Scott Smith appears as a witness at the standing committee on Canadian Heritage, looking into how Hockey Canada handled allegations of sexual assault, in Ottawa on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Hockey Canada's board of directors says it is supporting the president and chief executive officer and his executive team amid calls for leadership change at the organization.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Hockey Canada board throws support behind Smith amid calls for change

Hockey Canada’s board of directors says it is supporting president and chief executive officer Scott Smith and his executive team amid calls for leadership change at the organization.

Interim board chair Andrea Skinner announced the backing of the organization’s executive in a statement posted Monday on its website.

The statement did not detail a reason for the show of support, but said the board is is undertaking “ongoing efforts to restore the trust of Canadians in hockey and Hockey Canada,” which include a governance review.

Canada’s governing body of hockey is under intense scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault allegations against members of previous men’s junior teams.

The federal government froze Hockey Canada’s funding after it was revealed the organization had quietly settled a lawsuit with a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by members of the 2018 men’s junior team at Hockey Canada gala in London, Ont., that year.

Several of Hockey Canada’s corporate partners suspended their support of Hockey Canada after executives were grilled by MPs during a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage meeting about the organization’s response to the alleged assault. The results were evident at the world junior championship earlier this month in Edmonton, where the ice and boards at Rogers Place were almost completely free of advertising.

Hockey Canada later said members of the 2003 junior team are under investigation for alleged sexual assault in Nova Scotia.

Sheldon Kennedy, an advocate for sexual abuse survivors and one of James’s victims, has called on Hockey Canada’s leadership to resign. There has been cross-partisan support for that sentiment from MPs on the heritage committee, which has twice heard testimony from Smith and other executives on their handling of the allegations.

So far, the only change at the top has been the resignation of previous board chair Michael Brind’Amour, who stepped down Aug. 6 before his term was set to end in November.

Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement founded to address the balance of power between athletes and administrators, said he wasn’t surprised the board is publicly supporting Smith.

“Anyone in Canadian sport knows that the well-paid national sport organization CEOs wield the majority of the power over volunteer boards. Ms. Skinner’s statement is akin to the fox guarding the henhouse,” Kohler said.

“Sport cannot self-regulate. Sport, like every industry, needs oversight, accountability and transparency. Sport has none of these. Until the Canadian government demands these principles, sports will continue to be a breeding ground for abuse.”

The scrutiny on Hockey Canada tightened when it was revealed that the organization used its multimillion-dollar National Equity Fund, which comes from player fees, for uninsured payments including the settlement of sexual abuse claims.

Hockey Canada said at a heritage committee hearing on July 27 that it has paid out $7.6 million in nine settlements concerning sexual assault and sexual abuse claims since 1989, with $6.8 million of that related to serial abuser Graham James.

The organization has said since that the fund will no longer be used to settle sexual assault settlements.

Conservative John Nater, Liberal Anthony Housefather and New Democrat Peter Julian have been among the MPs calling for a change in leadership at Hockey Canada.

“I think it’s fair to say that Hockey Canada simply has not stepped up…. Canadians have been let down,” Julian said at the July 27 committee hearing.

“There needs to be a bigger cultural change in Hockey Canada than you’re currently promising,” Housefather said.

Smith has said he believes he is “the right person” to lead Hockey Canada but said he would respect the findings of the governance review.

The review, led by former Supreme Court judge Thomas Cromwell, is expected to provide interim recommendations before Hockey Canada’s annual general meeting in November.