A simply awful way of conducting business from Canada’s governing body has affected the game of hockey from coast to coast.
Whether it is the big cities of Montreal or Toronto or Edmonton or Vancouver or the smaller centres of the Maritimes or the Prairies or the northern Ontario hockey hotbeds of Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, North Bay, Timmins and Thunder Bay, Hockey Canada was using fees collected from players across the country to cover uninsured liabilities, including sexual assaults.
Now, there is a new man at the top of the Hockey Canada board who has been entrusted with picking up the pieces that the scandal ridden steward of the game brought upon itself.
Hugh L. Fraser didn’t have the nuts-and-bolts knowledge to coach his sons’ hockey teams. He did, however, want to pitch in at the frigid rinks across eastern Ontario.
“By the time my older boy finished novice hockey, he knew more about the fundamentals than I did,” Fraser said. “But they needed somebody running the clocks.
“So, I started running the clocks.”
Years later, he watched from afar as Hockey Canada – the game’s steward in this country – experienced a scandal-filled spring, summer and fall of ugly headlines related to the national sport organization’s handling of sexual assault allegations and payouts to victims.
The retired judge felt it was his duty to step up and help heal a sport that had given his family so much joy.
Only this time, it would be in the boardroom, not the timekeeper’s bench – and the task would be much bigger.
Fraser was just recently elected as Hockey Canada’s new board chair and joined by eight freshly minted directors, as the federation looks to push ahead with the governance changes outlined in a damning independent report released last month.
“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?'”
Born in Jamaica before his family moved to Kingston, Ont., when he was a child, the 70-year-old takes the board reins at a critical juncture for Hockey Canada.
Everything, however, appeared fine on the surface in April when Tom Renney announced his retirement as its CEO.
During that emotional address, he trumpeted what had been accomplished under his leadership.
“We have taken our responsibilities seriously and bettered ourselves in the areas of equity, diversity and inclusion, gender identity and maltreatment,” Renney said in announcing his impending departure.
“And yes, there’s a lot more work to do.”
Two months later, the outgoing executive and his hand-picked successor, Scott Smith, were in an uncomfortable spotlight on Parliament Hill, answering questions from MPs following the May revelation a woman alleged some members of the country’s 2018 world junior team had sexually assaulted her following a gala in London, Ont., four years earlier.
Police reopened their investigation in July, and this week it was revealed authorities believe the woman was sexually assaulted by five players from that team. None of the allegations have been proven in court and no charges have been laid.
A $3.55-million lawsuit filed in April was quickly settled out of court by Hockey Canada in the spring, while Smith and Renney testified to parliamentarians in June the organization had “strongly encouraged” – but not mandated – the 19 players at the event in London speak to its own third-party investigators.
Smith also testified Hockey Canada reported three sexual assault complaints in recent years, including the London incident, but declined to discuss the other two in front of committee.
That first appearance before legislators was, in short, calamitous for Hockey Canada.
And it would only get worse.
The federal government quickly froze funding, while corporations pulled sponsorship dollars.
It would eventually emerge that Hockey Canada had been quietly using its little-known National Equity Fund (NEF) – maintained by fees collected from players across the country – to cover uninsured liabilities, including sexual assaults.
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.
Trudeau would add later that week there needed to be a “real reckoning” at the organization – days before Hockey Canada announced members of its 2003 world junior team were being investigated for a group sexual assault.
Another round of heritage committee meetings saw a Hockey Canada official testify it had paid out $7.6 million in nine settlements related to sexual abuse and assault since 1989. That number did not include the undisclosed amount paid to the woman in the London case.
Smith, who had worked at Hockey Canada since 1995, once again appeared before MPs and heard calls for his resignation.
Those only got louder in early October following third installment of heritage committee meetings that saw interim board chair Andrea Skinner back Smith and testify hockey should not be made the “scapegoat” for toxic culture that exists elsewhere in the society.
That was the final straw.
Provincial federations announced they would withhold funds from Hockey Canada this season, Trudeau suggested the government might step in, and sponsors continued to jump ship.
Smith and the entire board would be out shortly thereafter before the release of former Supreme Court judge Thomas Cromwell’s report, which called for more oversight, transparency and accountability.
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.
“It means a great deal,” Fraser, who spoke with CP before news related to London police’s investigation emerged this weekend, said of being selected for the chair’s role.
“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.”
Fraser, whose 36-year old son Mark Fraser was a defenseman with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League who went on to play in more than 200 games in the National Hockey League — and who 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.
The elder Fraser 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 colour 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.
“One of the reasons I was interested is the experience I had more than three decades ago as a lawyer being involved with the Dubin commission of inquiry called after Ben Johnson’s positive test in the ’88 Olympics.”
Some of the recommendations paved the way for the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.
Fraser sees parallels with Hockey Canada.
“We now have world-class athletes doing things the right way with organizations that can get results without compromising principles,” he said. “But there has to be that strong commitment for everyone to push in that direction.
“Maybe this is what hockey needed to get that buy in.”
— with files from Canadian Press, Postmedia and Randy Russon