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Embattled Hockey Canada president resists calls to step down

Hockey Canada President Scott Smith Hockey Canada President Scott Smith - The Canadian Press

Hockey Canada president and chief executive officer Scott Smith came under blistering criticism during a government hearing on Wednesday examining how the organization responded to an alleged sexual assault in 2018 involving players on Canada’s World Junior team.

The hearing came after former NHL player and abuse survivor Sheldon Kennedy on Tuesday night criticized Smith and called for him, his leadership team, and Hockey Canada’s board of directors to resign en masse. Several members of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage said Wednesday they agree with Kennedy.

“There needs to be a bigger culture change in Hockey Canada than you are promising,” Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said to Smith. “There are times when good people have to step aside because the public has lost confidence in them. I'm afraid this is one of those times.”

Conservative MP John Nater also called on Smith to step down.

“For the good of hockey, for the good of the countless volunteers across this country, for the good work that countless, blameless people are doing in the sport of hockey, I strongly believe there needs to be new leadership within Hockey Canada,” Nater said. “Will you do that? Will you step down for new leadership to take over?”

Smith said he would not but understood that Canadians’ trust in Hockey Canada has been shaken.

“I’m prepared to take on this responsibility for change within our game,” Smith responded to Nater. “I believe I’ve got the experience to do it. Should our board, or the governance review that we’ve outlined in our action plan suggest that I’m not the person, then I’m prepared to accept that.”

Smith also addressed Kennedy’s call for his resignation.

“I’ve had a longstanding personal and business relationship with Sheldon Kennedy,” he said. “I respect him, as all of you do. It was difficult to read his comments yesterday, but I still hold him in high regard.”

Smith, who was appointed the organization’s CEO on July 1 but joined Hockey Canada’s head office in 1997, was also repeatedly questioned by members of parliament for his role in approving the settlement of $3.55-million lawsuit filed in connection with the alleged assault.

The four-hour hearing had been anticipated for weeks and was convened after Smith and other Hockey Canada officials first testified before the committee on June 20. 

During Wednesday’s hearing, members of parliament demanded information on a variety of topics, ranging from the role Hockey Canada’s board played in agreeing to settle the lawsuit related to the 2018 alleged assault to a purported lack of diversity within the organization’s senior leadership, to historical data on how many other claims have been settled by Hockey Canada.

Smith was repeatedly pressed on whether he agreed that Hockey Canada is in a state of crisis. He refused to agree with the sentiment, even though major sponsors have paused their relationships with Hockey Canada and the federal government has frozen the organization’s public funding.

The storm around the organization has grown since TSN reported in May that Hockey Canada settled a lawsuit filed by a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by eight former Canadian Hockey League players, at least some of whom played for the Canadian World Juniors team, following a Hockey Canada event in June 2018 in London, Ont.

The lawsuit was settled weeks after it was filed, and the allegations made in the case have not been proven.

Hockey Canada has since reopened its investigation into the allegations, and the complainant in the case has agreed to cooperate. The National Hockey League is investigating, and London police have said they, too, have reopened a criminal investigation. London police initially closed their probe of the allegations in February 2019 without laying any criminal charges.

Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada's former vice-president of insurance and risk management, began Wednesday’s testimony by telling the hearing that at 12:08 p.m. (ET) on June 19, 2018, he received a call from Hockey Canada employees Denise Pattyn and Scott Salmond, who told him that a woman's stepfather had contacted them alleging an assault had taken place in London.

Following two mid-afternoon conference calls with colleagues, McCurdie said he phoned London police at 6:44 p.m. the same day. He said he spoke to two officers and "both were quite abrupt with me." McCurdie said that at 8:14 p.m., London police phoned and told him that a constable had been assigned to the case.

After CHL president Dan MacKenzie delivered his opening statement, saying, "Players, no matter their skill, must know they cannot act with impunity," attention turned to Smith.

In what would be a refrain repeated throughout the hearing, Smith insisted that he would not step down from his position. He testified that he served at the pleasure of Hockey Canada’s board of directors and that the board had affirmed its support of him.

TSN requested a comment from Hockey Canada chair Michael Brind’Amour, who had not responded by the time of publication.

Smith said he and other Hockey Canada executives discussed the 2018 alleged sexual assault in London with board members, who approved settling the lawsuit filed by the complainant “up to the maximum settlement.” Smith said there are no records of those board meeting discussions because they were held in camera.

Smith defended Hockey Canada’s decision to settle the case on behalf of the CHL and the eight former CHL players named as defendants – referred to as John Does 1-8 in court records – without first advising them.

“We advised all players after we settled with the young woman,” Smith testified. “We made the decision to settle on behalf of Hockey Canada and the other named defendants, and we did so in the best interest of the young woman in protecting her privacy and also her benefit going forward.

“…We did not want to subject her to further discussion or debate that we have now seen through the media in the last 10 to 12 days. We made that decision at the time to help her on a go-forward basis and we stand by the decision to settle with her.”

Hockey Canada chief financial officer Brian Cairo backed up Smith’s assertion that settling the case was the right decision.

“We didn’t know all the details of the night, but we did believe harm was caused,” Cairo testified. “We had two options. One was to work with the young lady to arrive at a resolution that met her needs and didn’t re-victimize her or force her to litigate, which likely would reveal her identity and would essentially condone this behaviour to Canadians.”

Hockey Canada officials also revealed during Wednesday’s testimony that since 1989, nine settlements worth a collective $7.6 million have been made in connection with sexual assault allegations using the organization’s National Equity Fund. That total does not include the recent settlement related to 2018. Fully $6.8 million of the total was connected to Graham James-related incidents.

Hockey Canada has also paid Toronto law firm Henein Hutchison LLP $287,000 to manage its investigation into the 2018 allegations, Smith said.

Housefather was among the MPs who criticized Hockey Canada, saying that settling the case without first consulting the accused players was “highly unusual.”

"I can only say you need better legal advice and better lawyers..." Housefather said.

Following the hearing, Smith told reporters that plans are proceeding for the World Juniors to take place in Aug 9-20 at Rogers Place in Edmonton. 

“I know in Canada the World Juniors is an event that people associate with Hockey Canada, but it’s not,” Smith said. “It’s an IIHF event. We’re one of 10 teams. In discussions with the IIHF, they are committed to deliver on that event. Unfortunately, because of COVID and some problems at Christmastime, we couldn’t finish the event for this age group, and the IIHF and ourselves committed to deliver that in Edmonton…

“…This age group, although it was a similar age group in 2018, it is different players. We look forward to being able to deliver that.”