One night in London: Allegations of sexual assault and a reckoning for Hockey Canada

One night in London: Allegations of sexual assault and a reckoning for Hockey Canada

They arrived in London, Ontario, on June 17, 2018, nearly two dozen young men from all over Canada. They were almost five months removed from a gold medal run at the 2018 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, an achievement that the Globe and Mail called Canada’s “hockey glory of the year.”

“Drink it in, Canada,” a story about the triumph began.

They descended upon London from some of the country’s hockey hotbeds, but also its leafy suburbs and far-flung prairie towns, minted royalty coming to a place that, even for Canada, embraces hockey heroes with fervor.

London sits an hour east of the U.S. border just north of Lake Erie. It has 400,000 residents but can feel smaller or larger, depending on the time of year. As many as 45,000 students, most attending Western University, make the city home during the school year. It is also a hockey mecca. The London Knights, a powerhouse junior program, average 9,000 fans a game at Budweiser Arena — an attendance that rivals some NHL teams. In the restaurants and bars downtown, the jerseys of former Knights players hang on the walls.

The players, the World Juniors champions, were brought to London as part of the Hockey Canada Foundation Gala & Golf event. It was a two-day “star-studded” celebration to recognize the champions and others, and it included a lavish dinner and a golf event in which many of the players would participate. Some Hockey Canada executives also attended, as did sponsors and corporate partners, local business leaders and more. Hockey Canada would use the weekend to raise money, and the players were an attraction that would help open wallets.

Most of them would stay at the Delta Hotel London Armouries, the most luxurious accommodation in town. It’s a sleek glass-paneled high-rise that emerges from an imposing sienna-bricked building flanked by turrets and framed by crenelated towers. The original structure, built in 1905, served as a militia headquarters for Canadian land force branches. Suspended in the glass arch above the lobby entrance is an antique cannon.

As the players arrived at the hotel and prepared for the festivities, many undoubtedly were excited about the gala but also eager for what might come after, when Hockey Canada’s leadership headed back to the hotel to sleep. These were young men in a town filled with college students. Sure, they would soak in the adulation at the official festivities, but the real fun would come at the bars on Richmond Street, where beers are poured into plastic cups, where early 2000s hip hop and dance music is played loud, where they would be surrounded by their peers, feeling like the lords of London.

It was at one of those bars, Jack’s, which calls itself “London’s premier party destination,” where a player and a young woman would connect. After leaving the bar, they would end up back in a room at the Hotel London Armouries, where she says eight players sexually assaulted her. Hockey Canada officials would become aware of the allegations that morning. The London police were notified that evening.

Four years later, Hockey Canada would pay the woman an undisclosed sum to settle a legal claim she brought. After news of that settlement became public, there would be hearings before the Parliament of Canada, which continue on Tuesday, as Hockey Canada officials face questions about those days in London in 2018 and its handling of the alleged assaults.

But that was later.

At the start, there was just the anticipation of a big, celebratory couple of days, the players and Hockey Canada honchos and a hockey-mad populace eager to toast their success, eager to, as the article advised:

“Drink it in.”

London, Ontario, skyline. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Sunday evening, June 17, featured a team dinner. It was a private event limited to players and staff. This was the first time the group had been reunited since winning gold in Buffalo, and the atmosphere was convivial. At some point, a handful of players headed out to join local revelers and to bask in their adulation.

“They were on a tear,” said one person who saw them that evening.

At one point that night, a group of five players gathered to take a picture, set against a blank, sterile wall. They’re huddled together, arms around each other, subtly grinning. The photo, which was posted on social media from one player’s account, according to the person who took a screenshot of the picture, has London, Ontario, tagged as its location. Above that are two emojis: a Canadian flag and a gold medal.

The players’ Monday schedule was filled with commitments — media appearances after the announcement of the Order of Hockey in Canada, a press conference about the international sledge hockey event heading to London in December, and the ring ceremony done during a VIP cocktail hour, culminating with the Hockey Canada Foundation Gala that night.

The gala was staged at RBC Place London, the former London Convention Centre, and included the largest attendance garnered to date — roughly 1,000 people. Tickets were sold out well in advance and over $1 million was raised. It kicked off around 7 p.m. Jennifer Botterill emceed the event along with sports broadcaster Rod Black. An itinerary for the evening was superimposed upon a team picture of the World Juniors team. There would be a Local Londoners’ Hot Stove, a live auction and recognition of the Order of Hockey in Canada inductees, which included Olympic gold medal-winning coach Mike Babcock, Hall of Famer Danielle Goyette, and Ryan Smyth, who earned the nickname Captain Canada for his bevvy of gold medal finishes representing Canada on the international stage.

Attendees took red-carpet photos and posed in front of banners festooned with some of Hockey Canada’s biggest partners; one backdrop showed the logo for BFL, Hockey Canada’s insurer. One picture taken was of four players from the World Juniors team, posing with their fists outstretched, championship rings on their right hands.

RBC Place was filled with tables covered in cloth and beset with candles and hydrangea-filled centerpieces. A player or staff member was stationed at some tables so attendees could capture a detail from that World Juniors — a funny anecdote about the bus ride in Buffalo, an unknown detail about the power play scheme, a bit of trash-talking exchanged with the Swedes.

Wine was available to the whole table, and it is unlikely anyone would have looked askance if one of the players, who ranged in age from 18 to 20, had indulged in a glass of red to go along with his steak. It was a celebratory event; this was not the environment for teetotaling. (The legal drinking age in Ontario is 19.) One woman in attendance said some players were drinking heavily at the dinner, and that one player commented that she “had a tight a–” in her dress.

The gala concluded around 10 p.m. Many staff members retired early, exhausted from a long day. Some women’s hockey players went back to the hotel bar at the London Armouries to catch up over drinks. Some Hockey Canada and London Knights staff members and other gala attendees broke off to go to Joe Kool’s, a well-known hockey pub on Richmond Street where Knights team photos and NHL memorabilia cover the walls. Some members of the World Juniors team were there as well, gathered in a back room. One person at Joe Kool’s watched as several players in the back room became increasingly inebriated.

“It was carte blanche,” the person said.

Several players left Joe Kool’s, walking down Richmond Street and arriving at Jack’s, a multi-level establishment with security out front, a patio and smoking pen out back and a throbbing mob of college students and young locals inside. Even in June — when many students are away and it’s the offseason for the CHL — Jack’s signature Dollar Beer Mondays draws a crowd.

“That’s the big place (you go),” said one local server.

On a recent Monday night, one woman almost fell down the staircase because the ground was slick with spilled beer. There was vomit in the corner of the landing where she tried to steady herself.

That evening in 2018, the players that were let in — at least one was turned away for being too young to drink, according to multiple people who saw the player return to Joe Kool’s — would’ve immediately been met with a sweaty crush of bodies and the smell of sour beer and cheap lip gloss. Clear cups of beer and shots poured into neon pink ramekins cluttered tables and ledges throughout the bar’s crowded first floor.

As packed as it was, they quickly owned the place, and the players kept the rounds flowing through the night, spending freely and handing out drinks to those around them.

She arrived at Jack’s that night with a group of friends. As a student at Western University, she was familiar with the popular Monday night scene and the bar’s famous dollar beer nights — but she wasn’t a regular. Beyond the handful of friends she arrived with, she didn’t know anyone else inside the bar.

She was only 18, but she used a fake ID to get inside, joining the sweaty crush of young people, the World Juniors champions among them. (The Athletic, which is not naming the woman at her request, as she fears reprisal, reviewed photos and videos confirming the woman’s presence that night and spoke to one of her friends to corroborate details of her story).

The young man she met that night was, initially to her, just a cute stranger in a bar. He told her that he played junior hockey, but she didn’t realize at the time that he was among the hockey royalty that had come to town for the gala and golf.

She drank. He drank. Then they kissed several times. He added her on Snapchat. What began as benign, however, turned more aggressive, the young woman says. He urged some friends he was with to kiss her, too. She refused. He asked her to come back to their hotel room. Not to come back to the hotel with him. To come back with them. She felt uncomfortable and declined. She had to work the next morning, she told him. Again, he asked her to come back to their hotel room. Again, she declined.

As she left a short time later, she felt discomforted. The night started fun. The drinks, the attractive young man, the kissing. But the insistence she kiss others, that she come back to their room. It felt wrong.

A different young woman, only two years older, arrived at Jack’s with a group of friends at approximately 11 p.m, according to a statement of claim filed in April 2022 in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

Shortly after arriving at the bar, she met a member of the World Juniors team who introduced her to a player identified in the lawsuit as John Doe 1. John Doe 1 and some of his teammates bought the plaintiff a number of alcoholic beverages.

According to the statement of claim, the plaintiff got separated from her friends and became increasingly intoxicated throughout the night, exhibiting telltale signs — glassy eyes, slurred speech, stumbling and loss of balance.

Sometime in the early morning, the woman left the bar with John Doe 1. Cabs wait outside the bar regularly, especially on the busiest nights, and it would’ve been about a five-minute ride back to the hotel. If they had walked, they might have traveled south down Richmond and then east onto a cobblestoned stretch of Dundas, a roughly 20-minute walk. It is likely they would’ve had to sidestep other young bar patrons spilling out into the street in the early hours after last call.

Entering the hotel, they would have passed at least one security camera affixed high on the northeast corner of the roof that covers arriving guests. When they entered the lobby, it was about a 17-step walk to the elevator bank. Another security camera on the ceiling just before the elevators would likely have captured their entrance.

As the glassed elevator climbed the tower, the woman could have viewed London. In the distance was Budweiser Gardens arena, situated right next to the stark Ontario courthouse, where the events to come would be detailed in a statement of claim four years later.

Security footage would not have captured the two entering a hotel room — multiple employees told The Athletic security cameras are not present on each floor — but a walk down the hallway would’ve been lit by wall sconces and guided by an art-deco floor pattern in the carpet.

According to the young woman’s statement of claim, at some point in the early-morning hours, she and John Doe 1 “engaged in sex acts” in his hotel room. Then, John Doe 1 invited his teammates to the room without her knowledge or consent.

According to the young woman’s statement of claim, they made her touch herself and perform oral sex on them. They straddled her and placed their genitals in her face. They slapped her buttocks, spit on her, ejaculated onto her, and engaged in vaginal intercourse while she was incapable of consent.

At one point, she started crying and tried to leave the room, she said. She was then “directed, manipulated and intimidated into remaining,” according to her statement of claim.

Throughout the alleged assaults, the young woman said she feared imminent physical harm. Some players brought their golf clubs into the room. The sheer number of them and the presence of the clubs made her feel intimidated and threatened. As a result, she said she acquiesced to the sexual acts.

“Any reasonable person … would have concluded the Plaintiff was not freely consenting in those circumstances and would have ceased the confinement of the plaintiff and the sexual behaviors toward her,” the claim states.

After it was over, the players told her to shower.

According to reports, two videos were made — the first was six seconds long and filmed at 3:30 a.m. and the second was 12 seconds and was filmed at 4:30 a.m. In the videos, the woman, following hours of drinking and what she says were several forced sexual acts, states that all that happened in the room was consensual.

The Athletic reached out to the young woman’s lawyer, Robert Talach, on multiple occasions but he declined comment and repeatedly stressed that his client does not wish to speak publicly. It is not clear from the statement of claim what the woman did next, how she got home, but at some point that morning, likely around the time the sun was coming up, she finally exited the hotel.

The morning after, they golfed.

Many of the players teed off at the stately London Hunt and Country Club, a private course set on 267 acres. It was a sunny, clear-skied day. The players wore matching red Nike polos with black collars. They hit balls emblazoned with the Hockey Canada Maple Leaf. There was a 2019 Chevrolet Corvette parked on the 17th hole, and one sponsor set up a tent near the clubhouse, handing out slices of pizza.

At some point that morning, while they were on the course, the then-stepfather of the young woman who said she was sexually assaulted called a Hockey Canada human resources employee, according to Parliamentary testimony by Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney.

Renney and president Scott Smith were likely in the air already, flying back to Calgary. Once they were on the ground, they learned of the alleged assaults, according to their testimony.

Within a few hours, at approximately 4 p.m. in London, Smith and Renney reviewed the information with Hockey Canada’s senior vice president of risk management and insurance, who then contacted someone from Henein Hutchison, a law firm, as well as a representative from Hockey Canada’s insurance company.

A couple of hours later, at around 6 p.m., a representative from Hockey Canada contacted the London Police, according to Smith’s Parliamentary testimony. By the time that call was made, the players would’ve been long gone. (Players’ luggage was already packed on buses while they were golfing.)

According to Smith’s testimony, a “representative of HC” had conversations with someone from Henein Hutchison on Tuesday, June 19. Players were later informed that an investigation would take place. Hockey Canada officials said they recommended that players cooperate but didn’t require them to do so. Renney told members of the Canadian Heritage Committee in his testimony that he believed four to six chose to participate. Smith said the number of players was much higher.

Hockey Canada officials have insisted that they did not know then (or now) who the eight John Doe defendants were. Smith said Henein Hutchison, the London Police and Hockey Canada officials all were unable to confirm the identities of the accused. And when the police investigation concluded, no charges were filed and the matter, it seemed, was over.

Four years passed.

Nearly every player from the 2018 World Juniors team went on to play in the NHL, fulfilling their hockey dreams. Hockey Canada continued to collect gold medals in international competition, including another World Juniors title in 2020. It also continued to hold its profitable fundraising event.

The events of June 2018 would have gone unknown to the general public if the young woman involved in the alleged sexual assaults hadn’t filed a civil suit with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on April 22, 2022.

Within a few weeks, Hockey Canada resolved the case on behalf of defendants whose identities officials say remain unknown. Hockey Canada reached an out-of-court settlement with the young woman for an undisclosed amount. According to Hockey Canada president Scott Smith’s testimony last month, the organization liquidated investments to do so. The terms of that settlement are not known, though Minister of Sport Pascal St-Onge testified that Renney told her that the settlement included a non-disclosure agreement.

Renney told the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage that Hockey Canada didn’t “know exactly what occurred that night or the identities of those involved,” but found the conduct “unacceptable and incompatible with Hockey Canada’s values and expectations,” adding that it “clearly caused harm.”

Smith said the organization made the decision to pay a settlement based upon the fact that the incident occurred at their “year-end celebration.”

“We took responsibility,” he said, “because it happened at an event under our control.”

A number of players from the Junior World Championship team released statements in the past two months saying they were not involved, were unaware of what went on, or were not present at the event in London. The Athletic made multiple attempts — via email and text messages — to connect with seven lawyers representing some of the players. On July 17, lawyer Tim Gleason wrote in an email that the group would “confer” about a request to supply more information to The Athletic. They failed to respond to later interview requests.

During the Parliamentary hearings that followed the revelations of the settlement, Renney admitted that supervision of athletes during the 2018 event was poor. He said Hockey Canada “fell short.” Henein Hutchison offered advice based on the night in question, Renney said, including “how we could ensure more responsible service of alcohol.”

Hockey Canada officials’ testimony in front of Parliament also revealed that the organization deals with multiple sexual assault allegations every year. (It was later reported, by The Canadian Press and the Globe and Mail, that the organization maintains a fund to cover uninsured liabilities, including claims for sexual abuse, which is partially bankrolled by registration fees. Hockey Canada has since said it will no longer use the fund to settle sexual assault claims.)

Following the hearing in late June, Sport Canada froze all federal funding to Hockey Canada. In the weeks that followed, major corporate partners like Scotiabank, Canadian Tire and Tim Hortons, among others, paused or redirected their funding for Hockey Canada.

On July 14, Hockey Canada announced that it would reopen Henein Hutchison’s investigation into the allegations, this time compelling all players to participate or forfeit any chance to represent Canada in future programs or international competitions.

The organization also announced that it will launch a third-party review of its governance and has agreed to become a signatory to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, a governmental agency that is empowered to independently investigate abuse complaints and impose sanctions. It also has committed to requiring all high-performance players, coaches, team staff and volunteers to participate in mandatory sexual violence and consent training — and to create an independent and confidential complaint system.

On July 20, the London Police Service announced in a statement that the department would undergo an internal review of the investigation into the 2018 incident to determine “what, if any, additional investigative avenues may exist.”

On Tuesday, Hockey Canada executives will return to Parliament Hill for another hearing. Federal MPs on the Parliamentary committee have demanded more details about how the organization handled the allegations from June 2018 — and have subpoenaed the settlement, and the adjoining NDA.

“Hockey Canada is on a journey to change the culture of our sport and to make it safer and more inclusive,” said Scott Smith during his opening statement at the first Parliamentary hearing.

Three days later, the Hockey Canada Foundation again held its annual gala and golf tournament. Hockey legends Lanny McDonald, Kim St-Pierre and the late Guy Lafleur were honored at the Niagara Falls Convention Centre, alongside members of the Canadian women’s team that won gold at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and the Canadian men’s team that won the 2021 world championship.

Tom Renney opened the gala with emphatic remarks about the recent revelations; he stressed that Hockey Canada had to do better, and that the organization was committed to doing so. It set a more subdued tone for the evening.

There was a gin and tonic station hosted by one corporate partner and wine service at tables for dinner, but the usual open bar that would’ve been flowing, arming attendees with cold beers and stiff cocktails, was serving drinks for purchase only … after one complimentary cocktail.

(Illustration: Wes McCabe / The Athletic)

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