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This article was published 30/6/2021 (361 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Perhaps the most distressing thing about the National Hockey League’s reaction to reports of sexual abuse within its ranks is that, as tepid and noncommital as the response was, nobody expected anything more.
When it comes to dealing with off-ice controversy, such as issues involving sexual predation upon young players by older officials in the coaching and training ranks, the NHL — and, more broadly, the hockey world in general — has demonstrated a deep-rooted discomfort, reluctance and even outright refusal to confront issues head-on and take swift and decisive action. Protecting the brand seems paramount.
So it came as no surprise this week when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in delivering a state-of-the-league address in advance of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final series, made no mention whatsoever of revelations that two former Chicago Blackhawks players are alleged to have been sexually assaulted by a video coach during the 2010 playoffs.
When questioned about the issue after his prepared remarks, Mr. Bettman would only say that he learned of the allegations "only recently," that they are "concerning" and that he needs to know "what the facts are" before the league can decide on a course of action. The NHL, he said, will wait for the results of an independent review by a law firm hired by the Chicago hockey club before deciding whether disciplinary action will be pursued.
Anyone familiar with the long and sickening story of hockey coach and serial sexual predator Graham James — and surely, there are few in these parts who are not — knows that hockey, as a sports institution, has a history of turning a blind eye and a deaf ear when allegations of sexual abuse become public.
Mr. James, for decades as he progressed ever higher through elite amateur hockey’s ranks, systematically groomed and abused young hockey players in his charge. Some of them were victimized for many seasons in multiple locales; a few of them, including Sheldon Kennedy and Theoren Fleury, eventually rose to the NHL level and carried the burden of that abuse for years before finally speaking publicly about being terrorized by their former coach.
Given that the legacy of Mr. James’ abuses directly intersects with the NHL, one might have thought Mr. Bettman would be especially sensitive to allegations of sexual misconduct and would eschew the usual circle-the-wagons mentality. Alas, any such expectations were quickly dashed by the commissioner’s listless response to the Chicago situation.
"My first reaction is ‘Tell me the facts,’" he said, adding later, "I think everybody is jumping too far, too fast."
Recent reports included the observation by a former Blackhawks player that "every guy on the team knew about it," and confirmation by a former associate coach that top team officials met to discuss the allegations and subsequently opted not to report the incidents to police.
The two players have filed separate lawsuits against the team; the video coach left the Blackhawks’ organization in 2010 and, armed with a positive reference from the team, landed a job coaching a high school team in Michigan, where he was later charged and convicted for sexually assaulting a 17-year-old player.
Such is the continuing pattern of sexual abuse when blind eyes and deaf ears are turned. Its perpetrators are afforded opportunities to remain in the sport and relocate their predations.
The immediate legalities of the Chicago Blackhawks scandal do require a full airing of the facts. But addressing the longer-term culture of hockey and the NHL’s response to situations such as this requires something more decisive than the familar, tiresome "wait and see" refrain.