Experts say Hockey Canada's board of directors is not adequately responding to criticism over its mishandling of alleged sexual assaults, with one observer noting the organization's “scorched-earth” approach could bring about the end of the sport's national governing body in its current form.
The organization has been under intense scrutiny since the spring, facing mounting public outcry and calls for change. But despite frozen federal funding and fleeing corporate sponsors, both former and interim board chairs this week defended the current leadership in Ottawa.
“I've never seen this in almost 30 years,” York University law and governance professor Richard Leblanc said in an interview. “The job of the board of directors is not to defend management. The job of the board of directors is to act with a view of the best interests of the organization.
“It's implausible to see that the best interests of the organization are served by continuing a scorched-earth, entrenchment policy.”
Many organizations, from corporations like banks to charities and amateur sports bodies like Hockey Canada, are governed by boards of directors. Hockey Canada's board oversees its management and staff, and is elected by the provincial hockey federations.
But Leblanc said Hockey Canada's management and its board appear to be “fused together.”
“Management might be in denial, but a board of directors should never be in denial,” said Leblanc.
“This is not a game that any board of directors can win. I don't see the endgame here.”
Former Hockey Canada board chair Michael Brind'Amour stepped down in early August ahead of the end of his term this fall. The next board election is scheduled to happen in November.
Hockey Canada has been grilled by Ottawa over why president and chief executive officer Scott Smith, who's held the position since July 1, has not been fired amid the string of scandals. Interim chair Andrea Skinner defended Smith this week and said hockey shouldn't be made a “scapegoat” for toxic culture that exists elsewhere in society.
As the organization sheds sponsors and member support, it's clear that stakeholders have lost confidence in the board's ability to identify and respond to the risks that face Hockey Canada, said Christie Stephenson, the executive director of the Dhillon Centre at the UBC Sauder School of Business.
“Board directors' obligations are to the organization, and that also means its stakeholders,” she said.
The board's role is to not only oversee, but to challenge management, said Stephenson - not to back them up when things go sideways.
There are two big questions being asked, said Stephenson: what kinds of consequences management of Hockey Canada should face, but also the question of whether its current board is the right governing body to oversee those consequences.
Come election time, Hockey Canada's members will exercise their votes and make clear whether they want the board's current lineup to remain as the organization grapples with its problems, said Stephenson, who teaches director training and board governance.
She said the board of directors should be asking themselves whether they are the right people to sit at the table - and answering honestly.
“Directors absolutely need to be aligned with the values of an organization,” she said. “And it's pretty clear that stakeholders believe Hockey Canada's values need to shift.”
Hockey Canada's mission statement, according to its website, is to “lead, develop and promote positive hockey experiences.”
The organization initially came under fire in May when it was revealed an undisclosed settlement had been paid to a woman who alleged in a $3.55-million lawsuit she was sexually assaulted by eight players - including members of the country's world junior team - after a 2018 gala in London, Ont. The allegations have not been proven in court.
Hockey Canada's summer of ugly headlines continued with the revelation of a fund partly maintained by minor hockey registration fees to pay for uninsured liabilities, including sexual assault and abuse claims.
Hockey Canada officials testified on Parliament Hill in July that the organization had paid out $7.6 million in nine settlements related to sexual assault and abuse claims since 1989, not including this year's payout to the London plaintiff.
Hockey Canada released an action plan to address safe sport issues and has appointed former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell to conduct a governance review.
But Leblanc says that's not enough, and called on the board to “lead by example.”
“There's only one right decision, which is a leadership change at the top,” he said. “If they don't do that, then the board ultimately is going to be replaced.”
The tone from the top is crucial at a time like this, said Stephenson, and it's very difficult to govern without the confidence of stakeholders.
“The board directors are ultimately the stewards of the organization. And if they really don't have or are unable to regain the confidence of their stakeholders, then it's probably time to go.”
Leblanc said that as it stands, there is no winning for Hockey Canada.
“The deck chairs on the board have shifted a tiny bit, but the messaging has not. It tells me that the board is in denial. Both the board and management are advocating for this entrenchment strategy,” he said.”
“It's a fallacy that this will go away. This will not end well.”
Trudeau's suggestion that a new hockey organization could take over from Hockey Canada isn't as far-fetched as some might think, according to Leblanc, if the organization appears unable or unwilling to change.
“This is our public pride,” he said.
“If the prime minister is smart, and I think he is, he's working on the legislation as we speak. I think sometime in the next couple of weeks, Hockey Canada may be ruled to be defunct.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2022.