Hockey Canada's communications are as bad as its ethics

1 year ago

When you are in deep trouble because you did something terribly wrong, when your professional reputation is hanging by a thread, who ya gonna’ call? If you are in Canada the answer is often Navigator Public Relations. Clients include former high profile CBC host Jian Ghomeshi who fell out of grace after allegations of sexual violence and basically, being a complete jerk to people he worked with. Navigator’s job was to salvage his reputation. It didn’t quite work out. 

Photo Credit: CBC

Now, they have been hired to try again, this time to salvage the reputation of Hockey Canada, and based on the hockey organization’s recent appearance before a legislative committee, it isn’t going that well either.  

To be clear I’m not blaming Navigator. They have experienced communications professionals working on Hockey Canada’s behalf. But from a public relations perspective, the initial response to the scandal has been just the opposite of what solid crisis communications demands. Maybe Navigator’s advice was ignored, or implemented too late. I don’t know. What I do know is that what needed to happen didn’t, at least not at the earliest opportunity, which is when it was necessary. What they needed to do was first, take ownership of what happened and admit that there are more likely more revelations to come. Second, acknowledge that we as hockey fans, youth hockey parents etc. have a right to be outraged. And third, commit to doing better. And then show a concrete plan to do just that. 

I see they have now come up with a plan. And it looks like a pretty good one, but it comes after they compounded their problem by taking a position that made their situation worse.  

Andrea Skinner, who has now resigned as Interim Chair of Hockey Canada Photo credit:

Hockey Canada chose its director and interim Board chair, Andrea Skinner, to become the new public face of the organization. It appeared good that they choose a woman. But then she started to speak.  

I am sure there are examples of spokespeople somewhere who have been more tone deaf than Ms. Skinner, but off the top of my head I can’t think of any. There was Donald Trump, who, right after 9/11, bragged that he now owned the tallest skyscraper in New York, but he’s a special case. No other examples come to mind. 

In her appearance before a parliamentary committee, Skinner testified that toxic behaviour is a society-wide issue and that Hockey Canada is being used as a scapegoat. 

I don’t know how you would interpret that, but her using the word scapegoat sounds like she’s trying to position Hockey Canada as a victim in all of this.  

Photo credit: TSN

Say what? Let’s review what Hockey Canada did, shall we.   

Evidence has revealed that since 1989, Hockey Canada has paid out millions of dollars to victims of sexual assault, including some who allege they were victims of group rape, at the hands of junior hockey players. This was hush money to quiet the victims and protect the players from being held accountable. With this as a backdrop, suggesting Hockey Canada is the victim here is, at the very least, a galling stretch.  

Skinner has since resigned, but the rest of the board is hanging tough, stuck in their defiance, insisting that they are the ones to make this right. And now, they have produced a plan designed to, in their words “eliminate toxic behaviour in and around Canada’s game.” 

That will play out as it will, but what bothers me as a hockey fan, aside from the fact the players at fault so far haven’t been held accountable, is that Hockey Canada’s actions amount to an injustice to other players. 

When news of the out-of-court, hush money payments surfaced back in the spring, the incident that came to light first involved eight hockey players, some if not all of them part of the 2018 gold-medal winning Canadian world junior team. Many if not most of that team are now in the NHL. As are players from other teams similarly accused. 

So now when I watch hockey and see these young players do their thing on the ice, in the back of my mind I am wondering if that player I am applauding is one of those who might have participated in a gang rape. We don’t know, because Hockey Canada choose an action that keeps the names private. As a result, a cloud of suspicion has been cast over all the players from those teams. And that’s not fair to them.  

Photo credit:

To be clear there are two groups of victims here. The first one is the girls or young women who were assaulted, The second is the group the players who had no part in any of it but are now labouring under that cloud. As victims go, Hockey Canada doesn’t make the cut. Despite the attempted public relations spin, Hockey Canada is not a victim here. They are not scapegoats.  

No question we have a hockey culture problem in this country, and it goes beyond criminal sexual abuse to include areas of racism and at elite levels, over-the-top hazing focused on humiliation. Efforts have to be made to change all of this, but Hockey Canada has proven to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. So the first step should be to either have a wholesale change at the top or just abolish it. Either way will be a step in the right direction. 

Positive change in hockey culture won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy. But for the sake of the game, it is necessary. And well worth the effort.

Thanks for reading. As always, shares are encouraged.

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