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Hockey Canada chair on post-scandal response: ‘We did a lot of listening’

Last year, a lawsuit filed by a woman alleging she was sexually assaulted by members of the world junior team came to light
Hugh Fraser, Hockey Canada Board Chair, prepares the gold medals during the medal ceremony of the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship gold medal game in Halifax on Thursday, January 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

Hugh Fraser thought he had a decent handle on his new role.

For the most part, that was true.

Weeks into chairing Hockey Canada’s newly minted board of directors — and with plenty already on his plate as he looked to help resurrect the scandal-plagued national sport organization following months of cringe-inducing, in-the-muck headlines — Fraser was in Halifax for January’s world junior hockey championship final.

The host country secured a dramatic overtime victory to capture gold. Medals were about to be handed out.

The retired judge had no idea that was part of the gig.

“Something nobody told me came with the job,” Fraser recalled with a laugh of doling out post-tournament hardware.

“I found out like 10 minutes before. That aspect never occurred to me.”

He could be forgiven. There was a lot on his mind.

Tabbed to help Hockey Canada out of a dismal period that began 12 months ago Friday, when it was revealed a woman alleged she had been sexually assaulted by members of the 2018 world junior team in London, Ont., four years earlier, Fraser this week reflected on the first five months of a leadership term nearing its midway point.

After the federal government paused funding, corporate sponsors jumped ship, secret accounts and more scandals emerged, and Hockey Canada’s previous bosses were grilled by a parliamentary committee, he’s confident the federation is on the right track with a board of directors focused on oversight, transparency and accountability.

“The challenge is getting that message across — that there’s a different approach,” the 70-year-old said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “It’s been a seven-day a week job for the board.

“The will was always there … but the biggest challenge is squeezing an awful lot in a relatively short period.”

That included demonstrating to the government there’s been progress — funding was restored last month — and showing corporate and provincial partners the governance changes outlined in a report by former Supreme Court judge Thomas Cromwell are being taken seriously.

Fraser, who also handed out medals at the recent women’s world championship in Brampton, Ont., said sponsorship dollars are closing in on levels seen at this time last year in a rebound from that mass corporate exodus, but it took a lot of face-to-face meetings.

“We had to, literally, on a one-by-one, partner-by-partner, sponsor-by-sponsor basis, sit down with them,” he said. “This is the plan, this is the goal, these are the priorities.

“This is what we’ve achieved and what we believe we can achieve.”

Fraser said most were receptive to the first meetings, but needed to see action.

“We wanted to know, ‘What things do you think we need to do? What suggestions do you have?’” he said. “We did a lot of listening and we saw the alignment.

“We said, ‘Check with us again in a couple of months to see if you see the measurable progress.’”

There were also difficult decisions at Hockey Canada in a year with those significant funding cuts. Some sponsors wanted to continue support, but only for the women’s and para programs, along with grassroots efforts.

“It meant being leaner in some areas,” said Fraser, who spoke with CP from the men’s world hockey championship in Finland. “In some cases, we had to do more, or maintain, with less.”

The job is far from done. It’s also been a long road just getting to this point.

Hockey Canada’s spring, summer and fall of discontent started when TSN reported on May 26, 2022, that a $3.55-million lawsuit filed by the woman in the London case had been quickly and quietly settled out of court.

Then the floodgates opened.

The ensuing disastrous five-month stretch saw the prime minister repeatedly weigh in, Fraser’s two predecessors as Hockey Canada chair resign, and the board step down the same day CEO Scott Smith left the organization in October.

Fraser was like a lot of Canadians watching the saga unfold.

“Surprised, concerned,” he said. “Wondering what else you’re going to learn.”

A third-party report by a Toronto law firm into the 2018 incident — including interviews with players, coaches and staff — commissioned by Hockey Canada has been handed over to an independent panel to determine the path forward, including potential sanctions.

No one has been charged and none of the allegations have been proven in court. All members of the 2018 junior team, however, were barred from playing at the men’s worlds this spring. London police and the NHL are also conducting separate investigations.

Meanwhile, Fraser said the search for Smith’s replacement — “we’re getting close” — continues more than seven months after his departure.

“A complex national sport organization that has a lot going on,” Fraser said of Hockey Canada. “We need somebody with a really strong range of skills.

“But above all else, somebody that shares and embraces our vision.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the person will be picked from the hockey sphere.

“We want the best candidate,” Fraser said. “Whether they come from a hockey background or not.”

That was Fraser, to a certain degree, before he put his name forward to be board chair last fall.

A Jamaican immigrant, he settled in Ottawa and often ran the scoreboard clock at his sons’ minor hockey games when he wasn’t on the judge’s bench. One of the kids, Mark, made the NHL and now works for the Toronto Maple Leafs as the team’s manager for culture and inclusion.

Twelve months after Hockey Canada’s gilded world started to crumble, and five months into a role he never imagined would be part of his journey, Fraser is convinced tangible strides have been made.

And that the future is bright.

“That really does give us the motivation,” he said. “When you take that brief moment to reflect, if we could say that we helped make a positive contribution, it will have been worth it.

“You can sit on the sidelines and complain and criticize … or try to be part of the solution.”

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Former CEO ‘sorry’ for how Hockey Canada handled sexual assault claims under his watch

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