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Former Western women's hockey players say program toxic under Moxley before recent investigation

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Kaitlyn Booth marched across the London, Ont., campus of Western University one morning in the fall of 2018 and into the office of Candice Moxley, head coach of the women’s hockey team.

Booth, a goalie who then was in her first of three seasons with the Mustangs, says she told Moxley that she was upset with and felt threatened by Jeff Watson, then a strength and conditioning coach at the school who worked with many of Western’s sports teams.

Booth told Moxley that she had been working out in the school gym when Watson had thrown her to the floor, and while she was on all fours, knelt behind her, touched her inappropriately, and simulated a sexual act. 

“Moxley told me that I should wear longer shorts,” Booth said in an interview with TSN. “That was it. That was her response. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

A year later, in November 2019, Tareya Webster and Sydnee Baker say they confronted Moxley with a similar concern.

Webster, who was also a goalie, and Baker, a forward who was in her second season at Western, say they told Moxley that Watson routinely touched players inappropriately and made comments about their bodies.

“We told Mox that we had been doing a… neck-strengthening exercise and Jeff made a completely inappropriate comment about oral sex,” Baker said. “But the way he touched people was the most disturbing part. I was doing a hip lift type of workout, and he was touching my hips when there was no reason for him to touch me. He didn’t need to put [his] hands on my hips and tell me to engage my hips because they're already engaged, based on the exercise I was doing.”

Webster said Moxley was disinterested.

“She did nothing to protect us,” Webster said. “Baker and I started going to work out later in the days, at a time when Jeff would not be in the gym. Mox called us into her office and told us that was unacceptable… instead of taking action on Jeff’s inappropriate comments and diving into the reason we're not going to work out in the morning. I remember Mox started showing up at the workouts in the morning to take attendance… She just doubled down.” 

“Jeff remained our trainer and he kept doing the same things,” Baker said.

Webster, Baker, and Booth are among nine former Western women’s hockey players who agreed to speak on the record in a series of interviews with TSN about their time playing for Moxley.

Moxley, who began coaching at Western in 2018 after coaching in the NCAA at Buffalo State College for four seasons and in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, was the subject of an investigation commissioned by the school last summer after a number of players complained about the culture of Western’s hockey team.

The players said Moxley fostered a toxic culture within the hockey program. Their allegations include that Moxley destroyed the self-esteem of some, body-shamed some of them, routinely criticized the eating habits of some players, and repeatedly ignored their complaints about Watson’s alleged sexual harassment.

On Nov. 1, the school said that while complaints against Watson had been substantiated and that he no longer worked at Western, complaints against Moxley had not. Moxley, who had been on a leave from the program to care for a family member, returned to coaching. She has told TSN she was never suspended by the school.

Moxley wrote in a statement the same day that she would “continue to grow and better myself as a leader.”

The nine former players who spoke with TSN, however, now say that the school did not go far enough to ensure the investigation’s independence and transparency.

The former players, several of whom said they are on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication because of their time at Western, said they were willing to discuss their time playing for Moxley because they want the investigation findings made public.

A number of universities and sports teams have been transparent with the results of investigations into alleged misconduct.

In 2018, the Dallas Mavericks made public a report that was commissioned after allegations that the team’s front office had a toxic culture. Three years later, in 2021, the Chicago Blackhawks agreed to make public a law firm’s investigation findings after it probed former player Kyle Beach’s sexual assault allegations. In June, the University of Prince Edward Island made public a third-party report it commissioned after allegations of sexual harassment were made against the school’s former president.

Julie Ann Rivers-Cochran, executive director of The Army of Survivors, a Michigan-based advocacy group started by survivors of the sexual predator Larry Nassar, a former doctor for USA Gymnastics who is now in prison for multiple sex crimes involving girls and women, said Western’s decision to keep secret the findings amounted to “institutional cowardice.”

“Not releasing the report reveals the commitment of Western University to its brand and reputation, not to athletes and their well-being,” said Rivers-Cochran, whose organization has helped universities develop policies on trauma-informed reporting of misconduct and abuse.

“We have heard from many athletes over and over again, expressing that they felt they didn’t have a voice after disclosing abuse. Many felt silenced by their organization refusing to release abuse report findings which further contributes to their trauma.”

TSN detailed the allegations made by the former players in a Dec. 20 email to Moxley. On Jan. 5, Moxley’s lawyer, Mari Galloway, emailed TSN to ask that publication of this story be postponed until Jan. 12 so Moxley could consider a response to the allegations. Since then, neither Moxley nor Galloway have provided a comment.

Last summer, following a number of complaints from players, Western hired London lawyer Elizabeth Hewitt, who has past ties to the school, to lead the investigation. 

Hewitt, a former board chair of Brescia University College and King’s University College – both affiliated with Western – specializes in investigating claims of workplace harassment, sexual harassment, abuse, privacy breaches, discrimination, and workplace violence, according to her website. 

After the former players spoke with TSN about their concerns about Moxley remaining as head coach following the investigation, Western spokeswoman Marcia Steyaert wrote in a Jan. 12 email to TSN that Hewitt concluded Moxley was not in breach of the school’s non-discrimination and harassment policy.

“The investigation period – and the time leading up to and following it – has been difficult for many, and we have been actively supporting the players and everyone involved in the women’s hockey program,” Steyaert wrote, adding that the school has introduced safe sport policies and has a set of training requirements for coaches, staff, and student athletes.

When it was pointed out to Steyaert that the school’s statement did not acknowledge or address the specific historical allegations made by former players who have been interviewed by TSN, Steyaert said Western had not received “any new formal allegations or complaints on this matter directly from the individuals noted in your email. They are encouraged to contact the human rights office to discuss their concerns with the university.”

While Western announced on Nov. 1 that Hewitt completed 45 interviews in connection with her investigation, the majority of the former players who spoke with TSN said they were never contacted by Hewitt to determine if the culture issues raised this year were historical or systemic.

“The damage that Moxley has done is hard to put into words,” said Webster, who was not interviewed by Hewitt. “How many girls have been hurt by Watson in the years since she was first told about Watson’s behaviour? Moxley is the head coach and she promised parents that she would watch over their daughters while they were at Western. Not only that, she is also an employee of the school and has a duty to care for every player and team staff member, not ignore and cover up sexual misconduct.”

Booth, who was interviewed by Hewitt and then answered a number of follow-up questions by email, said she can’t believe Moxley was exonerated by Western.

“How is it possible that the school believed me and others about what Watson did but didn’t believe that we told Mox and asked her for help?” Booth said. “If the school actually did believe us, that means they didn’t think covering up something like this when students ask for help is that bad.”

Claire Balas, a former defenceman who played three seasons at Western from 2016-17 to 2018-19, said the university needs to offer more details about Watson’s alleged sexual misconduct.

If there was enough evidence to fire Watson, the school should also explain why it has not broadened its investigation to ask female athletes on other teams if they also were harassed or touched inappropriately by Watson, Balas said.

If athletes told other coaches besides Moxley about incidents with Watson, the school should be transparent about that, Balas said. Western should also explain whether it has, or has not, forwarded information about any alleged sexual assaults by Watson to London police, she said.

“If the school stands by the fact that they want to keep [Moxley], they should be able to stand by this report being publicized and made available to everyone,” Balas said. 

Baker, a forward who joined the Mustangs in the fall of 2018, was one of the former players who said she would have been willing to discuss her time at Western with Hewitt.

Baker said during one road trip to Montreal during her second season, she walked out of a Tim Hortons with two chocolate Timbits.

“Moxley lost her mind, telling me I was a bad leader,” Baker said. “I consider what she said fat shaming. I was livid. I asked why I wasn’t allowed to have a Timbit if she was standing there drinking a latte… I think the way she has acted is just inexcusable.”

Balas and Webster corroborated Baker’s account.

Goaltender Carmen Lasis joined Western in 2017, excited for the chance to play alongside her sister, Anthea, for coach Kelly Paton. But after Paton left in the summer of 2018 to take a job at Laurier University, Western hired Moxley.

“In our first meeting Moxley asked what were my hockey goals,” Lasis said. “I told her I wanted one day to play for Team Canada. She looked at me and laughed in my face. Didn’t say anything, just laughed. I guess after that I didn’t feel like I could trust her.”

Lasis’ mother, Ellen McNeill, and her sister, Anthea, a defenceman who played five seasons at Western from 2014-15 to 2018-19, both said Carmen told them about the exchange.

Lasis said she suffered a concussion during the 2018-19 season after being hit in the head by a shot. During her first practice with the team following her injury, Lasis said she felt sick.

“I was really headachy, so I went to the bench and sat down,” Lasis said. “Candice got really mad at me for getting off the ice. She told me that I shouldn't get distracted, and I should refocus and get back on the ice. When I said I wasn’t feeling well, she didn’t do anything to get me help, she just skated away and left me there. It’s sad. Even though I’m a former player, I don’t feel like I can cheer for Western women’s hockey while she’s still the coach there.”

Webster said she still lives with the dam­age done from her time at Western. She says she made the mistake of sharing personal information with Moxley during the 2019-20 season. After she shared that she was struggling with her mental health, she said Moxley benched her and that there was no explanation for why she was refused ice time.

“I think about that time of my life all the time and I realize how much damage she did, severe damage at such a young, important age when I was vulnerable and away from home,” Webster said.

Webster said she isn’t surprised that Western has stood by Moxley.

“It’s typical because that school has a history of not protecting their students,” Webster said. “But at the same time, this school’s decision has destroyed some people. It’s one thing to never tell your story and to be in control of that. It's another thing to be vulnerable and put your story out there, share with an investigator and say your truth. And then have somebody basically turn around and say, ‘What happened to you doesn't matter.’” 

Like Lasis, forward Catherine O’Connor said she quit Western following the 2018-19 season, her fourth with the Mustangs, because she said she no longer wanted to play for Moxley. She said Moxley played head games with her and others and divided the locker room.

“She would agree to sharpen some players skates after a period, but when another player who might not be her favourite asked, she would just stare daggers,” O’Connor said. “At one point, she agreed to buy new CCM sticks for a few players but not for the rest of the team. I asked why the special treatment and Moxley told me, ‘For some players, it’s not the stick.’ Not only did she not answer me, she used my question as a way to insult me, basically saying my shot was s----y and a better stick wouldn’t make a difference.”

Beatrice Dufour, a defenceman who played two seasons at Western, corroborated O’Connor’s account about how some players received special treatment.

“Some girls she texted all the time, others she never said a word to,” Dufour said. “A few girls got top-of-the-line sticks, and most didn’t. It’s just not acceptable behaviour from a coach. It creates a divide.”

Western kinesiology professor MacIntosh Ross, who has spearheaded an effort asking the school to commit to an independent review of its athletic department, called the school’s response to player allegations “reprehensible.”

“Moxley’s alleged behaviour, beyond what she knew about Watson, crosses so many lines,” Ross wrote in a Jan. 13 email to TSN. “It clearly had an enduring, negative impact on many young women. Some are still struggling after their time at Western. That’s a serious, serious issue. It all sounds terrible and utterly incompatible with what the sporting experience should be at a leading university.

“The university’s approach to these allegations has been little more than damage control… Students are saying they reported the strength coach’s behaviour years ago. Why was this buried, putting more students, particularly women, at risk?”