a “sanctioned hockey activity,” given the woman said she was raped by players in a hotel room following a Hockey Canada fundraising event. “It was not,” answered Pat McLaughlin, Hockey Canada’s senior vice-president of strategy, operations and brand.
That acknowledgment not only raises questions about Hockey Canada’s use of the National Equity Fund to settle the 2018 lawsuit, it also angers players who have suffered serious injuries – only to be told there was no help for them.
In those cases, players are told that funds are limited.
‘Keep this to yourself’
Neil Doef’s case isn’t the only such story.
The Globe examined several cases where Hockey Canada has told injured players that its hands are tied financially, and there’s nothing more it can do.
Tyler Koshowski found that out when he was hit in the head by a puck in early 2020 while playing in a competitive adult league in Winnipeg that was part of Hockey Canada. An opposing player, known for having one of the hardest shots in his division, tried to rifle the puck down the ice. Instead, it hit Koshowski directly in the face from about six metres away.
He dropped to the ice dazed and bloodied. “I look down at my jersey and it’s all red. And I look around and I see my teammates picking my teeth up off the ice,” he said.
The puck hit with so much force that part of his lower jaw caved in. He remembers hearing the surgeons talk in the operating room. One doctor commented the situation looked more like a gunshot wound than a sports injury, given how the bone had shattered into pieces so small it could not be reassembled.
Koshowski needed six teeth replaced and more than 100 stitches. He endured two years of bone and tissue grafting procedures to rebuild his mouth. “I don’t even know how many surgeries I had,” he said.
With $28,000 in dental bills, Koshowski, a student at the time, sought help from Hockey Canada’s insurance program. He was shocked to learn Hockey Canada would give him no more than $5,000, from a fund designated for health and dental emergencies known as the Health Benefits Trust. It was the same limited fund that bought hotel rooms for the Doefs.
In an e-mail to Hockey Canada, Koshowski pleaded for more. If that was all Hockey Canada’s insurance could provide, the coverage was deeply flawed, he argued.
“I am reaching out to you because I have no other options,” he wrote.
He received an e-mail from McCurdie the next day, who told him Hockey Canada’s coverage was limited.
“That said, we self-insure and there are situations that warrant further consideration. I believe your claim may be one of those,” McCurdie said. But there was a caveat.
“I need to temper your expectations on this, we are not capable of covering 100 per cent of your losses and any further consideration will be minimal in comparison. Thanks Tyler, I regret we cannot do more for you.”
Koshowski thanked McCurdie for whatever he could provide. “Every little bit counts,” he replied.
McCurdie wrote that Hockey Canada had the ability to unilaterally go beyond its insurance policies, “when the situation warrants it,” though he didn’t elaborate where that money came from.
“It is one of the benefits of being self-insured, we don’t need to approach an insurer and beg them to spend more money, we do it ourselves,” McCurdie told him in an e-mail.
Then he requested that Koshowski keep everything quiet.
“I would ask that you keep this to yourself as much as possible. We like to assist our members, but we need some controls in place or we would never have been capable of maintaining this program,” McCurdie wrote. “It is not fair to others for whom we have held firm on our limits.”
Later that year, Koshowski was given an extra $2,500. It didn’t come close to being enough.
It wasn’t until The Globe revealed millions of dollars of registration fees had been stockpiled annually in the National Equity Fund, specifically for uninsured and underinsured claims, that Koshowski started to question what he was told.
“I had never even heard about the National Equity Fund,” Koshowski said. “It’s very concerning, the fact that there was money specifically purposed for this situation that they basically hid from me, yeah, that stings.
“It was a difficult pill to swallow when I was having to get the lower half of my face basically reassembled.”
Like Doef, he was underinsured.
The Globe reviewed several such cases: players in Halifax and Toronto with spinal cord injuries; a player in Alberta who needed tens of thousands of dollars of dental work; and a player in Victoria who took Hockey Canada to court after a brain injury.
Each case has a common theme: players forced to fight for money to cover the costs associated with their injuries. Meanwhile, the details of Hockey Canada’s multimillion-dollar reserve funds remained largely obscured from players and the public.
“Hockey Canada gave the impression that it was a very lean organization that was not sitting on this huge war-chest,” said Koshowski, who has since graduated university and is still digging out from the debt.
“From an outsider’s perspective, what it looks like is, for regular people, we’re going to nickel-and-dime them, we’re going to give out the bare minimum, and then we’re going to fight with them tooth and nail for every penny,” he said.
“And then when somebody on the World Junior team gets involved in an alleged sex abuse scandal, we’re going to spend millions to cover it up. And I find that a little concerning.”
He feels betrayed.
“This is a sport I have loved, and it’s been a huge part of my life,” Koshowski said.
“This entire incident has kind of left me saying, am I going to put my future kids in hockey? I genuinely don’t know that I would.”
The benefits of being a member
On its website, Hockey Canada speaks glowingly about its coverage for players.
“Hockey Canada knows that we have a responsibility to ensure that adequate financial resources are in place to compensate those that are injured while playing hockey,” the organization says.
“One of the benefits of being a member of Hockey Canada is knowing that you have an exceptional insurance program that has been built with the needs of its members in mind.”
Any hockey parent would be comforted.
But Doef now faces extensive costs for the rest of his life, ranging from physiotherapy to home and vehicle modifications.
Just the expenses for medical aids and devices to assist with mobility and basic bodily functions are already more than $10,000 a year. As his condition deteriorates with age, the costs associated with treatment and care will multiply significantly over time, reaching into the millions, his lawyers and doctors argue.
Having lost the use of his left leg, and with other limbs that don’t function as they once did, Doef has been diagnosed as an incomplete quadriplegic, meaning all four of his limbs have suffered some form of damage from the spinal cord injury. It’s a term that’s not specifically contemplated in the policy.
But in the eyes of Hockey Canada and its insurer, he is not injured enough to receive more than the $30,000 for one damaged leg.
Doef’s lawyers disagree, saying each of his limbs no longer operate as they did.
But insurance is just one avenue for recourse. Hockey Canada operates the National Equity Fund at its own discretion. As McCurdie put it, the organization doesn’t need to beg its insurance company for money to settle claims on its own. That’s what the fund is for.
“Hockey Canada used members’ fees to settle alleged sexual misconduct claims without any proper investigation or assessment of those claims,” the statement of claim in Doef’s lawsuit says.
“By contrast, when the plaintiff was injured during a highly competitive, Hockey Canada-sanctioned event, Hockey Canada has made him litigate his case for years even when it has told all members and their parents that it obtains exceptional insurance and that it has adequate financial resources in place to provide compensation to members who are injured.”
The lawsuit seeks $1.5-million from Hockey Canada’s insurer, as well as millions in general and punitive damages from Hockey Canada to cover future costs. Those are estimated in court documents to be upwards of $2.3-million, depending on the extent of care that is needed over the course of his life, and how much the condition deteriorates.
Hockey Canada says the $29,050 the Doef family received for the air ambulance, hotel costs and other expenses was well in excess of the $5,000 the Health Benefit Trust normally pays out, and that its insurance doesn’t cover everything.
“The insurance program was not designed to, nor did Hockey Canada represent to its members, participants and players that the insurance program would cover all costs associated with any injury arising from playing hockey,” it says in court documents.
Meanwhile, Doef and his family have concerns for the future.
In a report on his condition, a doctor specializing in paralysis concluded Doef may have come as far as he’s going to go in his recovery.
Before the injury, Doef landed a hockey scholarship with Princeton University. Though he couldn’t play, the school still honoured its commitment, giving him a shot at an education that was otherwise financially out of reach.
A hard-working student, he graduated last year with a degree in economics.
Walking isn’t his only concern. Now 25, Doef isn’t eager to talk about how the injury will impact him, including everything from family planning to his long-term mobility and quality of life.
“You hold out hope,” he said, when asked about his condition improving.
“Maybe you’ll get a little stronger with the muscles and the movement you have, but still neurologically it’s not really improving that much. So you kind of come to the realization that maybe I have plateaued as far as my recovery goes.”
He takes a lengthy pause and looks down at the floor.
“But I still have hope to this day and, you know – hopefully it changes.”
‘I’m mad most days’
After witnessing Doef’s injury, Mark Grady questioned whether he ever wanted to coach hockey again.
The former head coach of the Smiths Falls Bears was an assistant on Team Canada East when it happened. The situation has left him bitter.
“Neil’s game was to get on pucks,” Grady said. “He was chasing a puck when he got hurt – like we tell him to.”
He reserves much of his bitterness for Hockey Canada. Grady remembers taking the team to see Doef in the hospital after his surgery and Renney insisting that none of the pictures from the visit be posted on social media.
Grady was incensed. The implication, he felt, was that Doef’s injury was bad for Hockey Canada’s brand.
“I have little respect for the way it was handled at the time, I have even less respect now, knowing what I know, and how the boy has not been made whole to deal with a life-altering injury,” Grady said.
The events of this year have bothered him deeply.
“Everybody pays the same fees and everything. And at the end of the day, their bread and butter is the World Juniors,” Grady said, questioning how quickly the assault case was settled this year while injured players have to fight years for assistance. “Prove me wrong.”
The Doefs are a typical hockey family. They scrimped to buy their son equipment. They went without so that he could go to tournaments and play on good teams.
His scouting report said Doef was willing to battle. But neither he nor his parents wanted this fight – a seven-year legal quagmire that will only be resolved in May, assuming the case isn’t further put off, as it has been due to legal wrangling, court delays and the pandemic.
“This is the first time I’ve heard Neil talk about this,” Bobbi-Jean said, as her son described what it felt like to lay on the ice knowing his life changed forever.
“We don’t talk about it. We never have. We lived it, but we didn’t talk about it, nor do we expect him to talk about it.”
She wonders why Hockey Canada has put an injured player through years of litigation, when it clearly saw a need to settle the sexual assault lawsuit quickly in order to protect the victim, as Hockey Canada said it was doing.
“That young woman’s been through hell and if that saved her from being revictimized, that’s good,” she said. “But it’s okay for them to put Neil on the stand and make him relive that awful day?”
Bobbi-Jean worries people will think their lawsuit is about money. It’s for the medical costs, the uncertainty and the principle, she said.
“We wouldn’t be here if they had just honoured their part,” she said. “Every other hockey parent out there thinking this can’t happen to you, it can.”
The process has taken a toll. “I’m mad most days, I’m not going to lie,” Bobbi-Jean said. “My heart broke that day. I don’t think it will ever heal.”
Then for the first time in more than two hours of conversation, Neil’s mom starts to cry.
Through tears, she turns to her son and apologizes.
“I’m sorry, Neil, I held on as long as I could.”
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Senior writer Grant Robertson shares the story of injured player Neil Doef and addresses the questions his case raises about how Hockey Canada uses money from its National Equity Fund. Subscribe for more episodes.