Lucas Meyer: What were the Flames thinking?
The handling of the 2018 sex-assault allegations looks like an epic internal blunder.
By: Lucas Meyer
In the last few weeks, the ongoing police investigation and scandal that has rocked Hockey Canada — and the sport’s culture at large —jumped back into the headlines, and the Calgary Flames were implicated in a profoundly unwanted way.
On Jan. 21, the team announced that one of their players, Dillon Dube, had been granted a mental health leave and asked that his privacy be respected. Many responses on social media wished him well. That suddenly stopped three days later.
On Jan. 24, the Globe and Mail broke the news that five members of Canada’s 2018 world junior hockey team would face charges in connection to a horrific alleged group sexual assault of a woman in a London, Ontario hotel following a Hockey Canada gala six years ago. The charges stemmed from a criminal investigation that was reopened in July of 2022, several months after TSN’s Rick Westhead revealed to the world that a civil suit into the matter had been settled. Over the course of the the 24th, the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Switzerland HC Ambri-Priotta announced some of their players were granted personal leave. It didn’t take much to connect the dots.
By Jan. 30, all the players who would face charges were confirmed by their lawyers, with each denying wrongdoing and vowing to prove their innocence in court. Then, on Monday, Feb. 5, London Police formally charged the players, including Dube, with sexual assault.
Understandably, the collective online response to the Jan. 21 statement of the Flames was outrage. The team was accused of fronting mental health as a smokescreen for soon-to-be announced sexual-assault charges. Nine days after their original statement, they issued a follow-up saying that they took the charge against Dube seriously, and would not comment further as the matter was before the courts.
They added this: “We had no knowledge of pending charges at the time Dillon’s request for a leave of absence was granted.”
The most important element of this story, of course, is the alleged crime — both in terms of ensuring justice and support for the accuser and also a fair trial for the accused, who are innocent until proven guilty. But as a guy who has spent a career watching institutions in crisis, first as a reporter and now as a consultant, I’ve found how the Flames in particular responded fascinating.
To be blunt, what the hell is going on over there?
For a moment, let’s take the Flames at face value when they say that they had no idea that Dube was likely to face charges, and simply accepted his claim to need a mental-health leave. This is possible: Dube may not have said anything, or even spoken with the team directly. He could have communicated through his agent or a lawyer. To this point, ESPN hockey reporter Emily Kaplan posted on X that she had heard some of the players were specifically directed by their lawyers not to tell their teams about potential charges, though she couldn’t comment specifically on Dube’s case.
Okay, fair enough. But accepting this explanation requires us to be extremely generous to the Flames. The basic facts of the allegation have been known for some time, as has the 2018 Canadian roster. The London police re-opened its criminal probe in 2022; the NHL has also investigated the allegations. (NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recently confirmed the NHL had completed its investigation, but its findings are not being released, saying “the most responsible and prudent thing for us to do is await the conclusion of the judicial proceedings.”) Dube himself has addressed the investigations, saying he was cooperating.
The allegations have been discussed in Parliament. The case has threatened Hockey Canada’s creditability. It’s currently, by far, the biggest sports scandal in the country. No one in the hockey world could be ignorant to the stakes, especially for teams with some of those 2018 players on their rosters.
In a world where brand awareness and reputation has a higher premium than ever before, we are expected to believe that when Dube told the Flames he needed a leave, no one in the Flames organization had any concerns?
This looks like an internal issues management blunder of epic proportions. No one putting two and two together is an institutional communications embarrassment. And there was another option: the other teams involved simply said they granted personal leaves with no other details. Calgary could have done that.
Still, a blunder is a much better than the Option B: that they did know and tried to hide it as a mental-health leave, which is as horrifyingly unethical as the above scenario is dubious. If it were true, it’s a fireable offence for those that allowed it.
Like I said above, it’s not the most important issue. But I do think this is worth considering because there is widespread recognition that hockey’s culture has to change, including by Scott Stinson just days ago right here in The Line. That requires organizations be both mindful of the issues and cognizant of how to handle them.
The four teams that put out neutral statements showed that they were acting cautiously; the Flames, meanwhile, behaved in a way that simply defies easy explanation. The good news for them is that many crises do fade away. The best course may be to stop trying to explain, as it may very well be the best bad option they find themselves in.
But back to the big picture. We shouldn’t be naïve — the teams that put out neutral statements were obviously looking after their own interests, not trying to drive some huge cultural change. But even that is a start of a kind. For too long, the hockey world has held stars to different, lesser standards. That has to start changing. The teams have legal obligations to their players, and must honour them, but they can also show some discretion in how they do it. That alone will send a message — a message that’s long overdue.
Lucas Meyer is senior consultant, communications and media insights at Enterprise Canada and a former news and sports journalist, including seven years in Calgary.
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