Hockey Canada is facing a growing revolt among some of its highest-profile sponsors, which are responding to the organization’s payment of an undisclosed sum last month to settle allegations that eight Canadian Hockey League players sexually assaulted a young woman after a gala it held in June, 2018.
Canadian Tire and Telus both announced late Tuesday that they would pull their support from August’s IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton. That followed Bank of Nova Scotia’s announcement on Tuesday morning that it would “pause” its Hockey Canada sponsorship.
The increasing blowback has severely damaged Hockey Canada’s formerly lustrous brand, according to one marketing expert, as companies that previously chased a “halo effect” of association are now cutting their losses and removing themselves from a spiralling public-relations crisis.
“We are appalled by the recent reports of assault involving members of the 2018 World Junior Championship team,” says a statement sent to The Globe and Mail by Liz Sauvé, communications manager for Telus, which is one of Hockey Canada’s five premier partners.
The telecom company said that, while it “will continue to support upcoming women’s events and grassroots initiatives dedicated to supporting youth in hockey,” it would pause its Hockey Canada sponsorship activities and those related to the World Juniors, and “will redirect those funds to Canadian organizations that support women affected by sexual violence.”
The statement adds that Telus is “engaged with Hockey Canada to understand what specific changes are being made within their organization to drive positive cultural change and create a safe, inclusive hockey experience for all.”
Stephanie Nadalin, vice-president of communications for Canadian Tire, said in a statement that the retailer was also withdrawing its sponsorship support for the World Juniors and “re-evaluating its relationship with Hockey Canada.”
“We are deeply disappointed in Hockey Canada’s lack of transparency and accountability around the assault allegations,” the statement says. “We are calling on Hockey Canada to do better and live up to their commitment to change the systemic culture of silence in our nation’s sport, and push to make it more inclusive and safe for all.”
In an open letter published Tuesday in The Globe, Scotiabank president and chief executive Brian Porter said he was “appalled” by the allegations.
“The alleged behaviour in this current case is contrary to the beliefs and values that hockey is meant to embody, and those that we champion at Scotiabank, as Canada’s Hockey Bank,” the letter says.
The letter says Scotiabank believes it has “a responsibility as hockey lovers and sponsors to contribute to positive change in the sport” and is “committed to ensuring that hockey is safe, inclusive and accessible.”
The bank announced it was cancelling marketing and events around the World Juniors and would redirect those funds to other charitable programs, including the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which supports victims of gender-based violence. It will suspend sponsorship activities until it is “confident the right steps are being taken to improve the culture within the sport – both on and off the ice.”
In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, before Telus and Canadian Tire had announced their moves, Hockey Canada said it “values our relationship with Scotiabank, and we both respect and understand their decision regarding their sponsorship.” It added that the organization “is on a journey to change the culture of our sport and to make it safer and more inclusive, both at the rink and in our communities. We have been on this journey for some time, but we agree that more needs to be done, and more quickly.”
Earlier this month, federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge ordered a forensic audit of Hockey Canada to ensure no public funds were used in the settlement, as the organization’s executives had pledged.
Government assistance accounted for only 6 per cent of Hockey Canada’s revenue last year, according to the organization’s 2020-21 annual report. Forty-three per cent of its revenue – amounting to approximately $65-million in 2019-2020 – came from business development and partnerships.
Last week, Hockey Canada president Scott Smith and chief executive Tom Renney told the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage that they did not know how many players had participated in the independent investigation of the alleged sexual assault.
The woman at the centre of the allegations had been seeking $3.55-million in damages from Hockey Canada, the CHL and the unnamed players.
Last week, the Canadian government froze Hockey Canada’s federal funding, saying the organization must sign on to the newly created Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, which oversees independent investigations of alleged abuse and mistreatment.
Scotiabank may have been spurred to act partly because of increasing expectations among consumers that it would be a voice for social change.
At a sports industry conference last fall, Lisa Ferkul, then the director of hockey sponsorship for Scotiabank, said the bank had begun to position itself as an advocate on issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion related to hockey. As a result, consumer research it commissioned suggested that “we almost have an obligation to speak out against the cultural issues that [hockey] was facing.”
David Chong, a managing director of marketing consultancy MKTG Canada, which counts Scotiabank as a client, said companies “engage in sponsorships to get a halo effect” from associations with organizations such as Hockey Canada.” But that can quickly turn: “You go into it thinking it’s all going to be positive, but there are always risks and dangers – of conduct, morality, situations that will reflect negatively.”
In a statement e-mailed to The Globe, Imperial Oil Canada, whose Esso brand is a Hockey Canada premier partner, noted its concern about the allegations and said hockey “should be a sport where everyone feels safe,” but did not indicate any intention to change its sponsorship plans.