Opinion

Kevin Cheveldayoff has been left to wear the Scarlet Letter.

Kevin Cheveldayoff has been left to wear the Scarlet Letter.

Spared the rod by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for his role in a 2010 sexual-assault scandal and backed by his bosses with the Winnipeg Jets, it would be easy to conclude the club's general manager has escaped unscathed. And while Cheveldayoff will continue to cash a paycheque and run the on-ice product, his job description can never be quite the same. Sure, the goal remains to build a championship club around here, but there's even more important work away from the rink that needs to be done.

Cheveldayoff must now back up the strong words he uttered at Tuesday's news conference with tangible actions. As the last man standing from this sorry affair, with six other Chicago Blackhawks executives out of the league entirely and unlikely to ever return, Cheveldayoff has to shoulder the responsibility of, to use his own words, being "someone that still has a chance to make a change in the game." The same goes for Jets chairman and co-owner Mark Chipman, who spoke about using his "influence" within the NHL to fix a system clearly in need of repair, one which failed to stop a sexual predator.

Kevin Cheveldayoff was cleared of any wrongdoing in the Chicago Blackhawks sex-assault scandal by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Kevin Cheveldayoff was cleared of any wrongdoing in the Chicago Blackhawks sex-assault scandal by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

As much as you'd like to turn back time and right previous wrongs, that's not possible, but this can't be the end of the story. Not even close. If there truly is going to be any kind of justice for Kyle Beach and other victims of abuse, it has to start here right in our own backyard. The hockey world is watching, and failure to walk the walk, after talking the talk, will expose this as being nothing more than a hollow PR stunt meant to save their own hides.

Maybe time will reveal that's all it was, but I'm convinced that was real contrition and remorse on display this week from Cheveldayoff. Absent evidence to the contrary, I'm willing to accept his explanation that he was given limited details of the nature of video coach Brad Aldrich's alleged actions against Beach and a second Blackhawks player, that he was assured the matter would be looked into by those higher-up the organizational food chain, that he believed Aldrich's departure three weeks later was the resolution, and he had no further knowledge of what transpired beyond that until last summer.

Should he have done more? In hindsight, it's easy to make that call, but unlike his more culpable colleagues, I don't believe Cheveldayoff's inaction should send him packing, not after reading the full report and hearing from all the parties. Maybe it's my two decades of crime and justice coverage for this paper, but I believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty. And no smoking gun has been unearthed, which is why Bettman cleared him.

Still, there has to be some middle ground between exoneration and termination. And Cheveldayoff, and Chipman by extension, appear to understand the opportunity staring them in the face. They now have a high-profile platform, along with a duty and a responsibility, to do better. The pressure is on. The early returns are promising.

Jets chairman and co-owner Mark Chipman spoke about using his influence within the NHL to fix a system in need of repair. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Jets chairman and co-owner Mark Chipman spoke about using his influence within the NHL to fix a system in need of repair. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

One step involved reaching out to former NHLer (and one-time Manitoba Moose) Sheldon Kennedy with the idea of bringing him to work with the organization, its staff and its players. Kennedy, who was victimized by Graham James in junior hockey, is the type of voice that needs to be included. Unlike Bettman, who coldly glossed over the suggestion of a partnership with Kennedy during his Zoom call on Monday, the Jets are rightfully rolling out the welcome mat. I've learned Chipman has also reached out to a Manitoba judge who has done extensive work on sexual-abuse cases with the idea of future educational opportunities.

Those are good starts, and one thing about True North is they have a track record in this town of throwing their ample weight and resources behind important causes. Chipman brought that up Tuesday, citing the suicide of former player Rick Rypien and the organization's successful "Project 11" campaign that has resulted, which has opened up dialogue in the community about mental health and vastly improved resources.

Now the focus must turn to sexual abuse, hockey culture and ensuring all the mechanisms are in place so that a dark chapter in history doesn't keep repeating itself.

Chipman, like Bettman, has a legal background, but he's also a businessman, and a successful one at that, who knows this market as well as anyone. The Jets may have taken the fan-base for granted in the years after the NHL's return here in 2011, but those days are long gone. Three straight home games to start the 2021-22 campaign have all seen plenty of empty seats, including more than 2,000 of them on Tuesday night just hours after the emotional, hour-long news conference at Canada Life Centre.

Cheveldayoff must now back up the strong words he used at Tuesday's news conference with tangible actions. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Cheveldayoff must now back up the strong words he used at Tuesday's news conference with tangible actions. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Keeping Cheveldayoff in the fold is likely going to be a tough sell for some, one that could cause additional pain at the box office, while also being seen as a stain on a once-Teflon organization. But they will go a long way to starting the healing process — which Beach himself stressed is the top priority now — by being transparent in every facet of the process.

The hour-long news conference on Tuesday, and the candour from the two participants, was necessary and, at times, painful. The Jets followed that up on Wednesday with a detailed email to "fans, partners and stakeholders" in which Chipman, along with president and chief operating officer John Olfert, expanded on the public pledge for change they'd made 24 hours earlier.

That shouldn't be the last we hear on this matter from Cheveldayoff and Chipman, a well-respected community leader who has curiously stayed mostly out of the public spotlight during the entire pandemic. There's no hiding from this situation going forward. There can't be.

Just like main character in Nathanial Hawthorne's literary masterpiece published in 1850, that is now the burden they must bear.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.