Hockey Canada: leaders condemned, according to an expert

At least that is the opinion of Éric Brunelle, director of the Sports Department at HEC Montréal.

The national federation outraged what appeared to be a large majority, if not all, of parliamentarians during its testimony where Tom Renney (outgoing CEO) and Scott Smith (his successor) tried to explain their approach in a rape case alleged collective that has been making headlines across the country for the past few weeks.

Hockey Canada quietly settled with a young woman who was suing the federation, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) and eight hockey players, some of whom were members of the 2018 edition of the Canadian team who represented the country at the Junior World Championship.

Among other things, she criticized the federation for not having done everything in its power to shed light on the issue.

Last Monday, in front of Parliament, we learned, among other things, that Hockey Canada had commissioned an investigation by a law firm into the events of June 18 to 19, 2018, but had not forced any player present that evening to cooperate in the investigation.

Two days after Renney and Smith appeared, federal sports minister Pascale St-Onge announced that government funding for Hockey Canada was frozen.

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

There will also be an independent investigation into the management of HC executives on this matter.

With the withdrawal of a major sponsor, the risk of others withdrawing their marbles increases, according to Mr. Brunelle. The snowball effect awaits.

Federal funds represented about 6% of the federation’s total budget, but its partnerships with its sponsors account for a much larger share, according to data that can be found on the HC site.

Where Hockey Canada funds come from

Photo: Hockey Canada Site/Screenshot

Here is a summary, reorganized for popularization purposes, our mandate, of our conversation with the home professor.

Radio-Canada Sports: What did you think of this whole story?

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

When I see stories like that I tell myself that we are finally talking about it for real. And finally we will take good measures to improve this. It is sure that it is a crisis which will be difficult. There will be issues that will be as commercial as for the development of sport.

RCS: Were you surprised by the tenor of the testimony of the leaders of HC before the Heritage Committee in Parliament?

EB: When we talk about a cultural problem, it usually comes from the head. There is no desire to transform who we are. It was eloquent. The disconnect comes from not really understanding.

It’s a bit the same phenomenon that we experienced when the Canadians drafted Logan Mailloux. There is a kind of disconnection between the evolution of the market, spectators, young people who want to play and who are consumers. It has evolved a lot. Expectations are different. The ruling class of hockey has not quite understood this.

RCS: As an organization, how do you recover from an episode like this?

EB: In the short term, there is a breakdown of trust. As a consumer, I would no longer trust the management team to manage this crisis. Sometimes, it goes straight through a revival. We have to rebuild that trust and as a consumer I tell myself if they are that disconnected from reality, it will take a new lease of life, new directions and it is not the same actors who can carry it.

The decision made by Minister St-Onge, I found that very strong. She told them: you will have to organize yourself if you still 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 they don’t turn on fast enough, it may hurt for a long time.

RCS: The current leadership is seriously in danger according to you?

EB: From the outside they seem to persist and sign off on something that doesn’t hold water. They seem to want to defend this position which does not hold water. How can a person afterwards say oops, I just turned on, I just understood that it doesn’t look good? It may be possible. We’ve seen excuses and awareness and action in other types of organizations, but that’s not what we see most often. We will see more of the resistance. Since this is a problem that I think is endemic, that is to say that the whole culture of hockey revolves around these values, I have the impression that it will take years before it transforms.

Two weeks ago, there was the general assembly at Hockey Quebec and I heard the messages. That’s a nice turn, it’s a good example. We have to review our sport, we have to rethink differently, we have to change the culture, I want to say dinosaur. It’s going to 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. Of course, Hockey Canada is less about young people, it’s more about the highest level. But its leaders are expected to be benevolent. That sport be done in a safe context where people’s integrity will be taken into account. And where we are going to generate good values.

Sport, there is something noble in that. We aspire that our national federations will represent that. When we hear horror stories like that where they camouflage gang rapes we say: WOW. It does not work. This is where the break comes in. In my opinion, it is for the best that we talk about it. This will lead us to correct the shot. It is inevitable, there is a crisis that will have to be overcome and it may take time.

RCS: Can Scotiabank’s decision create a snowball effect?

EB: Yes because there is no organization that wants to be associated with these values. The organization is going to want the noblest elements of the sport: determination, meeting challenges. We want to be associated with a brand or a concept that is positive. There is nothing positive there. There can be a snowball effect. It will put enormous pressure on the management and, I hope, on the board of directors who will perhaps take more drastic measures. The risk is real.

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