In Sidney Crosby’s hometown, the parents already had questions about what was going on with Hockey Canada. Then came the news this week that the national organization had built a multimillion-dollar fund from minor league registration fees that helped to pay for settlements of alleged sexual assault.
“It’s crazy, really,” said Jamie Aalders, the president of the Cole Harbour Bel Ayr Minor Hockey Association, in which both Mr. Crosby and this year’s Stanley Cup-winning centre, Nathan MacKinnon, played as youngsters.
Parents of players, and the hundreds of associations across the country that oversee minor league play under the Hockey Canada umbrella, understand the annual fee they pay to the organization is intended to cover costs such as insurance and “the high-performance program, the Olympics, all that kind of stuff,” said Mr. Aalders, whose 14- and 15-year-old sons play in the system. But he was at a loss over how he might explain this week’s revelations to parents. “It’s like - whoa, wait a minute,” he laughed. “We’re not asking people to pay this money to go towards a special fund.”
Even if local hockey associations like his objected to how the fees were used, “I don’t know how much control we’d have over that,” Mr. Aalders acknowledged. “I mean, jeez, Hockey Canada’s massive. And it’s Canada, right? Hockey.”
Across the country, Nathan Bosa said he and his fellow members of the Kamloops Minor Hockey Association (KMHA) were also caught off guard by the news.
“The whole thing is a little bit shocking,” said Mr. Bosa, the chair of the KMHA.
“I’m not too sure how to react to it right now, because you’re not too sure how that [fund] came into effect and how long it’s been in effect for. But we’re definitely going to get questions from parents that we’re going to have to have answers for. So I can assure you that we will be looking into it, for sure.”
On Wednesday, after harsh criticism from national leaders including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Hockey Canada announced it would cease using what it calls the National Equity Fund to settle sexual assault claims. The fund, it said, will now “be exclusively dedicated towards safety, wellness and equity initiatives, as well as insurance across our organization – activities which comprised 98 per cent of its resources between 2014 and 2021.”
A spotlight fell on Hockey Canada’s finances after the organization acknowledged in May it paid to settle a lawsuit related to allegations of sexual assault in 2018 after a charity fundraiser it oversaw.
But even as the revelations reached Parliament, few leaders at the grassroots level seemed eager to criticize the national organization. The Globe and Mail sought comment from dozens of local and provincial hockey organizations over the past two days. Most queries went unanswered.
That silence troubles Theresa Bailey, the founder of Canadian Hockey Moms, which boasts about 40,000 members. She says that there have been discussions within her group about Hockey Canada’s handling of the sexual assault allegations, but not much public discourse because people fear repercussions.
“Absolutely speaking up can have consequences,” Ms. Bailey said from Ottawa. “People are afraid to say anything. Is that a statement in itself?”
She noted that many aspects of the fund are still unknown. “My question is who regulates it, and how this would be dealt with in other businesses,” she said. “Is this the way all organizations do it or is it an anomaly?
“I would want to understand what comes out of that fund. It leads to questions about transparency.”
Michelle Kawatra, whose eight-year-old son plays hockey in Saint John, N.B., is disappointed by what she has learned so far.
“It is just discouraging,” Ms. Kawatra said. “Altogether I wonder if there are other incidents out there that haven’t made the news. To know that fees we paid were included in a sign-off is upsetting. From the beginning it has been hush-hush.”
The timing of the Hockey Canada firestorm is especially unfortunate, said Mr. Bosa, who pointed out that the sport has expended enormous effort in recent years to diversify its appeal.
“We’re very proactive with the changing demographics,” he said. ”A lot of things with society and people are changing. So we want to be a little bit ahead on that.”
He anticipates the entire episode will prompt some uncomfortable questions from the children enrolled in his association. But he believes it can be a teaching moment. “You just have to have the right information to give them if they do ask, right?” he said. “We have anywhere from 900 to 1,100 kids in our one association. You’ve got a good chunk of kids to educate at a young age.”
And he hopes the national organization “will get this resolved in a proper way.”
“Aside from this, Hockey Canada’s been really good with everything. So it just kind of sucks that this is happening right now,” he said. “But I think moving forward, they’ll do an excellent job of putting a little bit more emphasis on the education of younger kids.”
Allison Forsyth argues that, if change is to happen, it will have to be at the grassroots level. The former skier, sexual abuse survivor and hockey mom takes issue with recent suggestions made by federal Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge that changes proposed by the federal government in response to the Hockey Canada case would make sports safer.
“I think it gives people a huge false sense of security,” Ms. Forysth said. “These are things that are not even remotely enforceable at the club level, where children are.”
In the meantime, she said, “I am going to go dream of a day where we don’t have to have a slush fund for these sorts of situations.”