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Column: Tough road ahead for Hockey Canada

An opinion piece about Hockey Canada's sexual assault cases that have been in the talks since May.
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The past couple of months have not been kind to Hockey Canada.

We found out in late May that the governing body for this country's national winter sport had authorized a financial settlement against a woman who claimed she had been sexually assaulted in 2018 by eight players from the Canadian Hockey League, including members of the Canadian team that won the gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship earlier that year. The alleged incident had occurred at a fundraiser in London, Ont.

And while the London police conducted an investigation without laying any charges, Hockey Canada came out looking poorly.

Since then, the organization has suffered more blows. The federal government has frozen funding for Hockey Canada. Numerous high-profile sponsors have withdrawn support. Another woman has stepped forward to say she was a victim of a sexual assault by members of the 2003 World Junior team. 

And it's been revealed that Hockey Canada had an equity fund that was used, among other things, to compensate victims of sexual abuse. Most of that money was paid out to the victims of disgraced former junior coach Graham James, but still, Canadians found it galling that money went to an organization with such a scheme.

For those who have taken an idealized attitude towards hockey and the athletes who play it, the past couple of months have been difficult to stomach. We often take a sanctimonious approach to our sport. Other sports might have problems with player conduct. But not hockey. Not our game, with clean-cut players who show up to games wearing suits and ties from a young age.

Hockey Canada has been issuing regular news releases about what it will do to prevent these incidents from happening again, and saying that any player who doesn't co-operate with an investigation will be banned from competing for Team Canada in future tournaments.

As a fan of the game, Hockey Canada, the World Juniors and that 2018 gold medal-winning team, I'll admit it's been tough to hear. But in the end, if these players being investigated did do something wrong, then they should be held accountable, not just by the sport, but by law enforcement officials. 

Some people want to typecast the players and claim that since we've had allegations against some unnamed players, all players at all levels are bad. But that's not the case.

Most kids who play the game are quality young people. They've been playing the sport since they were five. They play for different reasons, and when it's time to leave the game, they do so for different reasons. 

If you spent time around the members of the 2021-22 Estevan Bruins, you'd find most of them are fine young men. And after dealing with Bruins' head coach and general manager Jason Tatarnic, I have a hard time believing he'd have much patience for malcontents or those with bad attitudes. 

We've heard talk about a "toxic culture" that permeates the game. I don't agree with that term. I think there are issues and challenges that have to be addressed.

Hockey needs to be more inclusive. The reputation of hockey as a white person's game needs to be addressed.  

It's an incredible game, for my money the greatest on the planet. Why wouldn't we want to have as many different people playing the game as possible? Hockey should be for everyone, regardless of gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation or any other factor.

Canada is a wonderfully diverse nation. Our game should reflect that. 

And while these are tough times for Hockey Canada, the athletes who play for Canada in international tournaments still deserve our support, starting with those playing in tournaments this summer. The young men who will represent Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships this month in Edmonton aren't the ones who are under investigation.

There have been calls for changes at the top of Hockey Canada, from the executive leadership team to the board. I'm sure something will happen eventually, but massive changes all at once aren't going to be beneficial, at least not in the short-term, and likely not in the long-term, either.

Scott Smith, who became Hockey Canada's CEO last month, has taken much of the heat.

The coming months will be difficult for Hockey Canada as more information comes to light, but we still have to remember this is a great game and most of the people who play it are quality individuals.

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