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News / Northwest

Hockey’s latest sexual assault scandal serves as reminder about police investigations

By Geoff Baker, The Seattle Times
Published: February 11, 2024, 6:00am

Inside the NHL

A ticking time bomb sexual assault case finally exploded on the NHL last week when onetime Everett Silvertips goalie Carter Hart and four others turned themselves in to police in London, Ontario.

Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers, Cal Foote and Michael McLeod of the New Jersey Devils, Dillon Dube of the Calgary Flames and former Ottawa Senators player Alex Formenton are charged with the 2018 sexual assault of a woman in a London hotel room. McLeod also faces a separate criminal charge of being “a party to the offense” — meaning he’s accused of helping another player commit that offense.

All five, ages 18 and 19 at the time, had played for Canada’s gold medal-winning team at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships that year and were in town for a subsequent victory banquet. Hart had just completed his time with the Silvertips when the banquet was held. The players, maintaining innocence, were released on unspecified conditions and have taken indefinite leave from their teams.

The NHL anticipated something was coming the past two years after it was leaked that Hockey Canada, that country’s governing amateur body, had settled out of court with the woman who said she was sexually assaulted. London police had dropped their investigation in 2019, only to reopen their probe after the 2022 financial settlement became public.

It’s important to keep following this, not only because Hart spent his formative years playing locally. For me, an important takeaway is how the public — including some sports fans prone to defending athletes and shunning people who claim they’ve been sexually assaulted — often puts blind faith in initial police investigations undeserving of steadfast support.

Major junior hockey is huge in Canada, and playing for that country’s national junior team is almost a guaranteed NHL ticket.

No amateur global tournament in football, baseball or basketball is as big as the world juniors, where a single country’s entire roster can graduate to top-level pro play. The incident allegedly happened before the players reached the NHL, but after they’d been drafted. So, we have a rare case indeed: Four active players and a fifth recent one from four separate major pro teams simultaneously charged during the NHL season and facing prison time if convicted.

And more important to this column’s thrust, there’s a woman steadfastly insisting that police got their initial investigation wrong. And for now, that resonates, especially given Monday’s first news conference by London police since the charges.

London police chief Thai Truong said: “I want to extend on behalf of the London Police service my sincerest apology to the victim, to her family for the amount of time that it has taken to reach this point.

“This should not take this long. It shouldn’t take years and years for us to arrive to the outcome of today.”

Truong said he couldn’t explain the about-face by his department in reopening the case, lest it jeopardize ongoing proceedings.

But too often during my years as a criminal legal system reporter, then a legal affairs bureau chief and now in sports, I’ve covered cases in which the initial police investigation clearly wasn’t thorough. Police are human and subject to understaffing, incompetence, bad intent and sometimes basic mistakes.

Starting in 2014, I wrote about a pro indoor soccer team owner in Kent named Dion Earl, whose Seattle Impact had a squad of female sideline dancers. Two of them went to police claiming Earl had sexually assaulted them.

The King County Sheriff’s Office dropped that case, citing a lack of evidence. While researching Earl’s near-two-decades-long history of women — and men — taking out restraining orders against him, I learned he’d been a suspect in an unsolved 2009 rape investigation by Kirkland police. Earl initially denied raping the woman, then claimed they’d had consensual sex.

That case was dropped because of … er, well, OK, it actually hadn’t been officially dropped. It remained open five more years because the investigating officer was reassigned different duties and never closed or handed the case off. After The Seattle Times published stories about the dancers’ allegations and the separate rape case, Kirkland police said they’d discovered the still-open, forgotten file and closed it.

Earl remained free until 2017, when he sexually assaulted two young women a month apart while they babysat his children at a home he owned in Arizona. Police and prosecutors there were more aggressive, arresting and jailing Earl nearly two years until trial.

He was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison. In a stunning twist, some key prosecution witnesses at the Arizona trial testifying as to Earl’s character — or lack of — were the two Impact dancers from Seattle whose complaints about him were dismissed by police here.

Also, once he’d been charged in Arizona, authorities here took a deeper look at the 2009 rape case in Kirkland. A different police officer was assigned, and Earl was charged and pleaded guilty a decade after the rape, an extra 33 months tacked on to his Arizona sentence.

So not all police probes are created equal. Having a case closed is often not akin to being acquitted by a jury of one’s peers.

Last April, Colorado Avalanche forward Valeri Nichushkin was rushed out of Seattle during a playoff series after team officials discovered a severely intoxicated, partially dressed woman in his hotel room. Public disclosure records, including body camera footage from two investigating Seattle police officers, showed she claimed to be from Russia and that an unidentified “bad man” had stolen her passport.

But the records give no indication that anyone followed up by interviewing Nichushkin, or the team security official who removed him from the hotel before police arrived. Records give no indication that police left the lobby to visit the hotel room, investigated the alleged passport theft or inquired about what became of the woman once hospitalized.

And yet, in declaring Nichushkin free to resume NHL play, the league cited — you guessed it — the closed Seattle police investigation. Last month, Nichushkin entered the Players’ Assistance Program for an unspecified issue.

No one is equating the closed Nichushkin case to what’s now going on in Canada. The point is, we still don’t know much.

Worth remembering the next time a police case emerges involving pro athletes: Sometimes, even when cases are dropped, the real investigating won’t begin until public pressure is brought to bear.

It may still lead to nothing further in the criminal case against the five hockey players. But the woman’s claims, investigated more thoroughly, will now move forward where they can be scrutinized by all.

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