LeBrun: Sexual assault case looms over NHL All-Star events as Gary Bettman finally offers league response

TORONTO — It is casting a shadow over all of the NHL All-Star festivities this week. As it absolutely should.

The heaviness of the air was unmistakable on Friday at Scotiabank Arena.

As the sport continues to reel from the proceedings of the 2018 Canadian world juniors sexual assault case, with a police news conference looming in London, Ont., on Monday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman met the media Friday at a packed news conference.

It was a day with big news: the return of NHL participation in the Olympic Games for 2026 and 2030. Normally that would have been unchallenged as the most important story of the day in the sport.

But the most pressing questions, to be sure, were about the five players — Dillon Dube, Cal Foote, Alex Formenton, Carter Hart and Michael McLeod — facing sexual assault charges in London.

Bettman gave the league’s first reaction since The Globe and Mail reported news of the charges on Jan. 24.

“I’m going to tell you everything that I believe I can say or is appropriate to say,” Bettman began in prepared remarks. “From the moment we first learned about this on May 26, 2022, I have repeatedly used the words abhorrent, reprehensible, horrific and unacceptable to describe the alleged behaviors, and those words continue to apply.”

Bettman went on to outline how the league’s investigation into the matter took 12 months to complete.

“Our investigators reviewed volumes of information and conducted interviews of all players on the 2018 team, as well as other relevant individuals who were willing to participate in the investigation,” he said.

He then revealed that the league was in the process, along with the NHL Players’ Association, of figuring out potential next steps before news via The Globe and Mail report reached them.

“We had heard similar rumors before about the possibility of charges, none of which had come to fruition,” Bettman said. “And, in this instance, we did not have advance notice from the London authorities. These investigations were separate from one another.”

Which essentially halted the NHL and NHLPA from moving forward in their own process for the time being.

“As such, and if charges are pending, it would be inappropriate to provide further comment on the matter,” Bettman said. “Finally, as I think everyone knows, all of the NHL players who appear to be subject of indictment are no longer with their teams, and so at this stage, the most responsible and prudent thing for us to do is await the conclusion of the judicial proceedings, at which point we will respond as appropriate at the time.”

That was the end of Bettman’s prepared remarks. But certainly not the end of his comments as the assembled media had plenty of questions.

For one, there’s the matter of a timeline, in terms of when the league concluded its investigation and when it began sharing that information with the NHLPA.

“We started conversing with the Players’ Association in the fall,” the NHL commissioner said. “Let’s be clear about something: This is a complicated investigation. It’s taken us about the same amount of time to get to this point as it took the London Police Service, and this was the second time they were investigating. If you recall, the first two investigations by Hockey Canada and the London Police were, shall we say, inconclusive. And so our timeline, I think, was appropriate and prudent under all the circumstances.”

What happens with the players while the legal process plays out, as far as returning to their teams?

“Well, they’re away from their teams now, and they’re all (pending) free agents,” Bettman said. “As a personal matter, if I were them, I would be focusing on defending themselves, assuming the charges come down. And I would be surprised if they’re playing while this is pending.”

TSN colleague Rick Westhead reported this week that a trial potentially would not begin until 2026 because of a court backlog in London.

Based on Bettman’s comments, he doesn’t expect the players back in the league soon.

“They’re all on leave from their teams now,” Bettman said. “All of them either don’t have contracts or their contracts will expire at the end of this season.”

Bettman also confirmed that the league never spoke with the complainant as part of its investigation.

“We were not able to interview her. There’s no fault there,” said Bettman. “She was absolutely within her rights not to talk to us, and we respect that, but that impacts also how the investigation had complexity to it.”

Why hasn’t the league shared the findings of its investigation?

“There is a serious judicial process that looks like it’s unfolding, and we didn’t, while we were doing our investigation, want to interfere with what the London Police Service was doing, and we’re not going to do anything to interfere or influence the judicial proceedings,” Bettman said. “We’re all going to have to see how that plays out. And as I said in my remarks, we will then be in a position to respond appropriately, which we will do.”

Added NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly: “We won’t be releasing anything while these charges are pending, and we’re going to monitor the process closely, obviously.”

Will the league share information from its investigation with London Police?

“To the extent we’re legally compelled to do it, obviously,” Daly said. “We do have certain obligations legally on what we can share and what we can’t share from that investigation, absent legal compulsion.”

And will the league share the findings of its investigation with the public once the legal process plays itself out in London, even if the players in question are no longer in the league?

“That’s a really good question, and there are, as Bill (Daly) said, constraints on what information we can and can’t release under any circumstance,” Bettman said. “That’s something, depending on what happens in the judicial process, we’ll have to take a look at. That may depend on what actions we think we may or may not need to take.”

The league had said in the past that it planned to share its findings at the appropriate time, so this feels a bit like it’s walking that back, perhaps because there’s a legal process now playing out.

Did the NHL ever give consideration to not allowing the players in question to keep playing once information piled up in its own investigation?

“You’re assuming that we were in a position to make a final conclusion at the time,” Bettman responded. “And remember, we are dealing with something that’s now six years old.

“In the final analysis, most of the time, virtually all of the time they were playing, we did not know for sure whether or not the allegations were sustainable.”

Marty Walsh, the executive director of the NHLPA, met with media after Bettman’s news conference. He offered his first official comments since The Globe and Mail report and was careful in what he shared.

“It’s an investigation that will now enter the courts,” he said. “And I’m going to leave it there and see what the process of the courts are. Obviously, I’ve experienced this in my career over time, where charges have been brought against someone and it’s become a court proceeding and I’ve always been advised to just keep it at that.”

Asked whether the NHLPA and NHL had discussed next steps based on what transpires in London, Walsh said there really weren’t next steps at this point.

“I don’t think there really are next steps on behalf of the league,” he said. “I think you have to wait and see what happens in the courts and how the court proceedings go. I think that that’s really the next step. And then after that, you have a conversation about the next steps are. But I think you can’t go that far down the road right now. You have to wait for the court case to resolve itself.”

The players accused were still in junior when the alleged incident occurred under the umbrella of Hockey Canada. But the NHL is the single most important body as far as influencing and impacting the sport at all levels.

Does this alleged incident raise questions about systemic cultural issues in the sport?

“I think any characterization that this is a systemic issue would be both inaccurate and unfair,” Bettman responded, adding, “99.9 percent of the players, certainly in our league, conduct themselves appropriately. Hockey players and hockey families throughout our ecosystem, throughout the world, at all levels, overwhelmingly conduct themselves appropriately. To take a handful of players and use those situations and use those allegations to condemn a particular sport, I don’t think is reflective of what we are.

“Having said that, I said it before in response to a question, we believe that we can set the right tone and we do. We work with Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, whether it’s the Respect program with Sheldon Kennedy, to make sure there’s counseling, education and that people associated with this game understand what is expected of them and what, certainly, is not to be tolerated. I think overwhelmingly, that’s the case.

“If you’re associated with this game, either as a player or the family of a young player, we believe that you can and should be comfortable that this game has every intention of being welcoming, inclusive and safe as an environment for people to participate. We will continue our efforts to make sure that that’s the case.”

Walsh echoed that.

“You know 99 percent of the players in the league, you don’t have issues with,” Walsh said. “Again, these players are innocent until proven guilty. Obviously, the circumstances around the case are challenging, and waiting to see how this plays out is really important.”

(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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