As part 1 of a 3 part series with Gillian Hnatiw & Co. this post is authored by Kelsey Gordon.
For More Information:
For more information, Durant Barristers and Gillian Hnatiw & Co. will be leading a webinar on Safe Sport on December 14 at 12:00pm EST. Using the Blackhawks case as a starting point, this webinar will offer valuable insights into how we can make sports in Canada safer for all, as well as how to appropriately handle allegations of assault, abuse and harassment when these arise in sport or other forums. Sign up for the webinar here.
Allegations of sexual assault against a former Chicago Blackhawks coach recently dominated the news headlines. In late October, a report was published following an independent investigation into the allegations of sexual assault against former Blackhawks coach, Brett Aldrich. The general manager of the Blackhawks, Stan Bowman, promptly resigned. Next, Joel Quenneville, a former Blackhawks coach resigned from his position as coach of the Florida Panthers. The NHL fined the Blackhawks organization $2 million. A civil lawsuit brought by the complainant against the Blackhawks is ongoing.
This case raises critical issues on the topic of safe sport, and in particular, sexual assault and abuse in sport. In this article, we will provide an overview of the Blackhawks case and the findings in the investigation report. We will then provide information complainants should know, so they can be informed of their rights and their options with regard to instances of abuse or assault in sport.
The Report of the Independent Investigation into the Blackhawks Incident
The independent investigation report into the Blackhawks Case can be found here. The report provides a detailed account of the evidence that was gathered in this case.
According to the report, in 2010 the complainant was a member of the “Black Aces”, a minor league hockey team affiliated with the Blackhawks. Members of the Black Aces can be called to play in the playoffs in the event of injury, suspension, or incapacity of any of the Blackhawks players. It is a highly competitive environment, in which all members of the minor team strive to be elevated to the NHL.
The complainant alleges that he was sexually assaulted by Brett Aldrich, the former video coach for the Blackhawks during the 2010 playoff run. The complainant alleges that, in early May 2010, Aldrich forced him to engaged in sexual acts without his consent and under threat that Aldrich would ruin the complainant’s hockey career if he did not comply. The complainant further alleges that Aldrich threatened to harm his hockey career if he told anyone about the assault.
According to the investigation report, the complaint was initially presented to Blackhawks management as an issue of sexual harassment – that Aldrich had attempted to pressure the complainant into having sex with him and that Aldrich had made threats involving the complainant’s hockey career.
Apparently, a meeting was held among senior management on or about May 23, 2010, shortly after the complaint was first disclosed. This meeting took place immediately following a playoff game which the Blackhawks had won. There are concerning reports that some individuals present at the meeting of senior management may have expressed the sentiment that this complaint should not interfere with the Blackhawks’ playoff run.
Despite the allegations raised with senior management on May 23, no further action was taken for three weeks. In the meantime, Aldrich continued to serve as video coach for the team, traveled with the team, and continued to interact with players of the Blackhawks and Black Aces.
It was not until June 14, 2010, after the playoffs ended (and the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup) that senior management first informed HR of the allegations against Aldrich. Two days later, HR met with Aldrich and informed him that he could either take immediate leave while the organization completed an investigation into the allegations, or he could resign immediately. Aldrich elected to resign.
After Aldrich’s resignation, no investigation was ever conducted into the allegations, and no steps were taken with respect to the complainant, other than to assure him that Aldrich had resigned. Aldrich still got to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, he received a Stanley Cup ring, he got to host the Stanley Cup in his hometown, and he got to attend Stanley Cup celebrations.
After leaving the Blackhawks organization, Aldrich went on to work as a coach at USA Hockey, the University of Notre Dame, Miami University of Ohio, and Houghton High School. In 2013, Aldrich was criminally charged in connection with the sexual assault of a minor who attended Houghton High School.
This case demonstrates a shocking level of inaction by the Blackhawks organization in the face of serious allegations made against a coach by a player. It appears the Blackhawks prioritized winning in the playoffs over the harm that had been done to the complainant. The failure of any person present at the meeting of senior management to report this incident to HR for three weeks, and the subsequent failure of the organization to undertake any investigation into the matter, violated the Blackhawks’ existing policies regarding allegations of inappropriate conduct. This may result in significant liability for the Blackhawks organization.
What Complainants Should Know
In light of the Blackhawks case, it is important to highlight the following information for individuals who have suffered sexual assault or abuse in the context of a sporting organization:
First and foremost, complainants should be aware that reporting a sexual assault is a difficult and taxing process, regardless of the particular channel through which it may be reported (to a sports organization, to the police, through a civil lawsuit, etc.). It is important for a complainant to put in place safeguards for their own self-care and mental health throughout this process. For example, making an appointment with your therapist, arranging to have a support person with you, or arranging to spend time with friends or family – all of these things may help to support you through this difficult process.
In addition, before making a complaint, it is helpful for a complainant to take time to carefully think through everything that happened. Complainants are often criticized for not telling their whole story the first time they report the assault or for failing to initially remember important details. For example, in the Blackhawks case, the complainant initially minimized the inappropriate conduct and appears not to have reported that he was sexually assaulted (only that he was harassed). While sequential or partial disclosure is not uncommon for those who have suffered a sexual assault, this frequently arises as evidentiary issue in legal proceedings. Where partial or sequential disclosure can be avoided or minimized, this may help the complainant’s case move more smoothly through the process.
When a complainant is ready to make a report, they must decide to whom they would like to report. Below, we set out some of the channels that may be available to a complainant for making a report and pursuing their complaint.
An internal report to the sporting organization: In almost all cases, the sporting organization will have a policy that covers allegations of sexual violence. For example, any organization that acts as an “employer” is required to have such a policy, and every college/university in Ontario is required to have such a policy. These policies are usually easy to find on the organization’s website, or you can request a copy of the relevant policy directly from the organization. Review the policy to get a sense of what kind of process will be used to investigate your complaint and what kind of outcomes are available under the policy (for example, to have the person who committed the assault suspended or removed from the organization). These internal processes are usually confidential.
A report to a regulatory college: If the person who committed the assault/abuse is a member of a regulated profession (such as a doctor, physiotherapist, or massage therapist) you may be able to make a complaint to their regulatory college. These colleges have their own investigation and discipline procedure, which may result in the individual losing his/her license. The regulatory discipline process is a matter of public record, however, the complainant’s identity is not publicized outside of the regulatory process.
Criminal complaint: A complainant can make a report to the police and the authorities will determine if they are going to press criminal charges. You are not required to pursue criminal charges before commencing a civil lawsuit. You can choose to pursue one or the other, or both.
A Civil Lawsuit: A civil lawsuit gives the complainant the option to sue the person who assaulted them for damages. In certain cases, you may also be entitled to sue the relevant sporting organization for damages. For example, in the Blackhawks case, the complainant is suing the Blackhawks organization for their failure to properly address the assault by their coach.
A Human Rights Complaint: In every province there is a specialized administrative tribunal that considers claims arising from violations of human rights. Harassment and/or assault may stem from discrimination based on prohibited grounds including age, ethnic origin, sex, and/or sexual orientation. Human Rights Tribunals often have the ability to order systemic remedies, for example, to improve upon policies, or to require coaches or others to take specific training.
If you are considering any of the scenarios above, it may be useful to consult a lawyer in the province where you live. A lawyer can discuss your goals with you, as the process you select must be informed by the outcome you hope to achieve. A lawyer can also help you prepare to give your statement, and can advise you on whether there are any relevant deadlines or other considerations for reporting.
It is important for complainants to know that in Ontario, there is no limitation period for civil or criminal claims of sexual assault or certain other proceedings based on misconduct of a sexual nature. This means that even if you have a claim that is many years old, like the complainant in the Blackhawks case, you can still choose to pursue criminal charges or a civil lawsuit at any time. However, there is a one-year limitation period at the Human Rights Tribunal. Limitation periods vary in other jurisdictions, and other forums.
This article does not contain legal advice: consult a lawyer for advice relevant to your specific circumstances.