At the Lion Centre, home of the Kingston, Ont., junior hockey team, a feeling of anger mixed with anticipation as fans gathered to watch a game grappled with the news that five former Canadian junior hockey players – four of whom had played on the field. National Hockey League – He was charged last week with sexual assault.
The first hearing for the five defendants is scheduled for Monday at the Ontario Court of Justice in London, Ontario. There police, who first investigated but did not press charges in 2018, plan to hold their first news conference on the case Monday afternoon.
The allegations have struck a chord with fans, leading many to wonder how Hockey Canada, the sport's governing body in the country, will respond.
The case came to light in May 2022 after TSN, a sports channel broadcasting the World Junior Championships, reported that Canada's hockey team had paid C$3.5 million, or $2.6 million, to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman who said she had been sexually assaulted. Eight minor league players assaulted him. At the time of the assault, all of the players were members of Canada's national junior team.
The Globe and Mail later reported that the settlement payment came from a slush fund supported in part by children's hockey registration fees.
Although the NHL enjoys global fame and recognition, in many small communities, hockey, Canada's dominant sport, is often defined by junior teams of amateur players between the ages of 15 and 20.
Those accused of sexual assault are Michael McLeod, 26, now a New Jersey demon center; Cal Foote, 25, defenseman for the Devils; Carter Hart, 25, goaltender with the Philadelphia Flyers; Dillon Dube, 25, Calgary Flames centre; and Alex Formenton, 24, who is on leave from a Swiss professional team and who previously played for the Ottawa Senators. Mr McLeod faces an additional charge of sexual assault “by being a party to the crime”.
The players took leave from their teams. Lawyers for the men said in separate statements that they would vigorously defend their innocence and declined to comment further.
The assault, according to the woman's lawsuit, occurred in London, a city about 120 miles southwest of Toronto. Police there looked into the allegations in 2018, but abandoned that investigation the following year. No charges were filed.
The investigation that led to Monday's court appearance was opened in 2022 after revelations emerged that the lawsuit had been settled.
Before his dismissal as CEO of Hockey Canada that year, Scott Smith rejected suggestions that the multi-million-dollar slush fund, officially known as the National Equity Fund, served as a mechanism to hide accusations against players. “I strongly oppose the suggestion that we have covered this up or swept something under the rug,” he told a parliamentary committee in 2022.
Cases of sexual assault are not new to hockey. But in the past, some of the most prominent of these coaches have been abusive towards coaches. Over the course of nearly 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 investigations that led to these charges, Hockey Canada and the NHL conducted their own investigations, but did not release any details. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday that the league will wait until the court proceedings are complete, which could take years. He described the charges in the case as “abhorrent, reprehensible, horrific and unacceptable.”
Mr. Bettman said there was no need to suspend without pay for the four men still with NHL teams because their contracts expire at the end of the season.
“It has become irrelevant in terms of timing,” he said at a press conference. “They got the bulk of their salaries for the year anyway.”
At the Lyon Center on Friday, about 3,600 people gathered to watch the home team, the Kingston Frontenacs, take on the Oshawa Generals. After the game, which Frontenac lost 5-4, some players met with fans at the autograph table.
Monica O'Neill, a nurse who has been the volunteer president of the team's fan club for about 25 years, said she would not rule on players facing charges until their cases are heard in court.
“It's disgusting to me, actually, because we don't know what's going on behind closed doors,” she said after checking some fans on a bus ride to a junior varsity game in Ottawa. “We don't know yet who is telling the truth.”
Michael McNamara, a lifelong Kingston resident who has held season tickets for 32 years, said no matter how the criminal cases develop, Canadiens fans won't be inclined to forgive the governing body.
“One way or another, the truth will come out,” he added. “But I think Hockey Canada is going to get ridiculed for the way this was handled — big time.”