Hockey Canada—the sport’s governing body in that hockey-obsessed country—recently reached out to some of its sponsors with a request, according to a recent report in The Globe And Mail. The organization wanted to know how many people they had to fire to keep the sponsors happy and the checks coming in.
The sponsors are unhappy because of recent dogged reporting about sexual assault in the sport. One woman sued Hockey Canada, saying she was sexually assaulted in 2018 by eight players in the Canadian Hockey League, including members of that year’s Canadian world junior team. When Hockey Canada learned about this, her lawsuit said, it did not investigate what happened. That lawsuit was settled in May, and later local police said they were reopening their criminal investigation. In July, Halifax police said they were investigating reports of sexual assault related to Canada’s 2003 World Junior team.
More recently, The Globe And Mail reported that Hockey Canada has kept a “special multimillion-dollar fund” that it used pay out settlements with people who said they were sexually assaulted. Per the report, the fund held more than $15 million—money taken from player registration fees. After the report, Hockey Canada announced that it would stop using its National Equity Fund to pay such settlements. (It turns out another fund, the Health Benefits Trust, has been “putting money toward liability coverage for its directors and officers,” the newspaper reported.)
It’s little surprise that a lot of companies would like to not be associated with Hockey Canada right now. Scotiabank, TELUS, Canadian Tire, Imperial Oil, and Tim Hortons all announced they would not sponsor this year’s men’s world junior tournament, according to TSN. So Hockey Canada polled them as to just how many heads would have to roll for them to open their wallets again.
Per The Globe And Mail report, by Susan Krashinsky Robertson and James Bradshaw, the reaching-out to sponsors happened during that tournament.
As that tournament proceeded in Edmonton this month with many high-profile brands visibly absent, representatives of Hockey Canada contacted certain sponsors to inquire about measures the organization could take in order to restore their support, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the conversations. Some of those talks, which occurred within the past week, floated the idea of high-level departures, including some but not all of Hockey Canada’s board members, as well as executives such as chief executive officer Scott Smith.
Sources told the newspaper the brands had not changed their minds and that “wholesale change to Hockey Canada’s operations is needed.” A spokesperson for Hockey Canada said they were “grateful for the ongoing support and feedback from our sponsors” but would not answer any direct questions.
Is this progress? It’s a change from when I was growing up, when it was hard to imagine many people, let alone corporate leadership, being bothered by reports of athletes committing sexual assault. But it’s the root of this action by the sponsors that still sticks with me. The Globe And Mail story delves into how these sponsorships work, saying that companies pay at certain intervals, dictated by the contract, and certain sponsors are currently withholding their payments to Hockey Canada. It adds that “sponsors would likely demand make-good negotiations for the lost value of those sponsorship dollars during the current scandal.” In other words, these demands for systemic change by sponsors are not out of some deeply rooted concern for the safety of their fellow human beings. These demands are being made because a bunch of companies lost money, which is what’s truly unacceptable in 2022.
And so I come back to that question. Is sponsors cutting ties with Hockey Canada progress? Maybe. Perhaps. It could be the tiniest of incremental steps. Hey, look, Tim Hortons doesn’t want to be associated with sexual assault and cover-ups when you stop in for your coffee and donuts. But it primarily serves as a reminder of who ultimately sits atop the power structure of sports. It’s not the pros. It’s not the children who play the sports, or the parents who plunge thousands of dollars into chasing a child’s dream. It’s not even the executives. It’s the sponsors, the only organizations with enough money to single-handedly turn a ledger from black to red and back again. Whatever Hockey Canada does change, it will be done to protect Hockey Canada.