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The Bell Media sports networks 'are extremely concerned by the allegations [and] support the ongoing independent investigation' into the matter.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

TSN and RDS are holding back from joining the growing exodus of Hockey Canada promotional partners, in the wake of revelations the organization paid to settle allegations that eight members of the men’s world junior team sexually assaulted a young woman after a fundraising gala in the spring of 2018.

In a statement sent Thursday afternoon to The Globe and Mail, the Bell Media sports networks said they are “committed to fostering a culture of sport that is equitable, inclusive, and free from the threat of sexual violence,” adding they “are extremely concerned by the allegations [and] support the ongoing independent investigation” into the matter.

The networks did not, however, indicate any change in their plans to broadcast tournaments involving Hockey Canada, including August’s world junior men’s championship in Edmonton.

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TSN and RDS are the long-time official broadcast partners of Hockey Canada, and own the rights to air its marquee events until 2034.

As the national sport organization’s sponsors have fled this week – on Thursday, Swiss Chalet and The Keg announced they would stay on the sidelines during the world juniors – TSN, RDS and Nike remain the only top-tier partners who have not declared an intention to financially punish Hockey Canada for the scandal.

Telus, Tim Hortons and Imperial Oil’s Esso brand, Hockey Canada’s other premium marketing partners, announced this week they were pausing and re-examining their support after the Bank of Nova Scotia began the parade of disenchanted sponsors on Tuesday with an open letter calling on the organization to “move with a sense of urgency in order to ensure that the game we love is held to the highest standards.”

Both Telus and Esso have naming rights on championship tournaments run by Hockey Canada. The Centennial Cup is presented by Tim Hortons.

Accounting firm BDO Canada, Canadian Tire and Chevrolet are among other sponsors to announce a pause on support.

But TSN and RDS occupy a unique role among the partners. The networks use their vast media infrastructure to make national events out of games and celebrate the heroic achievements of athletes playing under the Hockey Canada banner. At the same time, its news operation has enabled reporter Rick Westhead, who has led much of reporting on the story, to pursue it. The networks’ statement, which was provided by spokesperson Rob Duffy, noted they will “continue to be leaders in providing in-depth reporting on this important issue and about safety in sport. We call on Hockey Canada to live up to a culture of respect and to enact meaningful change.”

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Meanwhile, focus is shifting to the players on the team in question, as another member of the 2017-18 squad distanced himself Thursday from the scandal by declaring he was not present at the gala, which took place in London, Ont.

Victor Mete, an Ottawa Senators defenceman and member of the gold-medal-winning team, said on Twitter that he was in Jamaica with his family at the time of the incident, “and only learned of the situation recently through media reports.” He added that he is “deeply troubled by reports of this incident” and, should his help be requested by investigators, he is prepared to “fully co-operate in any way I can.”

His teammate Cale Makar had previously told reporters that investigators had interviewed him in Calgary, but that, “I wasn’t one of the guys [who was] part of it, and I don’t really know much about it at all.”

Mr. Mete’s statement came as sponsors continued to abandon Hockey Canada. On Thursday, Recipe Unlimited, which owns Swiss Chalet and The Keg, announced it was suspending its support. “We will continue to be in contact with Hockey Canada to outline our expectations for change and to ensure the right steps are being taken to pave a safer and more inclusive future for hockey in Canada,” said a statement sent to The Globe.

The incident has highlighted the benefit sponsors get from their associations with winning teams such as Hockey Canada, and the leverage they have to force change in such organizations.

Last fall, Lisa Ferkul, then the director of hockey sponsorship for Scotiabank, told a sport marketing conference that the bank’s involvement in hockey, which spans an array of programs from grassroots involvement to $20-million-per-year arena naming-rights deals, had helped build its customer base. She said that research indicated consumers who are aware of the bank’s hockey sponsorship are “3.5 times more likely than those who are unaware to consider us for their next banking need.”

The companies that have hit pause have not publicly outlined all of the steps that would be sufficient for Hockey Canada to earn back their support. But the loss is likely to especially sting as Hockey Canada had been looking forward to the world juniors in August, after the IIHF postponed the tournament from last December because of rising COVID-19 cases.

This week’s string of sponsorship suspensions follow the federal government’s announcement last week that it would freeze Hockey Canada’s funding until the organization signed on to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, which was recently created to deal with multiple complaints of abuse and maltreatment in sport.

With a report from Susan Krashinsky Robertson

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