By Ian Austen and Vjosa Isai
A former NHL player has been charged in Canada with sexual assault, his lawyer has confirmed, the latest development in a case that has brought turmoil to the sport’s Canadian governing body and angered many people across the country.
Four more players were expected to turn themselves in to the police service in London, Ontario, this week, according to a report in The Globe and Mail, a Toronto-based newspaper.
“The London Police have charged several players, including Alex Formenton, in connection with an accusation made in 2018,” Dan Brown, Formenton’s lawyer, said in an emailed statement. “Alex will vigorously defend his innocence and asks that people not rush to judgment without hearing all of the evidence.”
Brown’s statement did not specify what his client had been accused of.
After playing with the Ottawa Senators in the NHL, Formenton, 24, moved to Switzerland to play for a professional team there, Hockey Club Ambri-Piotta. The club, in a statement Wednesday, said Formenton would be allowed to return to Canada on an indefinite leave for personal reasons.
The allegation of a sexual assault was reported to the police in 2018, when the players were members of Canada’s national junior team, and it has created an enormous firestorm over the years, even in a sport with a long history of similar accusations.
It led to a clean sweep of the board and leadership of Hockey Canada, the sport’s national governing body, provoked an exodus of sponsors, cut off government funding for the sport, spurred a parliamentary inquiry and prompted scathing rebukes from the public and from political figures, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
As members of the national junior team, the accused players won the 2018 world junior championships. Their high profile intensified the public reaction to the assault allegations. The junior championships are a TV-watching ritual in Canada that is second only to the Stanley Cup playoffs in television audience among annual sporting events.
The woman who has brought the accusation reported being sexually assaulted in June 2018, after a Hockey Canada fundraising gala in London, Ontario. The police force in the city initially looked into the allegation in 2018 but dropped that investigation in 2019 without filing any charges.
The uproar faded until May 2022, when TSN, a sports television network, reported that Hockey Canada paid 3.5 million Canadian dollars ($2.6 million) to settle a lawsuit from the woman, identified in court records as “E.M.”
She said in the April 2022 lawsuit that the episode took place after she was introduced to the men at a bar and that she was sexually assaulted by eight team members for several hours after the 2018 gala. It is unclear if any of the other accused team members will face criminal prosecution.
The public outrage was further inflamed after The Globe and Mail reported in July 2022 that the settlement’s cash came from a fund generated from hockey registration fees, including those for children.
The fund, Hockey Canada acknowledged, had been used to pay another CA$7.6 million ($5.65 million) to settle nine sexual assault and sexual abuse claims since 1989. Additional allegations of sexual assault involving a 2003 national junior team surfaced in 2022.
The London police restarted their investigation in 2022, after the report of the lawsuit settlement.
Hockey Canada and the NHL also each conducted investigations but have yet to release their findings.
In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, Pascale St-Onge, who was the federal minister of sport in 2022, said that “Canadians were disgusted and shocked to see this story and others like it. It’s gratifying to see this process move forward.”
She added: “We all look forward to justice being done. Victims must be heard.”