Published February 2, 2024

NHL won't consider punishment for 2018 WJC players until after legal proceedings

By Joshua Clipperton in Toronto

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the league will not consider any punishment against five players from Canada's 2018 world junior team charged in connection with an alleged gang rape until the conclusion of judicial proceedings. 

A court document shows Dillon Dube of the Calgary Flames, Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers, Michael McLeod and Cal Foote of the New Jersey Devils, and former NHL player Alex Formenton are each charged with one count of sexual assault in connection with an incident that occurred after a Hockey Canada gala in London, Ont., in June 2018. 

The case is set to be before a court on Monday. 

"At this stage, the most responsible and prudent thing for us to do is await the conclusion of the judicial proceedings, at which point we will respond as appropriate at the time," Bettman said Friday ahead of the NHL all-star skills competition. 

"I have repeatedly used the words 'abhorrent, reprehensible, horrific and unacceptable' to describe the alleged behaviors. And those words continue to apply." 

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly added the league will not release the finding of its own investigation while charges are pending. 

"There is a serious judicial process that looks like it's unfolding," Bettman said. "And we didn't, while we were doing our investigation, want to interfere with what the London Police Service was doing, and we're not going to do anything to interfere or influence the judicial proceedings. 

"We're all going to have to see how that plays out. And as I said in my remarks, we will then be in a position to respond appropriately, which we will do." 

The court document shows McLeod is also facing an additional charge of sexual assault for "being a party to the offence." It says the charges relate to an alleged sexual assault on a person identified only as E.M. on June 19, 2018. 

All five players have been given indefinite leaves of absence from their teams and have said through their lawyers they intend to plead not guilty. 

The incident allegedly occurred following that Hockey Canada gala where the players were honoured for their victory at the 2018 tournament. 

None of the allegations have been proven in court. 

London police are holding a Monday press conference "to provide an update related to a sexual assault allegation involving members of the 2018 Canadian world junior hockey team."

A woman identified as E.M. in court documents filed a $3.55-million lawsuit in April 2022 against eight unnamed players, Hockey Canada and the Canadian Hockey League. Hockey Canada quietly settled the matter out of court before TSN first broke the story the following month. 

"This is not typical of NHL players," Bettman said. "These players weren't NHL players in the league playing games at the time this alleged incident took place." 

Subsequent revelations Hockey Canada maintained a fund drawing on player fees to pay for uninsured liabilities, including lawsuits related to sexual assault, sparked an unprecedented backlash against the sport's governing body. 

The national sporting body's governance and transparency were subsequently called into question, leading to a series of parliamentary hearings, along with funding and sponsorship freezes or cancellations. 

After a string of disastrous Parliament Hill appearances in Ottawa, Hockey Canada president and CEO Scott Smith left the organization in October 2022, the same day the entire board of directors resigned. 

London police closed an initial investigation in February 2019 without filing charges, but reopened the case in 2022. 

A lead investigator wrote in legal documents filed with Ontario courts later that year there were grounds to believe a woman was sexually assaulted by five players. 

Hockey Canada also restarted its dormant third-party investigation, while the NHL launched its own probe into the matter. Bettman said the league did not interview the alleged victim.

"It was her absolute right," he said. "There's no fault there. She was absolutely within her rights not to talk to us, and we respect that.

"But that impacts also how the investigation had complexity to it." 

Hockey Canada said in November the findings of its independent report are under appeal. 

All players from the 2018 junior team have been banned from international events. 

"This is not representative, these allegations, of what takes place in our game," Bettman said. "We're committed to setting the right example and co-operating with hockey organizations at all levels, particularly the youth level, to make sure the message in terms of what is appropriate conduct is delivered. 

"We want people to know that our game is inclusive, welcoming and safe." 

Banner image: Gary Bettman speaks during a news conference in Toronto on Friday Feb. 2, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2024.

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