An overhead view of a hockey arena with players on the ice
Players warm up in the arena formerly known as the Metro Centre, which is set to host the Halifax portion of this year’s World Junior Hockey Championship. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Halifax councillors won’t stop this winter’s IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship after a shake-up at Hockey Canada.

“I’m optimistic,” Mayor Mike Savage said during a council meeting on Tuesday.

“I think we will do a great job on hosting these games. There’s unknowns and unforeseeable events, as there is with everything that we do, but at this point in time, I think the change that happened today was pretty significant and had to be done.”

Hockey Canada has been in a downward spiral for months. TSN reported in May that it settled a lawsuit with a woman who said she was sexually assaulted by a group of eight CHL players at a Hockey Canada event in London, Ont. in 2018. Then it came to light that Hockey Canada was using player fees from across the country to build up a fund for those kinds of sexual assault settlements. Sponsors like Nike, Tim Hortons, and Canadian Tire have bailed, the federal government has frozen funding, and Hockey Nova Scotia is no longer sending fees up to Hockey Canada.

There’s also an investigation underway into a gang sexual assault in Halifax during the 2003 World Junior Hockey Championship, the last time the city hosted the tournament.

This year, Halifax is set to host the championship with Moncton, starting in December, but the scandal has raised questions about whether the tournament should go ahead as planned.

On Friday, Savage and Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold released a joint statement expressing their concern “about Hockey Canada’s lack of judgement and professionalism.”

“We look for meaningful changes within Hockey Canada prior to the World Junior Championship taking place in our cities,” the mayors said.

That statement followed a similar one on Thursday from Premier Tim Houston, who called for “meaningful changes” before the tournament could go ahead.

And on Tuesday, Hockey Canada announced chief executive officer Scott Smith and the organization’s whole board were stepping down.

“An interim management committee will be put in place, which will guide the organization until no later than a newly constituted Board appoints a new CEO to lead the organization,” the organization said in a statement.

Houston released a new statement on Tuesday, along with New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, calling the leadership change “an important step toward accountability and meaningful change.”

“There are still investigations underway, and clearly there is more to be done, but we are pleased to see these changes and hope it signals they will address the ongoing issues within the organization,” the premiers said.

Halifax negotiating terms with Hockey Canada

On Tuesday evening, council received a public update on the tournament, which was added to the agenda on Friday.

Deputy chief administrative officer Denise Schofield briefed councillors on the process to secure the tournament: HRM was invited to submit a bid after the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) removed the event from Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine. The municipality teamed up with Moncton to submit a bid, and the two cities were awarded the event in May. The municipality is providing funding to Hockey Canada, along with Nova Scotia, Moncton, and New Brunswick.

“All four orders of government have been negotiating with Hockey Canada on consistent wording in light of the situations that have been ongoing to ensure that the event at both locations are safe, they have all the proper protocols in place. That negotiation is still ongoing,” Schofield said.

Schofield said the IIHF granted the rights to the event to Hockey Canada.

“The IIHF could remove those rights from Hockey Canada but they have not done that, much like they removed the rights from Russia,” Schofield said.

“As we sit here today, we’re about nine weeks away from some of the first teams arriving and we’re 11 weeks away from games … They’re fully committed to having the event in Canada because of the short timeline.”

Work to prepare for the tournament is ongoing, Schofield said, and she told councillors the exodus of Hockey Canada sponsors won’t effect the event, which is paid for through ticket and concession sales. Ticket sales have been “incredibly strong” in Halifax and Moncton, Schofield said.

Councillors scorn Hockey Canada, support tournament

Sales may be steady, but Coun. Patty Cuttell said she’s been thinking about the allegations of a sexual assault following the 2003 tournament in Halifax.

“I found it very difficult to get excited about this upcoming tournament without at least acknowledging what had been taking place or what had taken place,” Cuttell said.

“I think not acknowledging the issues surrounding not only Hockey Canada, but hockey culture in general, would be very, very tone deaf and, and probably look poorly on us as well as being as being hosts.”

But along with other councillors, she expressed support for the tournament going ahead.

“I don’t really think that the young players or the hockey fans should be punished because of the actions of a few or because of the enabling organization that we’ve witnessed over the last few months. I do support moving forward with the event,” Cuttell said.

Coun. Lisa Blackburn chastised Hockey Canada, but argued businesses in Halifax need this tournament.

“I’m not a hockey parent. I’ve never been a hockey parent so I’ve never paid a dime to Hockey Canada in fees. But as an outsider looking in I see an organization in need of complete systemic change through their actions. They’ve taught these boys, who are now men, that it’s okay to use women any way they want and they’ll be supported. They’ve taught these boys through their actions, these boys who are now men, that it’s okay to cover up that wrongdoing and bury it from scrutiny,” Blackburn said.

“As we discuss the world juniors we also have to remember that our concerns are with Hockey Canada and not the IIHF and the numerous businesses that will benefit from holding this event. And keenly aware that tourism in this city has taken a major hit the past two years, and the world juniors was seen as an opportunity to get back some of that business. This was vitally important. Our beef is not with the IIHF but Hockey Canada. And I’m afraid that if we take a nuclear option that could damage our chances of hosting future events.”

Deputy Mayor Pam Lovelace said she supports the tournament moving forward, and she was happy the board finally stepped down.

“The onus was on them to admit wrong and holy cow it took a long time. And that’s shameful because it’s it has ruined hockey for a lot of families,” she said.

Lovelace said punishing the next generation of hockey players by cancelling the tournament would send the wrong message.

“At the same time though, what is the message? What is the message we want to send? And for me, it’s about awareness of consent. It’s about education and respect. And that’s what is sorely missing throughout all of this,” Lovelace said.

The District 13—Hammonds Plains-St. Margarets councillor suggested giving free tickets to women’s groups and vulnerable kids.

Lovelace later moved to “declassify and release the private and confidential report dated April 1 2022, following an access and privacy review.” There was a “contractual matter” on council’s April 5 agenda with a report dated April 1.

Chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé said that would take a few days, but raised no objection. Council voted unanimously in favour of Lovelace’s motion.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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