July 21st, 2024

Hockey Canada CEO Katherine Henderson: ‘I can’t erase the past’

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on October 23, 2023.

Katherine Henderson is always keen for a chat.

It’s basically part of the veteran sports executive’s DNA.

She helped Toronto host the 2015 Pan Am Games before heading to Curling Canada for the last seven years. Since being named president and CEO of Hockey Canada this past summer, however, Henderson has done a lot of listening.

“I’m a very talkative person by nature,” she said Monday in an interview with The Canadian Press. “But I’ve been mostly asking questions and taking literally a book full of notes.

“People have really been very generous with their time, and given me a lot of insight about the things they want and hope for.”

After a trying 18 months for the embattled national sport organization, it’s a long list.

Henderson, who officially assumed the role Sept. 4, has taken on perhaps her biggest task to date – bringing Hockey Canada back from the brink.

The body has faced intense scrutiny since May 2022 when news broke it quietly settled a lawsuit after a woman claimed she was sexually assaulted by eight players, including members of the country’s world junior team, following a 2018 gala in London, Ont.

The federal government and corporate sponsors responded swiftly by either pausing or halting financial support.

The ugly headlines continued as that spring and summer progressed, including the revelation of the little-known National Equity Fund, which is maintained by player fees and used to pay uninsured liabilities. Sexual assault and abuse claims had fallen under that umbrella.

Hockey Canada then announced members of the 2003 men’s world junior roster were being investigated for a group sexual assault by Halifax police.

Police in London then reopened their investigation into the alleged 2018 incident, while the NHL has also conducted an investigation. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The stunning scandals eventually led to the departure of Henderson’s Hockey Canada predecessor, Scott Smith, and the resignation of the organization’s board of directors.

A new board, led by retired judge Hugh Fraser, has helped steer Hockey Canada – which, at the height of the controversy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested could be abolished – since being elected late last year by introducing new governance standards.

And now less than two months into the job, Henderson has a clear vision for where she wants the organization to go.

“I like my North Stars,” she said. “They often get me through the minutiae of things you have to do to get there.

“I want everyone who wants to have hockey in their lives to have it.”

But with police still investigating, and the adjudicative panel still examining a third-party report commissioned by Hockey Canada into the London incident, it’s difficult for the organization to move on.

“Everybody at Hockey Canada would like to take those next steps … we have to wait,” Henderson said. “The path forward in the future is to take some of the very severe, hard lessons that were learned. The most critical part is, ‘How does this never happen again?'”

“I can’t erase the past,” added the Thunder Bay, Ont., product. “What I can do is take a look at what needs to be done.”

She added if Hockey Canada gets this right, the country’s entire sports ecosystem will benefit.

“Hockey is so big,” Henderson continued. “We can really become a leading example.”

She’s also aware of Hockey Canada’s limitations.

Henderson said her son had a wonderful experience growing up playing the game. But that’s not everyone’s experience – especially with the issue of toxic masculinity in the sport.

“When you’re trying to undertake change, you have to understand it,” she said. “It’s not endemic to hockey, but hockey is so big and important that you absolutely see it.”

Henderson said Hockey Canada will be releasing a maltreatment report in the coming weeks.

“There’s a certain group where you seem to have more maltreatment incidents,” she said. “It’s incumbent upon us to really study not just ‘Who?’ When we talk about toxic masculinity … we’re not doing hockey any favours, we’re not doing those young men any favours, when you’re allowing things like this to happen.

“We can’t boil the ocean, but I think what we need to do is make sure we are doing the absolute best by our participants.”

Henderson knows Hockey Canada has lots of work to do.

She’s just getting started, her book peppered with notes from conversations over the last seven weeks in hand.

“We’ve got some scandals that we have to resolve,” Henderson said. “Our job right now is to really build back the trust of the Canadian public.”

FUNDING LEVELS

Government support has returned, as has a chunk of Hockey Canada’s corporate dollars.

But where do things stand now compared to May 2022?

“Not as high,” said Henderson, who declined to give a precise number.

Sports apparel giant Nike, for example, permanently ended its agreement in July.

“Government partners, funding partners … are really looking to see, ‘Are you doing the work to make yourselves more accountable and more transparent?'” Henderson said. “A lot of that work is happening.”

Hockey Canada, which didn’t hold a summer camp ahead of the world junior hockey championship in December and January, will publish its financial statements next month.

“You want to cut fat, but you don’t want to cut muscle,” Henderson said. “A lot of the programs are quite strategic. They’ve been funded through some deficit budgeting, which isn’t sustainable.

“But Hockey Canada did a great job at making sure their reserves were quite healthy.”

DRESSING-ROOM ATTIRE

The organization implemented a new policy for the 2023-24 minor hockey season, including a “minimum attire rule” – which received some criticism – with the goal of respecting privacy and making dressing rooms more inclusive.

Henderson said the organization did a good job explaining the “What?” with the new directive’s rollout, but not the “Why?”

The new rule requires players to wear a base layer in a dressing room when there’s at least one other person present.

“There are kids out there that don’t feel included in the dressing room,” she said. “The dressing room is an important part of the team experience.

“We want dressing rooms where every kid that wants to play hockey knows that they can go into that dressing room and be really comfortable.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2023.

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