Hockey Canada CEO, board step down over handling of sexual abuse

Observers welcome resignations as good step after months of pressure, but say more action needed to tackle systemic violence.

Close up of maple leaf on Canadian flag
Hockey Canada has revealed it paid out millions of dollars in settlements to nearly two dozen complainants with sexual misconduct claims over the past three decades [File: Stephane Mahe/Reuters]

The head of Hockey Canada and the organisation’s entire board of directors are stepping down as the sport’s national governing body faces increased scrutiny and public anger over its handling of sexual assault allegations.

Hockey Canada has been under fire since news broke in May of an alleged gang rape involving members of Canada’s 2018 world junior ice hockey team and a subsequent out-of-court settlement reached with the accuser.

“Recognising the urgent need for new leadership and perspectives, the entire Board of Directors announced it will step aside,” Hockey Canada said in a statement on Tuesday.

It said an interim management committee will be put in place, which will guide the organisation until no later than a newly constituted board appoints a new chief executive after the departure of CEO Scott Smith.

Hockey Canada also said its members will be asked to select a new slate of directors by no later than the virtual election scheduled for December 17. The board will not seek re-election and will fulfil its duties until a new board is elected.

Smith, who has worked for Hockey Canada in various roles since 1995, said in July — less than a month after taking over as CEO — that he had no plans to resign from his position.

At the time, he told a Canadian parliamentary hearing on the scandal that he was the right person to spearhead efforts for positive change within the sport across the hockey-loving country.

The allegations against the unnamed players have not been proved in court but the Canadian federal government has frozen funding to Hockey Canada over its handling of the alleged sexual assault.

Since the news first broke, more alleged gang rapes have come to light and Hockey Canada has revealed it paid out millions of dollars in settlements to nearly two dozen complainants with sexual misconduct claims over the past 30 years.

Canadian media outlets recently reported Hockey Canada had two slush funds to settle payments for victims of sexual assault.

Hockey Canada has said it will no longer use a fund that was financed by registration fees of players across the country to settle sexual assault claims and also announced a full governance review.

As recently as last week, Hockey Canada’s interim board chair, who resigned over the weekend, defended the leadership at the national governing body while speaking during a parliamentary committee meeting.

But several provincial hockey associations recently said they would withhold fees typically sent to Hockey Canada over the scandal, while a string of big sponsors, including Nike and coffee chain Tim Hortons, suspended their relationships with the organisation.

Tuesday’s announcement is “a step toward restoring Canadians’ confidence” in Hockey Canada, Canadian Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge said in a statement. “While we welcome this news, the interim management committee must be made up of people who want to make real change.”

Longtime Montreal Gazette hockey columnist Jack Todd also said on Twitter on Tuesday that “the departures of Smith and the Hockey Canada board is a beginning”.

Sheldon Kennedy, a former Canadian professional hockey player and survivor of sexual abuse by a coach, said it was “not a day of celebration” but rather “a critical juncture for the game of hockey and Canadian sport”.

“We need an inclusive, respectful and safe Hockey system at all levels across Canada,” he said in a statement.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies