Hockey Canada’s CEO said he has no plans to resign amid controversy over the organization’s handling of sexual-assault allegations, despite growing calls for a leadership overhaul to address the troubling culture in the country’s national winter sport.
Scott Smith, who joined Hockey Canada in 1995, told a federal committee on Wednesday that he believes he still has the confidence of the board of directors and of member branches under the Hockey Canada umbrella. He said his entire career, save for a 10-month period, has been in hockey.
“I will not walk away from the demands you have rightly put before us,” Mr. Smith told MPs. He repeated variations of that statement in the face of comments from several committee members who said it’s time for him to step down. He would not answer directly when asked whether the sport or the organization is in crisis.
The Canadian Heritage parliamentary committee is probing Hockey Canada’s conduct in the wake of allegations that eight Canadian Hockey League players sexually assaulted a woman after a Hockey Canada fundraising gala in London, Ont., in 2018. The hearings were convened in June and resumed this week, with two days of high-profile testimony featuring officials from Hockey Canada, the CHL and the federal government.
The Department of Canadian Heritage oversees Sport Canada, which provides funding to national sports organizations such as Hockey Canada. Sport Canada officials came under fire during their testimony Tuesday, in which they said they were told by Hockey Canada in 2018 about the allegations but didn’t follow up with the sports body about the complaint for four years.
Over the past few weeks, Ottawa has frozen funding to Hockey Canada, and several corporate sponsors have withdrawn their support for the organization or for specific events, including the world juniors in Alberta next month.
This was Mr. Smith’s second appearance, after first providing testimony last month that several MPs described as opaque and dismissive.
In the time between his two appearances, a series of revelations have surfaced, including that Hockey Canada used a special multimillion-dollar fund, fed by player registration fees, to settle sexual-assault claims. It has also emerged that London police are reopening its probe into the 2018 allegations and that Halifax police are investigating an alleged sexual-assault in 2003 involving members of that year’s Canadian world junior team.
On Wednesday, Mr. Smith apologized for not doing enough to address the 2018 allegations during the four years before they were exposed in the media. He said Hockey Canada’s conduct “was not perfect” and acknowledged that toxic behaviour has festered in “corners” of the game.
Mr. Smith has held several leadership positions at Hockey Canada, including chief operating officer. Earlier this month, he succeeded Tom Renney as CEO, while retaining his role as president. Mr. Renney, who joined Hockey Canada as president and CEO in 2014, informed the board last year that he would not be extending his contract.
On the eve of the latest round of hearings, Hockey Canada released a 19-page document that it said outlined an action plan to address the code of silence in the sport. Several MPs questioned Mr. Smith as to why more had not been done before the recent allegations became public.
“Mr. Smith, you’ve been at Hockey Canada for 30 years,” Liberal MP Chris Bittle said. “Why is it now, in this moment, that you think Canadians should trust you, Hockey Canada and senior management? … What’s changed now?”
Mr. Bittle also referenced Sheldon Kennedy, a sexual-abuse survivor and former National Hockey League player, who has called for Mr. Smith’s resignation, along with his leadership team and board of directors. In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Kennedy said it’s the “definition of insanity” to expect that the same people with a new plan can bring meaningful change.
Mr. Smith said he holds Mr. Kennedy in high regard, and that it was difficult to read those comments. Referring to a commitment Hockey Canada made earlier this month to submit to a third-party governance review, Mr. Smith said that if the review or the board determines that someone else should lead, he will step aside.
“I want to be held accountable to take Hockey Canada to a better place,” he said.
Members of all four parties on the committee questioned Mr. Smith’s suitability to lead. In a statement after the hearings, several members of the Conservative Party said taxpayer dollars shouldn’t flow to Hockey Canada until there’s a change in the top brass.
The committee also raised concerns about the diversity of Hockey Canada’s board, which is comprised of seven men and two women, who were appointed in 2020. The organization approved a bylaw in 2019 requiring the board to include a minimum of two women.
“A couple of people have remarked on the homogeny of the group at the end of the table,” Liberal committee member Lisa Hepfner said to the nine male hockey representatives testifying Wednesday. “Do you think it would be helpful to have some women involved in the running of the organization?”
Mr. Smith replied that in addition to the two women on the board, Hockey Canada’s senior leadership team is comprised of five women and seven men. “We have strong voices – female voices – within our system,” he said. “I do think that we have strong voices that help us.”
Andréanne Larouche, a Bloc Québécois MP, said Mr. Smith was exhibiting a change in tone between his first and second committee appearances – a sentiment echoed by fellow Bloc MP Sébastien Lemire.
“You seemed to trivialize things in June,” Ms. Larouche said. “You said that there were problems in Hockey Canada, as there were problems in all kinds of places in society. … I think you had to really be criticized severely for you to change for today. It seems you had to have a knife put to your throat to change.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.