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Hockey Canada’s issues go beyond a few bad apples — the entire system needs to be re-engineered

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Former NHL and Canadian world junior hockey player Alex Formenton has surrendered himself to police in London, Ont. in connection with an alleged sexual assault by members of Canada’s 2018 world junior team. A woman alleged she was assaulted by the players while she was intoxicated after a gala event in London.

Formenton is one of five team members expected to face related charges, according to the Globe and Mail. Formenton’s lead legal counsel said “Alex will vigorously defend his innocence and asks that people not rush to judgment without hearing all of the evidence.”

His legal team said that police have charged Formenton and several other players in connection with the incident. London police said they will hold a press conference on Feb. 5. Five hockey players have been granted leaves of absence from NHL and European teams over the past week or so amid the news.

Whether convictions follow or not, it has become increasingly clear that charges of sexual assault can no longer be silenced or swept under the rug in sport and other contexts.

Hockey Canada paid a still-undeclared settlement to E.M., the claimant in a $3.55 million sexual assault lawsuit against members of the 2018 world junior national team. Another $6.8 million was devoted to settlements related to Graham James, the junior hockey coach convicted of sexually assaulting young players he coached in the 1990s.

Hockey Canada has spent a total of $8.9 million on 21 sexual abuse settlements since 1989. Of that total, $7.6 million came from membership fees and the investment generated by the National Equity Fund, and $1.3 million came from its insurance. Hockey Canada has since announced it will no longer use funds from membership fees to settle sexual assault claims.

More than a few bad apples

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s “Lucifer Effect” contends that, when dealing with abuse, it’s not just a matter of removing a few “bad apples” — often, the whole barrel is spoiled. The entire barrel-making system must be re-engineered to produce only the finest barrels to hold and preserve apples with integrity.

Sport safeguarding advocates argue that, while efforts like the recently announced Future of Sport in Canada Commission may address systemic issues by re-engineering sport leadership and governance structures, the remaining bad apples will continue to abuse power, derailing real change in Hockey Canada.

A Hockey Canada document is reviewed by a member of Parliament during a House of Commons Committee on Canadian Heritage looking into safe sport in Canada on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 4, 2022.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Those who abuse their power and benefit from power imbalance will exert that power to preserve the status quo. Researchers have identified that the typical leadership responses to abuse claims include complicity, collusion, control and cover-up.

There is evidence of this within many Canadian national sport organizations attempting change, including Hockey Canada, Gymnastics Canada, Rowing Canada, Soccer Canada and Bobsleigh and Skeleton Canada.

According to Zimbardo’s theory, leaders must remove the bad apples while addressing systemic issues — only then will they be able to create and maintain quality, lasting barrels. Otherwise, the existing bad apples will poison the new, rotting the barrel from the inside.

Power in Canadian hockey

Hockey Canada has seen wholesale change with the resignation and reconstitution of both the CEO and board of directors. The new CEO was appointed in September 2023, but it’s important to note that new does not necessarily mean different.

Sexual assault is an abuse of power. One could argue that the culture of misogyny and sexual assault evident across hockey environments is a product of power abuse normalized across the hockey world:

  • Coaches hold power over athlete careers
  • Hockey Leagues hold power over coach careers
  • Funders hold power over CEOs
  • Veterans hold power over rookies
  • Men often hold power over women

Though often well-intentioned, power imbalanced structures and hierarchies allow individuals and groups to abuse their power. Power imbalance is often sought and preserved as a misguided means to achieve stability, security, dominance and control.

A headshot of a middle-aged white man in a suit
Then-CEO of Hockey Canada Scott Smith appears at the standing committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on July 27, 2022, in Ottawa.
(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)

However, the lack of independence can also lead to a lack of transparency and concrete accountability processes, resulting in a recursive cycle of abuse and corruption — a phenomenon that has been well-documented in academic, media and government reports.

Fixing the sport system

Sport Canada leaders must remove the bad apples while re-engineering a new power-balanced sport system grounded in independence, transparency and accountability. We need only look to best practice in sport itself as the blueprint for the Canadian sport system as a whole.

Independence must be built into the system by separating evaluation and education from qualification. Great coaches educate and evaluate athletes, but an independent body determines qualification based on gold medal standards.

For instance, the International and National Olympic Committees determine the qualification standards for the Olympics and the international federations research and provide gold medal standards for each sport.

National sport organizations should be guided by their international federations to adopt well-researched performance targets, criteria and measures, all of which should be made publicly available. Sport Canada should then use these criteria to hold national sport organizations accountable.

Greater transparency needed

Too often, coaches and organizational leaders obscure criteria and procedures to allow for subjective decision-making. An excellent coach posts performance targets, criteria and measures early and often, and athlete performance outcomes daily and publicly.

This approach can be scaled to fit any kind of sport organization or group. Sport Canada must ensure evaluation criteria are comprehensive, public, objective and grounded within standards of practice.

Transparency creates a partnership model of shared goals and collaborative process, rather than a power-imbalanced model of authoritarian control and compliance.

Sport Canada needs accountability

Accountability demands concrete demonstrations of change. Sport Canada has been chastised for implementing superficial box-checking processes such as the Canadian Sport Governance Code and report-card system, which has since been discontinued.

When boards of directors do not provide both advisement and a clear accountability framework, it is easy for CEOs or executive directors to abuse their power.

According to sound governance principles, Sport Canada needs to create a robust accountability framework that demands verifiable evidence of policy implementation and achievement of standards of practice as a condition of funding.

To build sport organizations, structures, policies and processes that are safe, healthy and high-performing, the power balance of the system as a whole must be re-engineered and those inclined to abuse power must be removed.

Those who inflict harm must also be removed and criminally charged based on the law. Others who cover up abuse or are neglectful bystanders must be held to the same standards. Only through a commitment to independence, transparency and accountability can sport bodies become a space that champions not only excellence but also the well-being of all its participants.

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