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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As Canadian hockey players face assault charges, officials are on defensive



Michael McNamara, a season ticket holder with the Kingston Frontenacs for 32 years, at the Leon’s Centre arena in Kingston, Ontario, on Feb. 2, 2024. Hockey fans in Canada are struggling to make sense of a scandal that has led to charges against five former junior hockey players. (Ian Austen/The New York Times)

By Ian Austen and Vjosa Isai


The police chief whose department has filed sexual assault charges against five hockey players, all of whom played on NHL teams, apologized earlier this week to the victim for the six years it took to bring the case.


Five former members of Canada’s national junior hockey team were charged last week over an episode that followed a celebration of their victory in the 2018 world championships, a marquee event on Canada’s sports calendar.


“I want to extend, on behalf of the London Police Service, my sincerest apology to the victim, to her family, for the amount of time that it has taken to reach this point,” Chief Thai Truong told reporters at a news conference Monday afternoon in London, Ontario.


Truong, whose department is in southwestern Ontario, said, “I truly am not happy about this whatsoever.”


He and the officer in charge of an investigation — the second — that led to the charges declined to discuss the case in detail until the players’ trials conclude.


Truong’s comments came the same day that the first court proceeding for the five accused men was held at the Ontario Court of Justice in London. The defendants did not appear, but their lawyers scheduled a hearing for the end of April.


Their lawyers said in separate statements that the men would vigorously defend their innocence but declined to comment further.


The accusations have touched a nerve with fans, leading many to question how Hockey Canada, the nation’s governing body for the sport, has responded.


The case came to light in May 2022 after TSN, a sports channel that broadcasts the world junior championship, reported that Hockey Canada had paid 3.5 million Canadian dollars, or $2.6 million, to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman who said she had been sexually assaulted by eight hockey players. All of the players were then members of Canada’s national junior team.


The Globe and Mail later reported that the settlement payment had come from a slush fund bolstered in part by children’s hockey registration fees.


Although it is the NHL that has international fame and recognition, in many smaller communities, hockey, Canada’s dominant sport, is more often defined by junior teams made up of amateur players between the ages of 15 and 20.


The men accused of sexual assault were identified as Michael McLeod, 26, now a center for the New Jersey Devils; Cal Foote, 25, a defenseman for the Devils; Carter Hart, 25, a goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers; Dillon Dubé, 25, a center for the Calgary Flames; and Alex Formenton, 24, who is on leave from a Swiss professional team and who previously played for the Ottawa Senators. McLeod faces an additional charge of sexual assault “by being party to the offense.”


The players have been given leaves from their teams.


The investigation that led to charges was opened in 2022 after the revelations about the legal settlement came to light.


Detective Sgt. Katherine Dann of the London Police told reporters that the service received a report of a sexual assault from a person related to the victim on June 19, 2018, the day it was said to have taken place. The victim cooperated with the investigation from the outset, Dann said.


But the case was closed early the next year because of insufficient evidence, she said.


Dann said she was asked to begin a new investigation after the report about the settlement of the lawsuit. She said the charges against the men were filed in part based on new evidence that she declined to disclose.


She also declined to say why five players were charged when the lawsuit named eight.


Before he was fired as Hockey Canada’s CEO that year, Scott Smith rejected suggestions that the multimillion-dollar slush fund, formally known as the National Equity Fund, was a mechanism to hide accusations against players. “I adamantly oppose the suggestion that we covered this up or swept something under the rug,” he told a parliamentary committee in 2022.


Sexual assault cases are not new to hockey, but in the past, some of the most high-profile ones have involved abusive coaches. Over about two decades, Graham James, a former junior hockey coach, was convicted in three separate cases of sexually assaulting players, including Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury, who became NHL stars.


In addition to the police investigation that led to the charges, Hockey Canada and the NHL conducted their own inquiries, but neither released details. On Friday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would wait until the court process was complete. He described the allegations in the case as “abhorrent, reprehensible, horrific and unacceptable.”


Bettman said there was no need to suspend without pay the four men who are still with NHL teams because their contracts expire at the end of the season. “It becomes irrelevant in terms of the timing,” he said at a news conference. “They’ve been paid the vast bulk of their salary for the year anyway.”


At the Leon’s Centre arena, home to the junior hockey team in Kingston, Ontario, a sense of outrage mixed with anticipation as fans who had gathered for a game Friday grappled with the news.


About 3,600 people had come to see the home team, the Kingston Frontenacs, take on the Oshawa Generals. After the game, which the Frontenacs lost, 5-4, some of the players met fans at an autograph table.


Monica O’Neill, a nurse who had been the volunteer president of the team’s supporters club for about 25 years, said she would not judge the players facing charges until their cases were heard in court.


“It’s sickening to me, actually, because we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors,” she said after she signed up some fans for a bus trip to a junior game in Ottawa. “We don’t yet know who’s telling the truth.”


Michael McNamara, a lifelong Kingston resident who has held season tickets for 32 years, said that regardless of how the criminal cases unfold, Canadian fans will not be inclined to forgive the governing body.


“One way or the other, the truth is going to come out,” he said. “But I think Hockey Canada is going to be ridiculed because of the way this was handled — big time.”

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