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PLAYING FIELD: Sex assault claim puts hockey in spotlight

'As disturbing as the details have been to date, things are going to get uglier,' sports columnist says of proceedings taking place in Ottawa
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The dirty secret of junior hockey in Canada jumped out of the shadows and on to Parliament Hill this week.

The Heritage committee met to go over the shocking allegations against the 2018 Team Canada national junior squad that won a gold medal that year in Buffalo, N.Y. A London, Ont., woman, now 24, has made allegations that she was gang-raped by eight “CHL players” after having a consensual sexual encounter with one of them. The players were in London to celebrate their gold-medal win.

The wording of the lawsuit and the few details provided so far do nothing to determine the identity of the players allegedly involved. We don’t even know how many of them were Team Canada members, or rather CHL players who were at the hotel that night, along with the gold medallists.

The alleged victim did not co-operate with either the London police investigation, or the subsequent one commissioned by Hockey Canada. In any case, the national governing body of hockey in this country quickly settled the lawsuit.

Call me cynical but organizations don’t quickly settle lawsuits unless they are trying to avoid an even worse outcome. If Hockey Canada and by extension the Canadian Hockey League truly believed in the innocence of the players involved, it would have fought the lawsuit.

Outrage from all corners of the country followed once TSN’s Rick Westhead first reported the details that led to this week’s hearings. The committee will meet again next month and plans to call senior figures in the hockey world. It has pledged to subpoena those that don’t respond.

As disturbing as the details have been to date, things are going to get uglier.

Here’s the brutal truth: anyone familiar with the culture of junior hockey would have to be incredibly naïve to deny that there is a long-standing problem in how some players behave sexually.

There have been many cases that have become public that resulted in charges. Almost all end without criminal convictions, including one where three members of the 1999-2000 Barrie Colts were charged with sexual assault. That season ended with the team winning the Ontario Hockey League title and playing in the Memorial Cup. The Crown, citing little prospect of a conviction, dropped the charges about a month later.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard harrowing accounts of group sex involving junior hockey players and young girls since I was a teenager.

The stories tend to follow the same narrative: a player engages in a consensual sexual relationship with a young woman. The player then involves his teammates, where the lines between consent, coercion and violence become blurred, especially when alcohol is a factor.

A victim, while acknowledging that sex was at first consensual, is forced to prove that she didn’t intend to participate in a group encounter. That’s essentially the crux of the London woman’s allegations as well.

It is one of about a dozen or so public incidents over the past 30 years or so involving players in Canada’s top three junior leagues that make up the CHL. Roughly the same amount has hit the news at other levels of amateur hockey such as university and junior leagues below the CHL.

A fair argument could be made that a dozen incidents over 30 years – literally tens of thousands of individuals when you factor in the cyclical nature of junior hockey – is about the same as wider society.

Except that argument is seriously undercut when you realize that the incidents that have become public are just the tip of the iceberg.

To wit, a woman I grew up with has billeted multiple Colts. About 15 years ago, she was shocked to discover that one had been having teammates over to the house and having them hide in his closet while he had sex with a girl he had been casually dating. Horrified, she forbid him to have his teammates and the girl over to the house at the same time. 

To this day, she hopes her discovery didn’t come too late to prevent the types of scenarios described in the London lawsuit.

And it still bothers her that she can’t be certain.

I know of one retired player who now occupies a senior NHL coaching/management position who was called to testify in a court proceeding where he admitted to engaging in similar behaviour while playing in the OHL. His identity was covered by a publication ban.

One of the MPs on this week’s committee made precisely that point: What if some of the players involved in the London allegations become coaches?

I consulted a few sources from around the junior hockey world before writing this column. All of them confirmed that the cone of silence that tends to suppress the facts once allegations are made is now in full effect. And it likely has been in the years since that night in London.

Whatever you think about politicians trying to curry favour with the public, the all-party committee in Ottawa deserves credit – they want answers.

And when those answers come, let's hope that a decades-old stain on the unseemly underbelly of junior hockey in Canada is fully exposed.

And action, finally, is taken.

Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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