Déjà vu all over again:
A short chronicle of recent allegations of sexual abuse in junior hockey provides the following: the Gatineau Olympique with one incident involving six players at a Boston Pizza (no charges laid) and another involving four players in a Quebec City hotel (investigation continues); the ongoing investigation of the Cobourg Cougars for multiple sexual assaults involving multiple females at a party; two U of Ottawa players charged with sexual assault after an incident in Thunder Bay, Stratford Cullitons’ Mitch Vanergunst convicted of sexual assault while Windsor Spitfires’ Ben Johnson returns to court this month as his sexual assault trial continues. And that’s only a quick Google search.
The real list is a tragically long one just as it has been every hockey season since I first investigated the phenomena of rape culture within hockey in the early nineties. The CBC and I worked on a fifth estate documentary entitled On Thin Ice that aired in 1997 while my book, Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport, came out in 1998. One would hope that decision-makers within Canadian sport, and hockey in particular might have acknowledged the gravity of the situation and the alarming frequency with which reports have been made but they hear, speak and see no evil. From Swift Current Saskatchewan in 1989 to Cobourg Ontario in 2015, sexual assault is too often normalized in a sub-culture of degradation and violence. Let’s start with a little time travel:
In the summer of 1992 I received a tip from someone in Saskatchewan. He directed me to Swift Current and alleged two hockey players there had raped a learning disabled girl and got away with it.
On a typical prairie winter night—frigid and storming–I found myself at a Swift Current Broncos game. It was January 1993. The Broncos are part of the Western Hockey League (WHL) which in turn is under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). Soon after I was meeting with a lawyer named Murray Walter. He had represented a girl who, after she told her best friend she was considering suicide, went to the police alleging a brutal rape by Bronco players Brian Sakic and Wade Smith in the fall of 1989. When I arrived, over three years later, she was just getting out of counseling.
The story Walter told was chilling—not only for its brutality, violence and degradation—but because of the way a teen-age girl was treated by the legal system. After she reported the alleged offences, the RCMP officer who was investigating was suddenly removed. He had expertise in investigating sexual offenses while his replacement was known as an interrogator and did not have a sex crimes investigatory background. When I spoke to the original RCMP officer in 1993 he told me he did as much as he could, but more needed to be done. “I have to live in this town, but this story needs to be told” he said.
In 1989 the two players were charged and promptly traded to a team two time-zones away. Meanwhile, at the Swift Current high school attended by the girl, the guidance counselor was Colleen McBain, the wife of one of the major owners of the team—Frank McBain, who was also the former law partner of the Crown Attorney who was supposed to prosecute the players. Ms. McBain brought the girl into her office and allegedly tried to convince her to drop the charges, telling her the players “….were good boys. They wouldn’t do this. Drop the charges.” (McBain denies this).
The interrogating RCMP officer also got the girl by herself—with no counsel or parents. She endured over two hours of questioning and finally uttered, “Maybe I didn’t say ‘no.’” The charges against the players were stayed, she was immediately charged with public mischief and it was she, as a defendant, who Walter represented in a trial commencing January 1990. “When the trial started I would say at least ninety percent of the talk in the coffee shops was with the players” said Walter, who later called for an inquiry by the Saskatchewan Justice Dept. that was denied. “But as the trial continued, people realized no one would consent to what they did to her.” Opinion changed completely around.
The players admitted they had done everything the girl described, which included penetration in three orifices, and that “there had been blood” but insisted she begged for more while she said she begged them to stop. Presiding Judge Harding issued a not guilty verdict and commented that the “degrading and disgusting” incident had meant that the girl “suffered considerable physical and emotional pain. That’s not sympathy. That’s fact. It became clear to her that [the hockey players] had no feelings at all for her and had merely used her for their own sexual gratification. She honestly believed that what happened to her was not by consent.”
Even with such a strong decision, the charges against the players were dropped. Both continued to have long careers in hockey, playing and coaching while the Broncos won the Team of the Year Award from the province of Saskatchewan in the same year.
I spent another four years in small towns and cities investigating. Few charges are ever laid when witnesses are frequently other teammates. Rarely are there convictions. Jarrett Reid, however, did plead guilty to rape, sexual assault and assault causing bodily harm in Sault Saint Marie, but was given two sport leadership scholarships when he got out of jail in 1997 and played for St. Xavier’s varsity team, and the CIS All-Stars. By April 1998 he was back in jail when he was found guilty of three assault charges after a new girlfriend went to Nova Scotia police. Today he is the Director of Power Skating in Burlington at Wave Hockey. “I paid a lawyer a lot of money and I got a pardon” he told me later.
In 2010 Brock University Badgers goalie Mark Yetman was charged with three counts of sexual assault, two of choking and one of uttering threats. Brock released him but Yetman was welcomed by the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts in Maritimes senior men’s hockey while awaiting trial. He was convicted on two sexual assault charges and pled guilty to a third separate charge in 2013 while still serving time for the first offenses. In 2014 he represented Newfoundland/Labrador at a national ball hockey tournament and was signed by the Gander Flyers, a senior men’s hockey team in that province.
In 1997 hockey player Sheldon Kennedy bravely came forward about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his coach Graham James—also in Swift Current. The hockey establishment introduced new guidelines and eventually worked with Kennedy on preventative programs, but conveniently ignored the other abuse—that of girls and young women by players. Unfortunately, their inaction is one reason a rape culture within hockey continues to flourish.