Field hockey Canada executives condemned, expert says

That’s the opinion of Éric Brunelle, director of the sports division at HEC Montréal.

The national federation outraged what appeared to be a large majority of MPs, if not all, in testimony in which Tom Renney (outgoing CEO) and Scott Smith (his successor) tried to explain their approach to an alleged gang rape case that has made headlines across the country in recent weeks.

Field hockey Canada has reached a quiet out-of-court settlement with a young woman who sued the federation, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) and eight field hockey players, some of whom were members of the 2018 Canadian team that represented the country at the World Junior Championships.

Among other things, he criticized the federation for not doing everything in its power to shed light on the matter.

Last Monday, before Parliament, we learned, among other things, that Hockey Canada had commissioned an investigation by a law firm into the events that occurred on June 18 and 19, 2018, but had not compelled any of the players present that night to cooperate with the investigation.

Two days after Renney and Smith appeared in court, federal Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge announced a freeze on government funding for Hockey Canada.

The federation will have to join the new Office of the Integrity Commissioner and provide the report delivered to HC by the Toronto firm in the fall of 2020 to review the color of federal money.

There will also be an independent investigation into the management of HC officials in this matter.

With the withdrawal of one major sponsor, the risk increases that others will withdraw their marbles, according to Brunelle. There is a snowball effect.

Federal funds accounted for about 6% of the federation’s total budget, but its partnerships with sponsors account for a much larger share, according to data on the HC website.

Where Hockey Canada gets its money from

Photo: Hockey Canada website / Screenshot.

What follows is a summary, reorganized for disclosure purposes, our mandate, of our conversation with the tenured professor.

Radio-Canada Sports: What did you make of all this?

Éric Brunelle: It may seem paradoxical, but it’s good news that these stories are coming out. We have known for a long time that many sports, including field hockey, have cultural problems. An archaic view of sport, performance at all costs. And with that, there are issues both in terms of the mental health of young people, the development of the sport and the long-term vision.

When I see stories like this, I think we’re finally talking about it for real. And finally, we’re going to take good steps to improve it. Of course, it’s going to be a difficult crisis. There are going to be issues both commercial and for the development of the sport.

RCS: Were you surprised by the content of the HC executives’ testimony before Parliament’s Heritage Committee?

EB: When you talk about a cultural problem, it usually starts with the head. There is no willingness to transform who we are. That was revealing. The disconnect is that we don’t really understand.

It’s the same phenomenon we experienced when the Canadiens drafted Logan Mailloux. There’s kind of a disconnect between the evolution of the market, the viewers, the young people who want to play and who are consumers. It’s changed a lot. The expectations are different. The field hockey establishment hasn’t quite understood that.

SCN: As an organization, how do you recover from an episode like that?

EB: In the short term, there is a breakdown of trust. As a consumer, I wouldn’t trust the management team to deal with that crisis. Sometimes, it’s a question of renewal. We have to rebuild that trust and as a consumer I think if they are so disconnected from reality, it will take a new breath, new directions and it’s not the same players that can lead it.

I found the decision taken by Minister St-Onge very strong. He said to them: you will have to organize if you continue to want public funds. This kind of action will be able to restore confidence. It’s going to be a big crisis and it’s going to hurt. If you don’t turn it on fast enough, it can hurt for a long time.

RCS: In your opinion, the current leadership is in grave danger.

EB: From the outside it looks like they are sticking to something that doesn’t hold up. They seem to want to defend this position that doesn’t hold up.How can one person say after oops, I just turned on the light, I just realized it doesn’t look good.? Maybe it’s possible. We’ve already seen in other types of organizations apologies and awareness and action, but that’s not what we see more often. We will see more resistance. Since this is a problem that I think is endemic, i.e. the whole field hockey culture revolves around these values, I have a feeling it will be years before it transforms.

A fortnight ago, there was a general assembly at Hockey Québec and I heard the messages. It’s a good change, it’s a good example. We have to rethink our sport, we have to rethink it differently, we have to change the culture, I mean dinosaur. It will take years, that’s for sure.

RCS: So it would be impossible to rebuild trust with the same leaders?

I think so. It’s a breach of trust. We have a social contract with the sports federations. It’s true that Canadian field hockey focuses less on youth and more on the highest level. But we expect their leaders to be benevolent. That sport will be played in a safe context where the integrity of individuals is taken into account. And where good values will emerge.

There is something noble about sport. We want our national federations to represent it. When you hear horror stories like that one where gang rapes are covered up you say, WOW. It doesn’t work. That’s where the brokenness comes in. In my opinion, we better talk about it. It will make us course correct. It’s inevitable, there’s a crisis that we’re going to have to overcome and it may take some time.

SCN: Could Scotiabank’s decision create a snowball effect?

EB: Yes, because there is no organization that wants to be associated with those values. The organization is going to want the nobler elements of sport: determination, taking on challenges. You want to be associated with a brand or a concept that is positive. There’s nothing positive about that. There can be a snowball effect. It’s going to put enormous pressure on management and, I hope, on the board of directors, who may take more drastic measures. The risk is real.

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