One-off incident or a toxic culture that permeates hockey? 

by Lianne Ohayon, News & Campus Life Staff Writer 

The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship team.
Image Source: Winnipeg Free Press

New evidence recently emerged regarding a sexual assault case from 2018 involving five current and former  NHL players who were a part of the national junior team, causing the London Police Service to reopen the investigation. 

The players, once part of Canada’s world junior hockey team, were accused of sexually assaulting a woman (known as E.M. in court documents) in London, Ontario. 

In April 2022, court documents revealed that Hockey Canada, the national governing body of the sport in Canada, settled a $3.55 million dollar lawsuit filed by the young woman. The case then gathered national media attention. 

The woman claimed that although she consented to having sex with one of the players, said player brought other to engage in unwarranted sexual acts. The players allegedly inebriated her and coerced her to consent on camera.

The five players include Mike McLeod and Cal Foote from the New Jersey Devils, Dillion Dube from the Calgary Flames, Carter Hart from the Philadelphia Flyers, and Alex Formenton formerly from the Ottawa Senators. 

Formenton has already turned himself in to London police. All 22 players who were on the 2018 national junior team have been suspended from participating in any Hockey Canada initiatives.

Upon the reopening of this case, Chief Thai Truong and Detective Sgt. Katherine Dann apologized for the egregious delay regarding the timeline of how the case was handled. 

“This should not take this long. It shouldn’t take years and years for us to arrive at the outcome of today,” said Truong in a press conference. 

A further investigation into the 2022 lawsuit by the victim and subsequent settlement by Hockey Canada unveiled a multimillion dollar fund. Known internally as the National Equity Fund, it is largely funded by registration fees and is used to pay out sexual assault allegations that have the potential to damage the league’s reputation. 

Amidst the investigation, the Canadian government also announced in June 2022 that they would freeze any public funding for Hockey Canada until a thorough analysis of the fund and its uses occurs. At parliamentary hearings that same month, it was revealed that the $15 million fund that parents and players unknowingly contributed to has been utilized frequently — Hockey Canada faces an average of one to two sexual assault cases a year from 2016 to 2022, as mentioned by then-CEO Scott Smith.

Soon after, Hockey Canada released an open letter apologizing for their mistreatment of this case. The organization also announced a change in leadership by the end of that year to fulfill “the urgent need for new leadership and perspectives.”

Unfortunately, this incident is one of many involving Hockey Canada, and the reopening of this matter sheds light on the harrowing sexual assault culture that festers within athletics. 

On July 28th, 2022, a letter written by subject-matter experts was addressed to Canada’s Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge and Head of the Heritage Committee Hedy Fry. The letter outlines the structure behind the toxic culture of sexual harassment in Canadian hockey. It notes that sports leaders have accepted sexual assault as a norm and that dehumanizing language describing sex with women is normalized as “locker room talk.” Lastly, it recommends that leaders within hockey should actively work to mitigate sexual harassment in the industry.

Though this new evidence could finally lead to E.M. getting justice, there are still serious flaws that have yet to be resolved and indicate serious faults in the police system and Hockey Canada’s leadership. 

Chief Truong, in the same press conference where he apologized to the victim for the lack of urgency and sensitivity on her case, partially attributed the culture of sexual assault in sports on society’s sexualization of women, rather than demanding that the players are to take responsibility for their actions.

Additionally, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman commented that he doesn’t believe that there are cultural or systemic issues plaguing hockey and contributing to sexual assault, merely “a handful of players” that shouldn’t be a representation of the entire league. 

Comments like these, amidst investigations into both the 2018 team and the 2003 national junior team that competed in Halifax, perpetuate a counterproductive mentality that hinders victims to come forward and enables inappropriate behavior by players.

How can we, then, prevent sexual harassment and assault in sports? 

Experts provide a few core recommendations, such as 1) utilizing a governmental body to oversee and regulate sports at local, provincial, and national levels, 2) transparency and regular reporting of incidents to promote accountability across all stakeholders, and 3) developing evidence-based strategies to put an end to the drivers of sexual violence in sport. 

For now, however, it is critical that the appropriate measures are taken to protect victims and stop cases from being brushed under the rug. Time will tell if E.M. will get the justice she deserves as the investigation unfolds in the months to come.

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