Hockey Canada's board chairs defend organization's leadership, decisions

OTTAWA — Hockey Canada's board chairs, past and present, played defence amid parliamentary grilling over the hockey body's handling of alleged sexual assaults and how money was paid out in lawsuits.

Former chair Michael Brind'Amour and interim chair Andrea Skinner appeared via video Tuesday before members of Parliament in a Canadian Heritage standing committee meeting in Ottawa.

Hockey Canada has been under the national microscope since May when it was revealed it settled a lawsuit with a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by eight players from the 2018 junior men's hockey team at a June gala event in London, Ont., that year.

Skinner, who was elected to Hockey Canada's board in 2020, was appointed interim chair after Brind'Amour resigned Aug. 6.

Canada's sports minister Pascale St-Onge and victims rights advocate Sheldon Kennedy have said current Hockey Canada leadership must quit to allow for culture change in the organization, and to regain public trust.

Skinner insisted hockey shouldn't be made a "scapegoat" or "centrepiece" for toxic culture that exists elsewhere in society. She referenced politicians who have been accused of sexual misconduct during Tuesday's hearing.

Skinner and Brind'Amour were questioned why Hockey Canada president and chief executive officer Scott Smith had not been fired.

"Our board frankly does not share the view that senior leadership should be replaced on the basis of what we consider to be substantial misinformation and an unduly cynical attacks," Skinner countered.

There's been no motion or vote at the board level to oust Smith, according to Brind'Amour.

"I believe Mr. Smith has the necessary qualities to do something positive for the organization," he said.

Board elections will be held in November. Skinner did not commit to running for re-election.

Conservative MP Kevin Waugh asserted all current board members should have joined Brind'Amour in resigning in August.

"You pulled the pin three months early," Waugh said to Brind'Amour. "I would suspect that all eight others should have pulled the pin with you."

Maintaining leadership stability during a tumultuous time in an organization currently under a governance review, and with board elections looming, doesn't come at the expense of the culture change, Skinner said.

"I think Hockey Canada can do both," she stated. "I can assure this committee and I can assure the members of the Canadian public that change is happening.

"If all of the board resigns, and all of senior leadership is no longer there, I think that will be very impactful in a negative way to our boys and girls who are playing hockey. Will the lights stay on the rink? I don't know. We can't predict that and to me, that's not a risk worth taking."

Since Hockey Canada's settlement became public in the spring, Halifax police were asked to investigate an alleged sexual assault by members of the 2003 junior men's team.

Among other revelations was Hockey Canada's admission it drew on minor hockey membership fees to pay for uninsured liabilities, including sexual abuse claims, under a "National Equity Fund".

Skinner was questioned about another monetary vehicle, the Participants Legacy Trust Fund, covering uninsured liabilities for its member associations.

"No funds from that trust have been used to settle claims," Skinner stated. "That trust was established to cover uninsured claims for a period in which Hockey Canada and its members were self-insured between September of 1986 and August 1995.

"All of the members contributed to the trust. The trust belongs to the original contributors of the trust. Over the years, this trust has provided annual funding to the members and to the (Canadian Hockey League) by the way of realized annual investment income and that income is distributed to the members and the CHL, not Hockey Canada."

It was the fourth time Hockey Canada leaders were called on the carpet following hearings June 20 and July 26-27.

Smith, former chief executive officer Tom Renney, chief financial officer Brian Cairo and former vice-president of insurance and risk management Glen McCurdie were questioned in those hearings.

The board chairs appeared before the committee for the first time. Edmonton Oilers chair Bob Nicholson, who was Hockey Canada's president and CEO from 1998 to 2014, did not appear, but has been asked by the committee to appear at a future hearing.

It was revealed in July that Hockey Canada paid out $7.6 million in nine settlements related to sexual assault and sexual abuse claims since 1989.

The figure didn't include this year's payout of an undisclosed sum to the London plaintiff, who had sued for $3.5 million. None of the allegations were tested in court.

St-Onge ordered a forensic audit in June to determine no public funds were used to settle that lawsuit.

The sports minister, who has frozen Hockey Canada's funding, agreed with NDP MP Peter Julian's new request for another audit back to 2016.

"We are trying to go back as far as we can to make sure that no public funds were used in the settlement of those cases," St-Onge said Tuesday.

"What I’ve heard today was certainly not what I was hoping for. I’m pretty sure it’s not what the Canadians were hoping for either. It’s four political parties that are representing the entire Canada and they’re unanimous that the management of the alleged gang rapes and multiple gang rapes was totally inappropriate by Hockey Canada."

St-Onge believes Hockey Canada lacks "the capacity to renew themselves from within" and wants its 13 member minor hockey associations to impose change.

In the face of lost corporate sponsorships and public outcry, Hockey Canada laid out an action plan to address safe sport and says it will no longer use the National Equity Fund to settle sexual assault claims.

Hockey Canada also appointed former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell to conduct a review of its governance. An interim report of recommendations is expected before next month's board elections.

Neither Skinner nor Brind'Amour confirmed reports Hockey Canada has spent $5,000 on board dinners. Brind'Amour said if that happened, it may have been special occasions with more people than board members attending.

Brind'Amour did confirm board members received championship rings when national teams won international titles at $3,000 per ring.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2022.

The Canadian Press