It’s Hockey’s Turn To Reckon With Sexual Violence
1:50 PM EST on February 6, 2024
Police in London, Ontario, confirmed Monday what had mostly been pieced together by reporters and fans: Criminal charges had been brought against five professional hockey players—Dillon Dubé of the Calgary Flames, Cal Foote and Michael McLeod of the New Jersey Devils, Alex Formenton of H.C. Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland, and Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers—for their connections to the sexual assault of a young woman in 2018. According to police and a previously filed lawsuit, the sexual assault happened soon after Canada clinched gold in the World Junior Hockey Championships. All five players charged were on that team. Through their lawyers, all five said they would plead not guilty and fight the charges in court.
London Police Service chief Thai Truong opened his press conference by apologizing to the woman and her family, a detail that led many of the write-ups because law enforcement agencies, like most powerful institutions, rarely acknowledge their failures. But that detail also led because police didn't reveal much else. Instead they said, as authorities usually do, that saying more than the barest of minimums would jeopardize the criminal case.
Det. Sgt. Katherine Dann went over the basics of how the police investigation began: On June 18, 2018, the Canadian team was in London and celebrating the gold medal win. Some continued the celebration a local bar, called Jack's, where they met the young woman. In the early hours of June 19, the young woman went back a hotel with one of the players. The other four also went back to the same hotel, which is where the woman said she was sexually assaulted. That morning, a person related to the young woman called police asking for advice on a sexual assault. An officer called that person back, an investigation began, and the reported victim gave officers a statement within a few days. The case was closed in February 2019, with no charges brought.
In April of 2022, the woman—using the initials E.M.—filed a lawsuit saying she had been sexually assaulted by eight juniors, including members of that gold-winning WJC team. None of the players were named. Hockey Canada, which oversees amateur hockey in the country, swiftly settled, which caught the attention of government leaders who started asking questions. In subsequent parliamentary hearings, leaders embarrassed themselves so thoroughly that brands began walking back their association with Hockey Canada and the CEO and board members all resigned. (And let's not forget when the Globe & Mail uncovered Hockey Canada using registration fees to pay for millions in settlements following allegations of sexual assaults.) Hockey Canada said it would investigate. The NHL said it would investigate. In July, London police re-opened their investigation.
The conclusion of these investigations has not yet resulted in much new public information about what happened, answers to why there were so many delays, or why a civilian group created to review sexual assault cases never reviewed this one. All the police would say yesterday is that the most recent investigation uncovered new evidence. Though Truong and Dann opened up the press conference to reporters, few questions received meaningful answers.
At one point, Truong suggested that the sexualization of young women and girls in society, and specifically in media, was "contributing to the violence against women." Soon afterward, a reporter asked, "Wouldn't it be fair to say that taking nearly six years to lay a sexual assault charge in a high-profile case would also contribute to sexual violence against women?" Truong replied. "That's a fair question. It's not something as the chief of police that I am happy about, that it took six years. I truly am not happy about this whatsoever." The press conference closed with TSN's Rick Westhead asking, "Did anyone from Hockey Canada interfere with the original investigation?" but at that point, Truong and Dann had left the podium. They appeared to hear the question but did not go back to answer. Instead, a spokesperson said into the microphone: "Question period is now complete."
Staying silent has been the norm for the institutions involved ever since E.M. first filed her lawsuit. Hockey Canada confirmed that all 22 players from the 2018 team remained suspended amid an ongoing internal appeals process, but otherwise hasn't released its findings. The NHL also investigated, but commissioner Gary Bettman said due to the ongoing criminal case it won't release its findings.
These are all familiar beats: The case closed years ago with no charges; the civil lawsuit; the swift settlement, coupled with a non-disclosure agreement; the reminder that an NDA cannot preclude anyone from cooperating with a criminal investigation; the re-opening of the case due to public pressure; the insistence by so many powerful people that, no, really, they'll get it right this time.
There's no shortage of similar cases of sexual violence and abuse being covered up by powerful athletic institutions—Baylor, USA Gymnastics, Penn State, and Chicago's NHL team to name a few—and plenty more outside of sports. But my mind returns to Andrea Constand, herself a Canadian from Toronto, and the woman who ultimately brought down Bill Cosby. Years passed between Constand speaking to police about Cosby drugging and sexually assaulting her and a jury convicting Cosby on three counts of aggravated indecent assault. In between there was a closed and then reopened police investigation, a civil lawsuit, a massive shift in public opinion, and two criminal trials. All of that was followed by Cosby's appeals, which ended when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturning his conviction, saying when a prior prosecutor said he would not criminally charge Cosby, that bound future prosecutors from doing the same.
A few months later, Constand's memoir came out. It certainly could have been a moment to feel defeated, but Constand wrote in her book, "We cannot let moments of injustice quiet us. We must speak up again and again and again—until we arrive at a moment of real change."
I do not labor over the illusion that answers or accountability will come soon for Hockey Canada, and that's before factoring in that Ontario courts, like many here in the United States, are backlogged. But I want to zoom out. I want this story to be about hockey and also about the wider world around it. Not to find an excuse for what happened or to pass around the blame, but to sit with how not alone E.M. is, to reorient her story within a wider history, even just within the women of Ontario, let alone all of North America. We have been here before. Acknowledging that, again and again, should be part of the change.