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The family of a teenaged boy whose allegations of a locker-room assault at an elite North Vancouver hockey program led to a police investigation is ready to put their “nightmare” behind them — but they are still deeply troubled by the club’s response to the incident.
Speaking publicly for the first time, the boy’s father accused managers of the North Shore Winter Club — a private members-only facility that counts among its alumni former NHL stars Brett Hull, Joe Sakic and Paul Kariya — of minimizing the seriousness of the allegations. He also criticized them for failing to heed the recommendations of the Bantam Elite Team’s coaches who wanted to kick the two accused players off the team of 13- and 14-year-olds. The team’s head coach later quit in protest over the club’s handling of the matter.
“Listen to your coaches, listen to the family, don’t sweep things under the rug, do what’s right for the victim,” the father told the National Post. “Forget about the business, forget about the revenue. Put the kids first.”
RCMP confirmed last month they were investigating an alleged assault that took place at the club on Dec. 10 after receiving a tip on Jan. 27. The victim’s father says he understands police have completed their investigation and have forwarded a file to Crown prosecutors to consider charges.
But the family has told the Crown it believes the two accused players have learned their lesson and don’t see much value in dragging the case through the courts and would prefer an alternative remedy.
“What happened cannot be changed, and cannot be erased from our minds,” said the father, whom the Post has agreed not to identify because of the age of his son and the nature of the allegations.
“We think what the boys learned from this is more important than going forward and pressing charges.”
North Vancouver RCMP Supt. Chris Kennedy said Wednesday he was unable to confirm the status of the investigation. A spokesman for the Crown prosecutor’s office declined to comment.
Club general manager Joanna Hayes said in an email the club took the allegations very seriously and that they acted immediately.
“We demonstrated we did not tolerate the actions, acted decisively following our policy and ensured there were appropriate consequences for the actions,” she wrote.
The victim’s father “stated to us that he was satisfied by the process and the actions taken by the (club)” and the B.C. Amateur Hockey Association (B.C. Hockey), the province’s governing body for amateur hockey, approved the club’s handling of the incident, Hayes said.
She added that a new code of conduct has been drafted and will be presented at the club’s annual general meeting in June for approval.
B.C. Hockey and Hockey Canada did not respond to the Post’s requests for comment about the father’s concerns.
As the Post revealed in February, a member of the club’s Bantam Elite Team was undressing in the team’s change room after an on-ice practice Dec. 10 when another player allegedly held him in a headlock and touched his buttocks in an indecent manner.
Later, in the weight room, a different teammate allegedly grabbed or tried to grab the same boy’s private parts.
The coach and assistant coach moved to kick the two alleged perpetrators off the team, but the club overruled the decision after an appeal by their parents. The players were allowed back after brief suspensions.
In response, head coach Brad Rihela quit, telling the Post: “Someone had to take a stand.”
The Post knows the identity of one of the boys who is the subject of the allegations, but neither his family nor the family’s lawyer responded to a request for comment for this story. The lawyer had previously told the Post its account of the allegations was “completely at odds with reality.”
Speaking to the Post this week, the victim’s father compared the suspensions to a body check — it’s only a “temporary measure,” he said — and said the club failed to uphold its policy of zero tolerance for bullying and violence.
“The message has to be clear — you commit an assault or you violate the most essential rules of the hockey community … you should not be allowed to go back to the team for the season.”
The father said when the club notified him in late January that the second of the two suspended players was returning to the ice (the other player had a shorter suspension), he asked how the club planned to manage interactions between his son and the other players in the change room. The club suggested in an email that, if it would make his son feel more comfortable, they could arrange to have him change in a separate room.
The father said he rejected this idea because it felt like the victim was being punished. He said his son missed about a week of hockey before he felt comfortable re-joining the team. There were no subsequent incidents between the players.
The two suspended players also wrote apology letters and they seemed sincere, the father said. “My son was satisfied with the letters because he has a big heart.”
The father did, however, take issue with a letter from board president Jay Frezell to parents last month after the Post started making inquiries about the incident. The letter stated that after a thorough investigation, the club had concluded there were “two incidents of bullying” that resulted in suspensions.
The club’s characterization of the incident as merely “bullying” did not jibe with the facts, the father said.
“The message sent by management from the club to the membership was wrong.”
Fed up with the response and lack of a formal apology, the family has cancelled its club membership.
“We’re done with the club. … It was too much for us,” the father said.
In her email, Hayes said the club apologized verbally to the family several times and that the victim’s father referred to the incident as bullying and approved a report sent to B.C. Hockey using similar language.
While the club has zero tolerance for bullying, Hayes said that does not mean automatic banishment when an incident happens.
“Everyone seems to have their own take on what ‘zero tolerance policy’ means,” she wrote. “Our policy does not state an automatic maximum penalty or one strike and you are expelled for the year. It does mean that we take bullying seriously and we did so.”
Hayes said the reason the club offered to have the victim change in a separate room was because the father rejected their initial suggestion of having two parents in the dressing room.
The families of the suspended players, meanwhile, “are feeling ostracized by others in the club and they have felt bullied by the media,” Hayes said.
The victim is now getting ready to try out for a hockey team with a different organization, his family says. But while the boy’s love for the sport has not wavered, what happened last December has had lasting impact.
“Definitely what happened cannot be erased from his mind and something has changed with him,” his father said.
“When something like this happens, we can’t say things are the same as before because they’re not. We can’t rewind and say, ‘Skip this part.’ Our job is to make sure the impact is less and less everyday.”
By Douglas Quan
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019