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During a news conference at an event for the NHL’s All-Star Weekend in Toronto, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed that the four NHL players charged with sexual assault are still being paid by their teams.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

In his first public comments since four National Hockey League players were charged with sexual assault, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said it’s not necessary to suspend the men, because they are already on leaves from their teams and all of their contracts expire at the end of the season.

During a Friday news conference at an event for the NHL’s All-Star Weekend in Toronto, Mr. Bettman confirmed that the four players are still being paid by their teams.

“It becomes irrelevant in terms of the timing,” he said when asked about possible suspensions. “They’re all away from their teams ... They’ve been paid the vast bulk of their salary for the year anyway.” He added that terminating a contract is not straightforward, and that a team would need to “prove certain things” if it were to take that step.

Because of that and the impending expiries of their contracts, he said he is comfortable with not taking further measures.

Mr. Bettman’s comments are the first official statement the NHL has made since police in London, Ont., charged five men, Michael McLeod, Dillon Dubé, Carter Hart, Cal Foote and Alex Formenton, all players from Canada’s 2018 world junior hockey team, with sexual assault. Mr. McLeod faces an additional charge of being a party to sexual assault. Each player has denied wrongdoing and promised a vigorous defence.

All but Mr. Formenton – who now plays professionally in Switzerland, but previously played for the Ottawa Senators – were playing in the NHL until they took leaves of absence from their teams last week in advance of the charges being laid. Mr. Formenton has also taken a leave from his Swiss team.

The attack allegedly took place after a Hockey Canada fundraising gala in June, 2018. At the time, the five had all been drafted by NHL teams, but had yet to start their careers in the league.

The NHL conducted its own investigation into the alleged assault. Mr. Bettman confirmed Friday that this probe has been finished for several months.

“We were working with the NHL Players’ Association to analyze the information we had, create a process to move forward, and then determine what was an appropriate response when the news of the impending charges broke last week,” Mr. Bettman said.

He would not comment on what the investigation had found, but he said the allegations are “abhorrent, reprehensible, horrific and unacceptable.”

“At this stage, the most responsible and prudent thing for us to do is await the conclusion of the judicial proceedings,” he said.

The commissioner would not commit to releasing the findings of the NHL’s investigation once the court process has finished.

Friday’s news conference was the first time the commissioner had revealed substantive details of the NHL’s internal investigation since the league launched it a year-and-a-half ago. Mr. Bettman confirmed a report in The Globe and Mail that the league had hired Camille Olson to run the probe. Ms. Olson is a prominent American labour and employment lawyer, who in 2021 was recognized by the National Law Journal as one of the United States’ “trailblazers” in crisis management. Mr. Bettman said her investigation took 12 months to complete.

Ms. Olson had conducted other investigations for the league in the past, Mr. Bettman said. He added that all 22 members of the 2018 junior team were interviewed for the investigation, as well as other people “who were willing to participate.”

The complainant in the sexual-assault case, a woman identified in court records as E.M., was contacted but declined to be interviewed, Mr. Bettman said.

The commissioner said the investigation was complicated in part because two other probes – one from the London police and one from Hockey Canada, conducted by Danielle Robitaille of Henein Hutchison Robitaille LLP – were proceeding at the same time.

The events at the centre of all three investigations began on June 18, 2018, the night of a Hockey Canada fundraising gala in London, Ont., in which members of the national junior team were honoured for their gold-medal win at the world championships several months earlier.

E.M. told police that she met some of the players at a bar that night after the event. She alleges that she eventually left with one of the men and had consensual sex with him in his hotel room, but that without her knowledge he invited some of his teammates into the room. She alleges that over the course of the next several hours she was sexually assaulted and humiliated.

She reported the incident to police immediately, but an initial investigation was closed without charges in February, 2019. The incident didn’t become public knowledge for another three years.

In April, 2022, E.M. filed a $3.55-million lawsuit against Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and eight players that were not identified by name in her claim. A month later, TSN reported that Hockey Canada had settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.

The NHL’s investigation probed whether any of the players present that night were in violation of the league’s code of conduct, a much lower threshold of wrongdoing than a criminal charge. At Friday’s news conference, Mr. Bettman declined to say whether the investigation had made any findings against any players not charged by police.

When asked whether such findings could be released, he said, “We don’t know exactly what the judicial process is going to be. As I indicated in my remarks, we interviewed all of the players from that team.”

Deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly, who was also at the news conference, said the teams were not updated about the status of the investigation or any of the information that Ms. Olson learned during the course of her interviews.

“So they were flying in the dark for the entire part of that process. The only things they may have known is what the players may have told them,” Mr. Daly said.

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