Dave Feschuk: Hockey Canada can hide in a fortress of money. Sponsors, not government, hold the hammer for change

Canada

If we were being real about the way hockey is run in Canada, now might be a good time to propose a facelift to our national team uniforms.

Let’s skip the traditional red-and-white colourway and switch permanently to the alternate black jerseys, which better represents the tinge of the cloud hanging over this decidedly dark period in the sport’s history. And let’s just replace the Maple Leaf on the front of the sweater with a more appropriate ensign: a dollar bill.

This country’s collective love of its national winter sport has built Hockey Canada a fortress of money. Bolstered by everything from lucrative marketing partnerships to registration fees paid by hockey parents, its walls are awfully thick, perhaps impenetrably so. And it’s possible they’re thick enough for the current leadership to successfully repel the ongoing calls for change at the organization.

This past week saw more demands for a wholesale cleansing of Hockey Canada’s executive ranks, not to mention its board of directors, with the likes of Sheldon Kennedy and various members of Parliament making a more-than-valid case for change. This is all coming in the wake of the story by TSN’s Rick Westhead that Hockey Canada settled a $3.55-million lawsuit stemming from allegations that a woman was sexually assaulted by eight Canadian Hockey League players, some of whom were members of the national junior team, after a 2018 Hockey Canada gala. The allegations were never proven in court.

Here’s what we’ve come to understand in the firestorm that’s erupted around this scandal: If parliamentarians had the actual power to fire Scott Smith, the Hockey Canada CEO, it’s pretty clear they’d have wielded the axe by now. For all the public outrage, there’s obviously not a direct line to ouster.

So far, Pascale St-Onge, the minister of sport, has ordered a forensic audit of Hockey Canada’s finances while freezing federal funding to the organization. A funding freeze might throw a typical national sport organization into chaos; many are desperately reliant on government dollars to pay their bills. But Hockey Canada is an exception.

Government money accounts for a mere six per cent of its annual budget. According to the organization’s website, its largest source of funds comes from sponsors, which account for 27 per cent. It makes another 24 per cent from events. And even if sponsors have distanced themselves in the wake of the current scandal, and even if the event business has been hit hard by COVID-19 (with Hockey Canada hoping for a return to its money-printing ways at the world junior championship starting Aug. 9 in Edmonton), a recent look at the organization’s finances by the CBC indicated it won’t be scrounging for coins in the couch cushions any time soon.

As of the end of June 2021, Hockey Canada reported $25 million in cash on hand, plus $41.5 million in bonds and $77 million in equities. As a not-for-profit national governing body, Hockey Canada isn’t obliged to pay federal income tax. In other words, it’s a fiefdom built to weather this storm, and perhaps several more to come.

So long as Smith nods politely at the hellfire from Parliament Hill, as he did again this past week, he’s free to slink back to Calgary and count the organizational lucre. It’s not Canada’s politicians who carry Smith’s professional fate in their hands. Given how the sport we romanticize has been so expertly monetized — almost wholly handed over to the private sector and made a pursuit largely for the wealthy — Hockey Canada’s sponsors might have a better chance of exerting influence. And sponsors, all of whom are in the business of making profit, would almost surely prefer a return to the status quo, stat.

Don’t get it wrong: Maybe there’ll be other levers to pull as this story unfolds, and freezing federal funding at least sent an important message of non-confidence in Hockey Canada’s leadership. It also sent a clear message about the ultimate lack of oversight and power the federal government has over all of Canada’s national sports organizations — especially the most financially independent of them all, Hockey Canada.

Alternate black jerseys might better represent a decidedly dark period in Canadian hockey history than traditional red and white, Dave Feschuk writes.

“National sport organizations, it’s almost like they’re in the wild, wild west where they can do whatever they want, and however they want,” said Rob Koehler, director general of Montreal-based Global Athlete, the athlete advocacy group. “It’s almost like the old boys’ club doing whatever they please. That’s not limited to Hockey Canada. Based on what we know, it’s across all of Canadian sport.”

That’s why Koehler supports the push for a judicial inquiry into sport in Canada — a call to action that’s also been enunciated by the likes of Bruce Kidd, the esteemed Olympian and sports historian, not to mention various members of Parliament. This isn’t simply a Hockey Canada problem, after all. This is a sports-in-Canada problem, with a long list of organizations under scrutiny amid collective outcries from athletes demanding systemic leadership change and citing everything from toxic cultures to forms of abuse.

In some eyes, this is an autonomy problem. Big global entities such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, like to push the idea that the folks who run sports require autonomy if they’re to properly work their humanity uniting magic. And to some extent, it’s true. Sports, at its best, can be magic. And the last thing we need is Canada’s Parliament drafting Canada’s Olympic hockey roster.

The Hockey Canada scandal underlines what we do need, and that’s a system with mechanisms for better oversight and transparency. Koehler, who advocates for the people who actually play the games rather than those who govern them, would argue we also need a system built with more input from athletes. Many pro sports have 50/50 partnerships between owners and players. Given the current level of outrage being directed toward a long list of Canada’s organizations by athletes, it’s safe to say the balance of power in a lot of these situations is a long way from even-steven.

Athletes, don’t forget, are the very people these organizations are supposedly built to serve. So that’s not a concern that should be ignored.

Without a fundamental change that ensures oversight and transparency and athlete input, mind you, it’s one of many concerns Hockey Canada could easily slough off after this storm inevitably blows over. For all the organization’s well-articulated promises of reform in a series of open letters to Canadians, the fact remains that there’s little in place to hold them to any of it.

“It’s not about government running hockey,” Koehler said. “It’s about making sure that decisions are made with good governance and accountability and within bylaws. It’s not about who’s selected for a team … It’s about transparency. These organizations telling us they need sport autonomy. Sport autonomy is a way to get away with murder, basically.”

Sport autonomy is how Hockey Canada monetized this country’s love for a game to the point that it answers to essentially nobody — save, perhaps, a sponsor threatening to withhold a sufficiently sized dollar bill.

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