Canada hosts hockey world juniors in shadow of scandal

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HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (AP) — The world junior hockey championship will be held in Canada the next two weeks, shadowed by Hockey Canada’s handling of explosive sexual assault allegations.

The national hockey governing body has been mired in controversy for months after it was revealed in May that it settled a lawsuit with a woman who says she was sexually assaulted by several members of the 2018 world junior team. In July, Halifax Regional Police began investigating allegations that members of the 2003 team sexually assaulted a woman and filmed the attack during that tournament.

No charges have been filed. Within the past week, police in London, Ontario, said they have grounds to believe a woman was sexually assaulted by five players on that Canadian 2018 team.

Hockey Canada executives in July also revealed that they paid out $8.9 million in sexual abuse settlements since 1989, excluding the 2018 deal. The organization elected a new board of directors Dec. 17 and is still searching for a new chief executive officer. The previous board resigned and president and CEO Scott Smith was ousted as a result of the controversies.

Kyle Wagner of Halifax said the scandals have sparked discussions in the dressing room of his eight-year-old son’s team ahead of this year’s world junior tournament hosted jointly by Halifax and Moncton, New Brunswick. The event begins Monday.

“An eight-year-old is smart, because my son knows that there’s controversy this year in hockey, and while he doesn’t know a whole lot of the details, he knows that some things were done that were wrong and horrible,” Wagner said.

The revelation that Hockey Canada maintained a fund drawing on minor hockey membership fees to pay for uninsured liabilities, including sexual abuse claims, fueled an uproar earlier this year. Sponsors withdrew, the national sports minister stripped Hockey Canada of federal funding and the governing body’s leaders were sharply questioned by parliament.

Hockey Canada’s new board chairman, retired judge Hugh L. Fraser, felt it was his duty to step up and help heal the sport with eight freshly minted directors.

“Very dispiriting, very discouraging,” Fraser said of his reaction to Hockey Canada’s disastrous 2022 in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. “I had the same question everyone asked: ‘How could this happen?’”

The backlash from the public and politicians was swift.

“It’s hard for anyone in Canada to have faith or trust in anyone at Hockey Canada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said July 19. He also said there needed to be a “real reckoning” at the organization.

Now it falls to Fraser, who has nearly three decades of experience at the Ontario court of justice in Ottawa, and the board to pick a new CEO and chart Hockey Canada’s future during a special one-year term.

“When I look at some of the things that happened — the allegations of abuse and even racism, misogyny — you really feel that if you have an opportunity to get involved, to do something, to help make a change, that it’s one you shouldn’t let pass,” he told CP.

Fraser, whose son Mark played seven seasons in the NHL and is now the Toronto Maple Leafs’ manager of culture and inclusion, experienced some painful moments as a Black man with Black children in minor hockey. He wants to leave the game a better place.

“You hear things,” Fraser said. “There were a couple of times when other players came over and said, ‘Somebody called your son the N-word.’ We had some fans, occasionally, that really misbehaved and created a very uncomfortable atmosphere. As much as we’ve seen the positives – many, many positives – as a person of color you didn’t see many people that look like you in your sport.

“There were some rough times.”

But why would Fraser, who competed for Canada at the 1976 Olympics in track, want to add this daunting task to a plate in the twilight of a career that still includes various roles, including the Court of Arbitration for Sport?

“Not quite at the point where I’m ready to sit back and take it easy,” he said. “A huge challenge, but at the same time, there’s a huge opportunity.

For now, fans will try to focus on Canada’s bid for a second consecutive world junior championship and third in the past four years.

New Brunswick’s government included a “good conduct” clause in its funding contract with Hockey Canada for the tournament. The contract stipulates that Hockey Canada’s representatives “must be of good character and must not indulge in unethical conduct” during the event.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said Hockey Canada’s leadership change has “cleared the way for the mayor of Moncton and myself to focus on the hockey and on the benefits that come to our two cities.”

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