Former NHL official alleges league fired him for being whistle-blower on racism
A former National Hockey League off-ice official alleges in a newly filed lawsuit that he was fired for reporting a colleague who for years used racist and sexually charged language while working for the league.
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, lawyers for Laurence Sullivan, a former crew official who recorded in-game statistics during Lightning games in Tampa Bay, wrote that Sullivan should be rehired by the NHL and that he should receive punitive damages for his treatment.
The amount Sullivan is suing for was not specified. The NHL has not filed a statement of defence, and Sullivan’s allegations have not been proven in court. An NHL spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. A Lightning spokesman declined to comment.
Sullivan alleged in his wrongful dismissal lawsuit that he was hired by the NHL in August 2013 and fired on Feb. 26, 2020.
During his tenure with the NHL, Sullivan alleged that colleague Pat DeLorenzo Jr. repeatedly used the N-word and other racist language at work.
“DeLorenzo, at work in the booth and with other co-workers around to hear, told [Sullivan] that ‘chocolate was his code word for [the N- word]’,” Sullivan’s lawsuit alleges.
Sullivan alleges that he reported DeLorenzo's behaviour to Ron Brace, the NHL’s former crew chief in Tampa. Sullivan alleges Brace failed to take any action for five years. The lawsuit does not specify when Sullivan reported DeLorenzo's behaviour.
“The racial comments were so offensive and so pervasive that [Sullivan] began recording DeLorenzo’s racial comments at work,” the lawsuit says.
Besides working for the NHL, DeLorenzo also has worked in a Tampa tire and auto shop owned by his family. An employee in that shop told TSN on Thursday that DeLorenzo suffered a stroke a month ago and was not available for comment.
In an interview with TSN on Thursday, Brace denied that he’d ever heard DeLorenzo using racist language.
“I heard jokes with sexual connotations, but nothing racist,” Brace said. “None of the NHL's off-ice officials down here in Tampa is a racist."
In December 2019, during the course of investigating the conduct of another NHL employee in Tampa, NHL vice-president of human resources Patrice Distler and Katherine Watson, an NHL lawyer, were put in contact with Sullivan.
Sullivan alleges that he was initially nervous about speaking with Distler and Watson when they reached out to him on Dec. 30, 2019.
“[Sullivan] expressed fear of speaking out against DeLorenzo due to Brace’s ongoing protection of him despite previous complaints and, upon information and belief, due to a previous female off-ice official from another city that was terminated by [the NHL] shortly after reporting sexual harassment at work,” the lawsuit says.
Sullivan alleges that after Distler and Watson promised him that he would be protected under the NHL’s whistle-blower policy, he provided them with six recordings of DeLorenzo’s “racially discriminatory behaviour including his use of the [N- word], along with videos of DeLorenzo making other comments such as ‘once you go black, you never go back,’ asking someone if they wanted ‘head,’ and saying that others were ‘internally retarded.’"
Last December, following several scandals involving abusive behaviour and misconduct, the NHL said it would create a way for whistle-blowers to report inappropriate behaviour to the league. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would introduce a hotline for players and team and league personnel to report instances of misconduct.
Brace says the NHL fired him and DeLorenzo on Jan. 2, 2020.
“Patrice called me on the phone, didn’t give me a chance to defend myself at all, it was a done deal already,” Brace said. “After 28 years working for the NHL, she told me to destroy my NHL jacket and anything else I had that said NHL on it because I would not be permitted to enter the arena wearing anything that suggested that I worked for the league.”
Despite the assurances that he would be protected by the NHL, Sullivan alleges that he became, “the target of a proactive, vengeful, campaign to solicit a pre-textual reason to terminate him for reporting the offensive and discriminatory behaviour of DeLorenzo and the protection of that behaviour by Brace.”
On Feb. 26, 2020, the NHL terminated Sullivan, “for allegedly being a part of a 2016 group message thread of DeLorenzo’s.”
Sullivan alleges in the lawsuit that Watson wrote to him and told him to “destroy any and all videos that you have recorded in the workplace.”
“[The NHL] did nothing to stop the racially discriminatory comments that were broadcast to its employees and crew every night on its communication system and in the booth shared by the off- ice officials,” Sullivan alleges. “Instead, only after being confronted with video evidence of the wrongful behaviour, [the NHL] terminated DeLorenzo and Brace, and then terminated the whistle-blowers, including [Sullivan]. [The NHL] then promoted Gary Reilly, another NHL official that heard – and stayed silent – for all of DeLorenzo’s racial slurs.”