Lawyers representing seven members of the 2018 world junior hockey team are criticizing Hockey Canada’s handling of the settlement of a sexual-assault lawsuit, saying the players weren’t notified of the court action and co-operated fully with a police investigation that concluded without charges.
In May, Hockey Canada settled a lawsuit with a woman who alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by eight Canadian Hockey League players in London, Ont., in June, 2018, after a Hockey Canada fundraising gala.
The lawyers say their clients, who are unnamed in the suit and have not been publicly identified, deny wrongdoing and maintain that any sexual contact between the female plaintiff and the players was consensual. Hockey Canada’s decision to settle the lawsuit while giving the players no notice or opportunity to defend themselves has put them in an impossible position, the lawyers said, which could threaten their reputations and careers.
The lawyers outlined their concerns in a 10-page letter, dated Wednesday, that was sent to Hockey Canada. The letter provides the first glimpse of how the players at the centre of a controversy roiling Canada’s national game are defending themselves.
In the weeks since the settlement was reached, Hockey Canada has been called before a parliamentary committee, the federal government has frozen its funding, several sponsors have temporarily withdrawn their financial support, and the organization has pledged to address a toxic culture in the sport.
On Thursday, Hockey Canada issued an open letter promising to reopen its investigation into the incident in London and to introduce new initiatives to train players and coaches on issues of sexual violence and consent.
In testimony last month before the Heritage committee, Hockey Canada representatives gave conflicting answers that at times suggested as few as four to six of the 19 players present at the gala spoke to its investigators, or as many as 12 or 13. They also suggested that Hockey Canada had notified the players of the claim through their lawyers or via their teams, which the lawyers say is not true. Hockey Canada is facing another round of federal hearings on the matter, slated for July 26 and 27 in Ottawa.
In a meeting with The Globe and Mail this week, the lawyers expressed frustration with Hockey Canada, which has created what they say is a false impression that the players were unwilling to co-operate with their investigation. The lawyers present included Louis Strezos, David Humphrey and Anil Kapoor, while others who signed the letter include Brian Gover, Will McDowell, Scott Fenton and Tim Gleason.
The lawyers say each of their clients fully co-operated with a London police investigation that began shortly after the incident and concluded nearly eight months later without charges. Each player who was asked by police to give a statement or interview did so, the lawyers said, as did the plaintiff. The players also provided police with videos and text messages recorded or exchanged around the time of the incident.
According to the lawyers, the lead detective for London police said in an e-mail in February, 2019, he had concluded that he did not have reasonable grounds to believe that a sexual assault had taken place.
“We often as criminal lawyers advise our clients to exercise their right to remain silent and not speak to police because they’re under no obligation. But in this case, the truth was critical, and that it come out in a thorough police investigation,” Mr. Strezos said. “My clients voluntarily co-operated fully with the police investigation and did all that they were asked to do without reservation.”
London police declined to comment, saying they were unable to speak to investigative details.
Once the police investigation was complete, the lawyers say their clients were also willing to co-operate with a third-party investigation into the incident ordered by Hockey Canada and led by the law firm Henein-Hutchison. The Hockey Canada investigation had been paused to allow police to complete the criminal probe. But the lawyers said the players were never asked to sit for an interview or provide a statement after the criminal investigation wrapped up.
Henein-Hutchison said it did not complete its report because the complainant would not speak to them at the time. The complainant said this week that she is now willing to be interviewed. When the reopened probe is complete, its findings will be delivered to a panel of adjudicators, Danielle Robitaille and Alex Smith of Henein-Hutchison said in a statement.
Henein-Hutchison said 10 players voluntarily complied with their investigation in 2018, two declined to participate and seven declined pending the completion of the police investigation.
In an e-mailed statement to The Globe on Friday, Hockey Canada said its decisions throughout this process have been taken independently of the players to protect the integrity of the investigations.
“Our hope is all players will participate in the reopened investigation. If not, they will face a lifetime ban from all Hockey Canada activities and programs,” the statement said.
The statement of claim alleging sexual assault was filed in Ontario Superior Court on April 20, 2022. In the claim, the woman alleged that she went to a hotel room with one player and engaged in sexual acts with that player. Seven other CHL members are alleged to have later entered the room without her consent and engaged in a range of sexual acts to which she did not consent, the claim states. Throughout, she alleges, she felt an imminent fear of physical harm.
The lawsuit, which sought more than $3.5-million in damages, was settled on terms that were not disclosed and the claims were not proven in court.
In their letter to Hockey Canada, the lawyers said the organization did not notify the players of the existence of the lawsuit or its plan to settle, nor did it ask the players about the accuracy of the claims made in the lawsuit. Since the players were identified only as John Does one through eight in the statement of claim, they were not served as part of the legal process. (It is not clear why seven players are represented by lawyers and eight players are identified as John Doe in the lawsuit.)
When Hockey Canada settled the case just weeks after it was launched, the players felt blindsided, their lawyers said.
“The players never had a chance to challenge the very serious allegations,” the letter states. “Instead of notifying our clients and making reasonable inquiries into the veracity of the very serious allegations made in the claim … Hockey Canada unilaterally settled the action without any input,” the letter states.
They argue that Hockey Canada’s public statements, including those made to the Heritage committee, “have created the impression that the allegations should be accepted as truth, when in fact they are quite the opposite.”
Among the seven players who have retained counsel, their lawyers say there are two groups: those who engaged in what they describe as consensual group sexual activity, and those who were in the room at one point but left and did not take part in the sexual activity.
The lawyers say they are concerned that with Hockey Canada expected to appear before the Heritage committee again later this month, they could be compelled to produce documents that would reveal the identity of their clients.
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