An independent investigation commissioned by the NHL Players’ Association found that executive director Don Fehr and others were not responsible for wrongdoing when they failed to act on a report that a Chicago Blackhawks player had been sexually assaulted by a staff member in 2010.
A law firm hired to look into the Fehr and the union’s actions in 2010 and 2011 concluded miscommunication and misunderstanding were behind the lack of action after Kyle Beach reported being assaulted by video coach Brad Aldrich.
“Ultimately, the failure to act on Beach’s reports stems from a failure of communication,” the firm Cozen O’Connor wrote in a 20-page report released by the NHLPA on Friday. “We cannot identify any individual wrongdoing or institutional failures of policy or procedure by either Fehr, NHLPA personnel, or the [NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program] concerning the handling of Beach’s reports.”
The NHLPA executive board was shown the report last week. Players voted in favour of making it public.
The union launched the investigation in November after an independent probe into the Blackhawks’ mishandling of the allegations and an interview by Beach with Canadian network TSN raised questions about what Fehr and others knew at the time and why they did not act. Beach wasn’t technically a member because he never played in an NHL game.
“I know I reported every single detail to an individual at the NHLPA, who I was put in contact with after,” Beach said on TSN. “I believe two different people talked to Don Fehr. And for him to turn his back on the players when his one job is to protect the players at all costs, I don’t know how that can be your leader. I don’t know how he can be in charge.”
Fehr signed on as an NHLPA adviser in the summer of 2010 after Aldrich resigned rather than face a Blackhawks investigation. Fehr was named NHLPA executive director in December of that year, timing that complicated the matter because the union was in a period of transition.
The NHLPA investigation included reviews of about 20,000 emails and phone records from 2010 and 2011 and included interviews of 11 witnesses, including Brian Shaw from the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. Beach and an unidentified player who reported having inappropriate conversations with Aldrich both declined to be interviewed.
The firm acknowledged the difficulty of reconstructing events from 11 years ago, and said the findings were based on “understandably imperfect and incomplete recollections of a few individuals, uncorroborated by documentary evidence.”
The findings of the Blackhawks investigation rocked the team and led to sweeping changes in the front office and ripple effects across the NHL. Long-time Chicago general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville, who was with Florida, resigned in the aftermath after it was determined they were informed of the allegations and did not act appropriately. Aldrich told investigators the encounter was consensual.
Agent Ross Gurney told investigators he was sure he described Aldrich as a “pedophile” or “sexual predator” in a conversation with Fehr to warn him about Aldrich’s behaviour after the coach was hired by USA Hockey to work at a tournament.
Fehr said he would have recalled that if it happened. He repeatedly told investigators he had no recollection of being notified of the incident when it happened. Investigators also determined Fehr’s few comments regarding about the allegations “were consistent with his claim.”
Shaw told investigators he believed his conversation with Beach was “privileged communication between a prospective patient and therapist” and that he was unable to reveal the contents without the player’s consent, which he claimed to have not received.
The firm said it provided the union’s general counsel with a series of recommendations for additional measures that could be put in place to handle similar situations better in the future. The NHLPA said its executive board voted to keep those recommendations confident for now “because they require further development by staff and evaluation by the board.”
Lawsuits filed by Beach, then known as John Doe, and a former student whom Aldrich was convicted of assaulting in Michigan brought the scandal to light last year. Beach’s lawsuit was settled.