Skating On Thin, Black Ice?

In most years, the start to the second half of an NHL season would be a purely positive kickstart.  Games immediately become more meaningful, more attention is being paid as it typically means football season is about to end, even spring training is still a way’s off.  In most years, that’s a good thing.

But this year, particularly north of the border, it’s anything but that.  And yesterday the attention of a whole lot of Canada and even a decent amount of the US turned to London, Ontario, where the real reason why several current league players took unexplained leaves of absence was finally revealed.  As USA TODAY’s Mike Brehm reported this morning:

The London (Ontario) Police Service confirmed the names of the five hockey players charged with sexual assault in a 2018 case and said Monday that one player faces two charges.

New Jersey Devils forward Michael McLeod faces the two charges. The others facing a single sexual assault charge are Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart, Devils defenseman Cal Foote, Calgary Flames forward Dillon Dube and former Ottawa Senators player Alex Formenton.

Those players, who are on leave from their teams, were in London, Ontario, in 2018 at a Hockey Canada gala honoring the gold-medal-winning world junior championship team.

After the event, the accused and several teammates met the victim at a downtown bar and later invited her to a hotel room, where the sexual assault by the individuals now charged took place,” police chief Thai Truong said in a news conference.

Were that the most sordid news to come out, it would far easier to focus on the usual nuts and bolts, including two stirring comeback wins for New York teams that kicked off the race to the finish last night.  As Brehm continued, this was (ironically) practically a cold case not that long ago:

The police department’s initial investigation closed in February 2019 without any charges. It was reopened in July 2022, two months after Canadian network TSN reported that May that Hockey Canada paid an undisclosed settlement to a woman who alleged in a $3.55 million lawsuit that she was sexually assaulted by eight players in a hotel room.

And as THE NEW YORK TIMES/THE ATHLETIC’s Canadian-based duo of Vjosa Isai and 

The accusations have touched a nerve with fans, leading many to question how Hockey Canada, the nation’s governing body for the sport, has responded…The Globe and Mail later reported that the settlement payment had come from a slush fund bolstered in part by children’s hockey registration fees.

Naturally, all parties accused maintain their innocence.  All five players have lawyered up, and in an earlier statement reported by Isai and Austen, the man in charge declared his own version of disgust, and not just of the accusations:

Before he was fired as Hockey Canada’s chief executive that year, Scott Smith rejected suggestions that the multimillion-dollar slush fund, formally known as the National Equity Fund, was a mechanism to hide accusations against players. “I adamantly oppose the suggestion that we covered this up or swept something under the rug,” he told a parliamentary committee in 2022.

It’s neither my place nor my right to try and try the accused for their crimes of “passion”.  I went to a hockey school near Ontario.  I know what can happen when you mix celebratory excitement and exuberant fans.  One look at the image at the top of this page should give you an idea what we were dealing with at the time.  And, sorry to say, there is always the possibility that while “no” always means “NO”, it’s entirely possible that word may not have been uttered.  Darn good thing this isn’t being tried in the U.S., right, Mr. Kavanaugh?

To me, the greater crime is the potential cover-up and complicity of the London police force and the governing body of the country’s junior hockey, all in the name of mutual love and entitlement that effectively defines the culture, particularly in cities such as London, where the Ontario Major Junior League is THE thing in town.   As Isai and Austen further added:

Although it is the N.H.L. that has international fame and recognition, in many smaller communities, hockey, Canada’s dominant sport, is more often defined by junior teams made up of amateur players between the ages of 15 and 20.

So faces like these are national heroes long before they even reach the pros.  Where they can pose and look all the more mature and in control. Which I’m inclined to say is more than likely the case in their lives today.  We’ve all done crazy things we regret as kids.

And if indeed what happened to that woman is determined to have actually happened as she described, each of these fresh faces deserves new colors beyond their current teams’; likely an orange jumpsuit, or whatever color equates in Canada.

But at the very least they should be joined by those who indeed have embraced and championed a culture that would have given these boys the belief they were immune to any consequences.

Indeed, Brehm implies that the folks in charge now are not the same ones that were on the case in 2018.  If nothing else, there was at last an apology, though not nearly as complete as it should have been:

I want to extend, on behalf of the London Police Service, my sincerest apology to the victim, to her family for the amount of time that it has taken to reach this point,” Truong said.

A decent start.  But it cannot end there.

Apologize to the families of the accused for letting their own children down in giving them appropriate guidance.  Apologize to the otherwise unaware NHL teams impacted, particularly to the playoff-struggling New Jersey Devils, down two young talents as they fight for a playoff berth.  Apologize to the fans who would much rather be focusing on checking and power plays on ice rather than checks and balances and power plays in life.

As Isai and Austen concluded, it’s not as if the NHL has been squeaky-clean before this alleged incident:

Sexual assault cases are not new to hockey, but in the past, some of the most high-profile ones have involved abusive coaches. Over about two decades, Graham James, a former junior hockey coach, was convicted in three separate cases of sexually assaulting players, including Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury, who became N.H.L. stars.  

Penn State and Michigan State fans can identify.

But something like this is truly disturbing.  It’s the worst qualities of fandom brought to light, and that’s not what a sport struggling for respect and attention needs.

So go get ’em, new folks in charge.  Take a Zamboni to all of this as soon as possible.

Because if you follow the lead of your predescessors, we’ll just have to find new London police to do what you won’t.  Like these.

Courage…

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