There was little applause when news broke that Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith had departed and the organization’s entire board had resigned amid a scandal that threatened the very existence of the sport’s governing body.
Frankly, people were too exhausted.
Besides, there was nothing noble in what they did. The organization had been engulfed in a controversy that had dragged its once good name through the mud for months. The noble thing would have been resigning in the summer, when it was clear that the manner in which it handled alleged sexual assault complaints and associated legal claims involving its players was beyond troubling.
Instead, they only left when most of their sponsors had fled and minor hockey organizations across the country began withholding registration money normally sent to Hockey Canada annually to help it operate. In other words, they seemed to decide it was time to go when it occurred to them there might not be any money upon which to build an operating budget.
And, let’s be honest, there were personal reputations to consider; no one likes being whispered about behind their backs. Or out loud on the front page of The Globe and Mail. The board and Mr. Smith were increasingly viewed as selfish, tone-deaf pariahs.
The next board and CEO will have their work cut out for them, given the deep reputational damage that the organization has suffered. Sponsors are unlikely to come back until they feel confident that the new board will pick the right CEO to enact meaningful change and set Hockey Canada on a new, modern-day course.
That will almost certainly have to involve a serious, multi-faceted campaign to address the often toxic, misogynistic culture that exists in too many hockey dressing rooms, especially at the junior level.
Also up for discussion will be the future of a couple of funds built on registration fees that were used to settle sexual assault lawsuits. The existence of the primary one, the National Equity Fund, was revealed by The Globe after TSN first reported that Hockey Canada had paid an undisclosed amount of money to settle a $3.5-million lawsuit filed by a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by eight junior hockey players in 2018, a group that included members of that year’s gold medal-winning World Junior men’s hockey team.
Some have called for these funds to be abolished. Would that be the best thing to do?
The reality is civil actions like the one brought by the unidentified woman involved in the alleged 2018 assault are often the only way victims can get compensated for their suffering. A criminal case is an entirely different matter and usually has a higher burden of proof. Many women choose not to file criminal charges because of the high emotional toll these trials can exact.
Lawsuits seeking damages can be brought against the alleged perpetrators of a crime as well as their employers and, in some cases, organizations they may have been a part of, such as Hockey Canada. Victims of sexual assault involving priests at residential schools, for example, were able to seek compensation from not only the priests (although many were deceased or had little money) but also from churches and the federal government.
In other words, Hockey Canada was likely wise to have developed such funds for this very reason. What it should never have done is keep the existence and financial details of these reserves a secret, which made the organization look like it sensed society would never approve of such a thing. The fact is, there is a good chance that the woman who was allegedly assaulted by the junior hockey players four years ago would not have realized a penny for the trauma and suffering she says she endured if the Hockey Canada fund didn’t exist.
As a good friend reminded me: insuring against such claims, or building up a fund from which to pay them, doesn’t make sexual assaults happen any more than insuring against motor vehicle collisions claims makes auto accidents occur.
Nonetheless, these funds are sure to be a contentious point for the next CEO and board.
No one should be under the illusion that these resignations solve the bigger problem that underlies the entire Hockey Canada imbroglio, namely the sick culture that permeates too many corners of the game. A new CEO isn’t going to change the sense of entitlement that too many junior players possess, one often nourished by parents and those living in the towns and cities in which they play.
That is a job much too big for any one person. It’s a job for an entire country.