Corporate sponsors cut ties with Hockey Canada as scandal deepens

Titans of corporate Canada are cutting ties with Hockey Canada as the fallout from the sporting organization's mishandling of alleged sexual assaults deepens.

A list of top-tier sponsors from retailers and coffee chains to banks and carmakers have pulled support for the sport's national governing body as it ignores mounting calls for leadership and cultural change.

Sponsorship accounts for more than a quarter of the funding for the scandal-plagued organization which has continued to defend itself against criticism over its handling of alleged sexual assaults and money paid to settle lawsuits.

"They keep digging in their heels on this issue. They're going to lose a lot of corporate sponsorship, money and brand prestige," said Simon Darnell, director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto.

"These are not small Canadian brands that are jumping ship. These are icons of the Canadian economy that have always been tightly connected to hockey."

Canadian Tire Corp., a brand closely tied to Canada's hockey ethos, ended its partnership with Hockey Canada on Thursday.

"Hockey Canada continues to resist meaningful change and we can no longer confidently move forward together," Canadian Tire senior vice-president of communications Jane Shaw said in a statement on Thursday.

The company will instead support hockey-related organizations that better align with the company's values of sport that is inclusive and safe for all Canadians, she said.

Telus Corp., Scotiabank, Esso and Tim Hortons — nearly synonymous with hockey in Canada — have all suspended support of the men's hockey programs for the 2022-23 season, including the upcoming world juniors tournament.

Chevrolet Canada paused its sponsorship in June, with its parent company General Motors saying it has "no tolerance for abuse of any kind."

Grocery retailer Sobeys chose not to renew its sponsorship contract with Hockey Canada when it expired in June.

"We were disgusted by all of the allegations and, as importantly, Hockey Canada’s unwillingness to make meaningful change to earn back the trust of Canadians and ensure everyone feels welcome and safe when playing the sport," Karen White-Boswell, Sobeys director of external communications, said in an emailed statement Thursday.

The grocer continues to support the women’s national hockey team and is exploring options to do that "directly without any connection to Hockey Canada," she said.

Losing sponsors could have a significant impact on Hockey Canada's bottom line. Sponsorships account for 27 per cent of funding — the organization's biggest source of funds, according to its website.

But the loss of sponsors could have ripple effects throughout the organization beyond just a loss of money, and possibly affect hockey programming across the country, said Greg Vanier, the head of crisis and reputation risk at Edelman Canada.

"This is about more than just corporate dollars. They're dealing with a huge perception issue," said Vanier, who helps corporate clients navigate brand risk and reputation arising from issues such as sexual misconduct investigations.

"The damage to Hockey Canada's reputation and the perception of how poor the response is — coupled with just the nature of the incident and what we're talking about — has almost forced sponsors to cut ties."

Continuing to sponsor Hockey Canada could be seen as an endorsement of their handling of the crisis and ultimately tarnish their own brand, he said.

Still, pausing support or cutting ties altogether with Hockey Canada was likely a last resort for many sponsors, Vanier added.

"The decision to pull corporate funding is never taken lightly. This is likely the culmination of many efforts to see if the organization would change."

In a statement about its Esso brand discontinuing its support for the organization's men's programs, Imperial Oil Ltd.'s Keri Scobie said the decision will stand until meaningful accountability and change.

"Imperial has communicated to Hockey Canada that we expect concrete steps to address ongoing issues, ensure change and restore trust. We are disappointed that we have not yet seen more significant action."

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

Among other revelations that followed was Hockey Canada's admission it drew on minor hockey membership fees to pay for uninsured liabilities, including sexual abuse claims.

Calls for leadership change at the embattled sporting body grew louder during parliamentary hearings in Ottawa this week.

Federal Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said it's time to "clean the house" while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said "there needs to be wholesale change" within the organization.

But Hockey Canada’s interim chairwoman Andrea Skinner said she continues to stand by the CEO and management, insisting that culture change can happen while maintaining leadership stability.

She questioned whether hockey rinks could continue to operate if structural change is ushered in at Hockey Canada.

"The suggestion that they won't be able to turn the lights on at local hockey rinks seems like a real stretch," said Darnell, also an associate professor of kinesiology and physical education.

"I know this as a hockey dad and as a hockey coach that those rinks and associations run because of local volunteers. It doesn't have anything to do with the leadership of Hockey Canada. They can and should change their leadership."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2022.

Companies in this story: (TSX:CTC, TSX:QSR, TSX:BNS, TSX:T)

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press