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Members Of 2018 Canadian National Junior Team Take Leaves Of Absence Ahead Of Police Press Conference

1:20 PM EST on January 25, 2024

A referee wears a Hockey Canada patch crossed with black ribbon
Mathiew Leiser/AFP via Getty Images

Since a 2022 lawsuit accused eight Canadian Hockey League amateurs of committing sexual assault in 2018, a cloud of suspicion has permeated the entire NHL. With five players taking leaves of absence from their respective teams over the past few days, and a police press conference slated for Feb. 5, it seems we might be inching toward some sort of answers from authorities. But whatever law enforcement announces won't alone repair the ugly cracks of the broken hockey culture it spotlighted.

The need for this forthcoming press conference stems from a Hockey Canada Foundation gala held in London, Ontario in June 2018. Among the attendees were most members of the 2017-18 Canadian World Junior team, though the lawsuit says that the players involved were not limited to that group. According to the lawsuit, which referred to all of the accused as John Does, a woman was introduced to some players at a bar after the event. There, she said, they bought her more and more drinks, and eventually she left the bar to have sex with a player at a hotel. Afterward, she said, the player invited teammates into the room without her consent, and those players then committed multiple acts of sexual abuse while intimidating her into staying, telling her to say on camera that she was sober, and pressuring her to not go to the police.

The lawsuit, reported on by TSN's Rick Westhead, became public amid a larger reckoning with hockey's culture of sexual misconduct, and in its aftermath London police announced that its initial investigation, which closed in February of 2019, would be reopened. Hockey Canada, which has earned national ire for its failure to properly confront these issues, said that it learned of the allegations in 2018 and told police, but the woman was not cooperative. They later reached a settlement in the lawsuit.

What's always been uniquely disturbing about this story is the logical conclusion that arrives when you consider the makeup of the Canadian team. They are, in effect, an all-star team of the country's best teenagers, meaning they spend the majority of their time playing separately in places that span the entire width of the country. If several players on Team Canada had the potential to be a rapist—not to mention the ones on the team during another alleged sexual assault in Halifax in 2003—then that culture wouldn't be confined just to that roster. It'd be part of the DNA of their junior teams, too, and it'd come with them to the NHL.

Every player who was in London that night has been a potential suspect in the eyes of fans, but after rounds of frustrated speculation exchanged between both hockey insiders and outsiders, five names are drawing all of the attention. Alex Formenton—who already raised a lot of concern when he went to Europe after the Senators refused to resign him—has been granted indefinite leave from his team, along with four other active NHL players: Flyers goalie Carter Hart, Devils skaters Michael McLeod and Cal Foote, and Flames forward Dillon Dubé. Their teams have cited personal reasons, mental health, or nothing at all in announcing their absences, but The Globe & Mail reported that the players have been asked to surrender to police and face charges of sexual assault.

Police won't confirm this report, a week from Monday still feels like a long way off, and the difference between five players and the alleged eight is significant. But the leaves of absence at least seem to turn a page toward a future where the story of this one specific night doesn't cloud every locker room. What lingers, though, is continued, well-founded concerns and frustrations that Hockey Canada and the NHL will have to answer about what might have happened before, and what's happened since.

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