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Who is culpable in the Chicago Blackhawks coverup of sexual assault?

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Different jobs come with different responsibilities. When something happens that needs to be reported to an authority, who makes the call and what you can do once the decision is made matters a lot.

SPORTS-HKN-BLACKHAWKS-NAME-TB Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The NHL should be reeling. The Chicago Blackhawks should be in the spotlight. Numerous questions should be openly asked. An independent investigation should be called by the NHL to look into the coverup of a sexual assault of two separate players on the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks by the team’s video coach Brad Aldrich. The full investigative reporting can be read at the Athletic (linked here) and TSN’s Rick Westhead (linked here and his twitter feed). This reporting has been done with the utmost care and respect as you can tell by reading the stories. These stories were not thrown together overnight. The NHL has known about this for months if not years and have chosen to do nothing and hope this blows over.

Kevin Cheveldayoff was an assistant general manager with the Chicago Blackhawks at the time of the alleged incident. A lot of attention has been brought to the fact that Marc Bergevin was also with the Chicago Blackhawks at the time of the incident in the role of Director of Player Personnel. It has been confirmed that he was not in the room when the meeting about the alleged assault was brought forth to upper management. TSN has not been able to find out any information about Cheveldayoff’s potential involvement through the Winnipeg Jets.

There are different levels of knowledge and power at play here. Paul Vincent had knowledge and he did the right thing. As the Blackhawks skills coach, he reported the assault to his superiors and pushed for many of them to take the matter to police. He could have gone rogue and reported it himself, but we are not aware of the wishes of the player at the time nor do we know how comfortable Vincent was in going above his superiors at the time. It was his second year with the Blackhawks and he left after the 2010-2011 season. He was employed by the Florida Panthers until this past season when he moved on from the NHL to work for Dartmouth College.

It is important that we understand the way that power operates in a workplace. If a teacher notices something that is off with a student, they will try to talk to the student in a private setting or find an adult the student trusts to have that conversation with the student. If they have some red flags that need more probing, they will take it to another adult in the school and figure out the best way forward. This might mean talking to administration and potentially calling Child and Family Services to report (a last resort), reaching out to the parents or guardians to see if they need additional supports at home, bringing in extra supports for the student including time with a trusted adult where they can share what they are going through safely, or contacting an outside agency with the parents or guardians permissions to help them acquire additional supports for the child. No single person makes the decision and the teacher is never acting alone. Too much is at stake and for it to be a student-centred response we need to have cultural sensitivity in the equation which includes supporting the home prior to calling CFS.

I walked you through that to help you understand where what I will call lower-management and the coaches were coming from. Upper management told them not to report. If they knew on a first person basis like Vincent did, they are almost bound to listen to upper management. Credit to Vincent, he did not just idly accept the no and pressed other people to support him in reporting the assault. Nick Boynton, who was with the Blackhawks at the time, supports the assertion that this fits what he knows of Vincent. Things are murkier with Cheveldayoff and Bergevin.

Both Cheveldayoff and Bergevin probably knew what happened, but quite possibly not the details that upper management knew. In fact, in a recent interview Jonathan Toews indicates that knowledge of the incident was not necessarily known in detail by people outside of upper management and the coaching staff whom Vincent went to when upper management refused to act in the expected manner. They might have heard much like the players did or maybe learned from idle office chatter. There is a chance they were never explicitly told what was happening. They knew, but they did not know. This puts them in a very odd spot at work. They might know something is up, but the further you get from the centre of the story, the murkier it gets. You can know that something illegal happened and not know the extent of the cover up. You can be complicit in the cover up, but not have done anything explicitly wrong.

Without a thorough, independent investigation there is no way for the NHL and the Chicago Blackhawks to move forward from this allegation. Although there is an investigation, it is by a law firm the Blackhawks picked themselves and can hardly be called independent for that reason and the fact the NHL will decide what information gets made public. They might settle the lawsuits they are facing either in court or prior to a court date, but they will not be able to do better the next time something like this happens unless an outside investigator investigates the Chicago Blackhawks handling of the incident. They need to find every single failing that happened to that Aldrich was able to go and work with children after he left the NHL in 2010. As of right now the NHL is not pursuing that option and they need to be pressured into it as soon as possible. The only way to move forward is to be better and that includes having better processes for handling allegations of assault and abuse against players, staff, and anyone else who comes forth at any time.

It is easy to want to go scorched earth whenever something bad happens. Sometimes it is right to go scorched earth. This is not one of those times. Instead, this is a time to actually work through the failings of the Blackhawks, hold those responsible for the coverup responsible, and ensure that those who were complicit would act appropriately if they went through the same type of allegation today. This means interviewing all those with the Blackhawks as coaches and various levels of management. That means hearing people who were not involved in the meeting and learning how they would want to handle a similar incident today. What you want to hear is them listening to what the victim wants. You want to hear them advocating reporting the incident to the police, supporting the victim with proper mental health supports and ensuring that if they need family or friends near them, bringing those people to be immediate supports to them. You want to see and hear that people understand that potentially life-ruining decisions were made in an effort to win a Stanley Cup with no regard to the emotional damage they were causing. The effects of these choices are most likely still being felt and the ripple effects of trauma can still be in its early stages. People who were not explicitly involved in the cover up can still be in the wrong for not speaking up; they can still be complicit in the decisions that were made, but they do not have the most blood on their hands.

Both Cheveldayoff and Bergevin do not have the most blood on their hands. There will be others in the organization like them. But they have the responsibility to show that they understand where their personal response and the initial response of the Chicago Blackhawks was wrong and how they have to have a better, stronger response to a similar situation. A response that does not involve a cover up. A response that involves proper victim support. A response that does not place glory at the centre, but humans.