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Change in hockey requires more than to-do lists

The Hockey World Junior Championship is usually a feel-good Christmas tradition for Canadian sports fans.

But when it takes place in Edmonton next month due to a pandemic-related postponement, the tournament will be played under a gloomy cloud. Hockey Canada’s once gleaming brand has never been so battered. Corporate sponsors have at least temporarily distanced themselves en masse. Federal funds were frozen. The organization’s abysmal response to sexual assault allegations against members of the 2018 world youth team, which included an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum with the alleged victim, has cast the sport’s national governing body in a more than unflattering light is .

Now that they’ve been caught trying to sweep a sickening case under the rug, dragged before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa last month to acknowledge the less than rigorous nature of the initial inquiry into the matter, we’re arrived at the desperate request for a repeat.

On Thursday, Hockey Canada released an open letter to Canadians pledging to do better on many fronts.

The headline was a vow to reopen the investigation into the 2018 sexual assault allegations, in which a victim, who chose not to be identified, says she was taken to a hotel room and sexually assaulted repeatedly by eight junior hockey players , some of whom were members of the 2018 national team. The alleged victim has indicated through her lawyer that she will take part in the investigation. Hockey Canada has said all players must cooperate with the investigation and those who don’t risk being banned for the national team.

In addition, there was a long list of other commitments: submitting the findings of the investigation to an independent panel of current and former judges to determine the appropriate consequences; Sexual violence and consent training for all high-performing players; a full governance review; Creation of an independent and confidential grievance mechanism; and to become a full signatory of the recently created Office of Sport Integrity Commissioner.

They are all potentially noble ventures. But you’ll excuse keen observers of high-performance sport if they’re not willing to laud Hockey Canada’s checklist as a tool for making meaningful change. Toxic cultures don’t transform because someone sent a mass email. The reopening of the investigation, necessary as it is, comes with a promise that there will be scapegoats and an outcome that can be described as justice. But the most important question is one that cannot yet be answered. Given hockey’s reputation for building a largely impenetrable cone of silence around its secrets, what are the odds that there is genuine transparency?

As Pascale St-Onge, Canada’s sports minister, said this week, Hockey Canada needs to take real action to “change the culture of silence.”

“It’s not good enough to tick the boxes and create the facade of change,” Jennifer Heil, the Canadian Olympic gold medalist, said in an interview this week. “It’s very easy for people to make promises and still operate under a veil of secrecy.”

Heil is perhaps best known as the freestyle skier who won Canada’s first medal at the Vancouver Olympics, a silver in the moguls that topped a career trophy cabinet that included a gold medal at the 2006 Games and multiple world titles. But her off-piste career has led her to pay close attention to the turbulent conditions in the corridors of elite sport. Before Heil spent most of the past year earning a year-long MBA from Stanford University, California, she spent about four years building the safe sports infrastructure in British Columbia. In other words, she’s delved deeper into these complicated issues than almost anyone else. Which, considering our time, is a useful wealth of experience.

Canadian Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge has said ice hockey needs to

Hockey Canada’s dark moment comes at a time when the country’s elite sports system is “in crisis,” to use the phrase St-Onge used a few months ago. A chorus of athletes from everything from gymnastics to women’s soccer to bobsleigh and skeleton to swimming to rowing to rugby have called for a cleansing of toxicity in their respective sports. And there have been advances on that front, notably the federal agency created to serve as an independent investigator and arbitrator of abuse claims developed by the Sport Dispute Resolution Center of Canada and a university code of practice to prevent and combat abuse in sport .

But these agencies will only be as effective as the leaders of the sports community want them to be. It can’t just be about to-do lists. There has to be a will to get things done.

“We are in a phase of cultural change,” said Heil. “Hockey Canada, which wields tremendous power in this country, has not chosen to spearhead the safe sport record. But the fact that they are one of the first signatories (of the Office of the Sports Integrity Officer) is a great signal to the system that we are building the future.”

However, if an optimist thinks that, given the moment, this case could be the tipping point that changes hockey culture for the better, then Heil would rather put the brakes on and see how things play out.

“I think anyone who’s been in this space knows not to see a single case as a turning point. Because the change didn’t happen that way,” said Heil.

For example, “a lot of people thought that Sheldon Kennedy was going to be the turning point,” Heil said, and yet it was only last year that Kyle Beach’s allegations of sexual assault by a Chicago Blackhawks coach offered a reminder that evil was being driven beneath The veil of secrecy of hockey can do more harm than an environment that is more supportive of the victims.

For this reason, Hockey Canada’s desperate plea for a rethink must be met with the utmost skepticism and careful consideration. For her part, Heil questioned Hockey Canada’s vows to conduct an “independent third-party investigation” into the 2018 sexual assault case.

“If Hockey Canada has any control over the scope of this investigation, or even are the ones hiring the party, then this is not a true independent third-party investigation,” Heil said. “And that’s not high enough.”

In other words, the initial investigation, conducted by a Toronto law firm hired by Hockey Canada, does not meet a reasonable standard of independence. And Hockey Canada has not yet said if the same law firm will lead the reopening of the investigation. If the procedure is to be taken seriously, it obviously cannot. If you want to take the process seriously, transparency is more than a must.

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