Team Sites
Follow the BCHL

Chiefs Coach Quits North Vancouver Hockey Club

Aidan Humphries and Douglas Quan – National Post

Bullying alleged at elite North Vancouver hockey club; coach quits in protest over handling of allegations

Various sources have described the incidents as constituting assault, sexual assault, bullying, harassment, hazing, humiliation or abuse

A significant locker room bullying incident at an elite North Vancouver minor hockey program — and concerns over how the club has dealt with it — has resulted in parents cancelling their memberships, the head coach resigning in protest over the club’s response, and a police investigation, the National Post has learned.

Various sources have described the incidents as constituting assault, sexual assault, bullying, harassment, hazing, humiliation or abuse, and the allegations were serious enough that the head coach and his assistant both wanted the two accused players kicked off the team. However, after an appeal from the parents of the alleged perpetrators, senior management at the club — the prestigious North Shore Winter Club, a private members-only facility that counts many former NHL stars among its alumni — significantly reduced their punishment to short suspensions.

When contacted by the Post, Brad Rihela confirmed he quit as head coach in January over a dispute over disciplinary measures but did not wish to discuss the specific nature of the incidents.  “The coach’s job is to create a culture, and the way this was handled didn’t fall in line with my beliefs and values. At the end of the day, I removed myself from the situation because someone had to take a stand,” Rihela said.

 “I don’t think that these types of behaviours have any place in our game — or anywhere else, for that matter,” he said.

Other parents with children at NSWC are questioning the way the club’s leadership dealt with the matter. One parent told the Post he withdrew his child over the situation.

A parent of another child who plays hockey at the club, who did not want his name published — partly to protect his child and partly out of concern for repercussions from hockey officials — said the club’s priority appeared to be covering up the incident rather than addressing it. “It terrifies me, as a parent,” he said. He said people are reluctant to speak out for fear of damaging their child’s prospects at the prestigious club. “People are terrified of repercussions in terms of try-outs and making teams. They are afraid to make waves.”

In a statement to the Post Wednesday, the club confirmed that two players had been suspended and that following a thorough investigation, a disciplinary committee concluded there had been “two incidents of bullying.”

“The NSWC Board is aware that there are unfortunate rumours circulating and our desire is to remind everyone that rumours based on inaccurate information can be very damaging to those involved.” The club sent a similar statement to its members Wednesday after receiving the Post’s inquiries.

Presented with a summary of what the Post understands is alleged to have taken place, a lawyer representing the family of one of the players who was suspended said the information was “completely at odds with reality.” “It’s evident from your email that you’ve been given false information including defamatory misinformation,” said Roger McConchie.

The statement from the club said the victim’s family brought the complaint to the club. Reached at his doorstep this week, the father of the alleged victim — who still plays on the team — said he was unable to comment because of an ongoing “police investigation.”

Mark Rowan, a lawyer representing the family, later clarified in an email: “We have been informed that there is an RCMP investigation underway. My clients did not contact the RCMP. Somebody else did so.”

Sgt Peri Mainwaring, a North Vancouver RCMP spokesperson, said in an email the agency could only confirm an investigation was underway if charges were laid. “Also, when a youth(s) are involved we must be especially cognizant of their privacy.”

According to three sources with knowledge of the incident, the investigation or the club’s handling of it, the altercation took place in the team’s dressing room after an on-ice practice on Dec. 10.

As the players were undressing, a player allegedly held a teammate in a headlock and touched the teammate’s buttocks in an indecent manner, according to allegations made to the club.

I don’t know if it’s hazing, if it’s assault

Later interviews the club conducted with several players produced some variations in the description and nature of the type of contact with the buttocks. The boy allegedly called out repeatedly for it to stop. There were no staff or other adults present at the time. Soon after, during what is called dry-land training — meaning off-ice training in the weight room — the same boy was allegedly accosted again, by a different teammate, who allegedly was grabbing or trying to grab the boy’s nipples. The incident has sparked comparisons with the scandal last year at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, a prestigious Catholic all-boys school, that saw several students arrested after an alleged locker room sexual assault circulated on social media. However, the club has denied there was a “sexual” component to either incident.

Founded in 1958, at least 32 current or former NHL players have skated with the club as youngsters over the years, including Hockey Hall of Famers Brett Hull, Joe Sakic and Paul Kariya, and current San Jose Sharks star Evander Kane. While the club has a rich history, its Bantam Elite Team is new, created to extend the level of professional hockey development at the club to players 13 and 14 years old. The players on the elite team are considered among the best at the club and must earn a spot on the roster. The team’s inaugural season began in September. The pitch is simple: young Vancouver-area athletes eyeing a hockey career can still live at home, stay at their school, endure less travel, while still getting professional coaching and participating in AAA tournaments.

However, the players and families also need to give up a lot of time and money. The team has four practices and three gym sessions a week, on top of their tournaments and games, while the estimated program fee when the team was launched was $6,000 — not including the cost of attending tournaments, meals, hotels and transportation.

On an afternoon this week just prior to one of the team’s scheduled practice, a steady stream of cars and SUVs circled through the North Shore Winter Club’s driveway while children disembarked with hockey gear. Staff told a reporter who asked for permission to observe the practice that the club was open to members and guests only.

The promotional material for the NSWC elite team emphasizes character and respect as well as athletics. Its core belief, according to the club’s public materials is that “Hockey should reinforce the value of being a good citizen, teammate and have a positive impact on the quality of life athletes enjoy after leaving the NSWC program.”

“We strive to create an environment that will produce well-rounded young hockey players, both on and off the ice. Education, leadership, respect and strong work ethic describe our Elite program philosophy.”

Tyson Mulock, Rihela’s former assistant coach who has taken over as head coach, told the Post he and Rihela were “shocked and appalled” when they first heard of the allegations. Because of differing witness accounts, Mulock says it’s difficult to characterize what happened that day. “That’s a really tricky question. I’ve tried to look at it from so many views. … I don’t know if it’s hazing, if it’s assault,” he said. “Do I think something happened? Yeah. Do I think it was intentional? No. But do I think it went way too far? Yeah. Do I think these kids should be on the team anymore? No.” Mulock said he and Rihela were in lockstep from the beginning that the punishment should be swift. “We thought both kids should’ve been booted off the team. No questions asked. Done. Over.” He says they were saddened to learn their recommendation was overturned.

“Do I feel that this stuff was handled poorly? Absolutely I do. I’m on the record with saying that with the club,” he said. “We’re around these kids all the time. People that make the decisions aren’t.” Instead, the club allowed the players back on the team after a brief suspension: about one month and three weeks for the boy named in the dressing room incident, and about four weeks for the boy in the weight room incident. While the boys served their suspension they allegedly retained access to the club’s facilities and amenities, including participating in open ice skate times, a source said.

Rihela said the appeal decision was the wrong one. “What kind of message are we trying to send? There is only one way to deal with these situations — we have to teach them to respect the person beside them,” he said. In its statement, however, the club said its officials acted promptly and thoroughly to the complaint.

“In mid-December, a NSWC family reported that they believed their son was targeted by two other players. The family specifically requested that the club investigate the matter and requested that the club not contact the authorities. The club respected these requests. “NSWC acted decisively. The coach suspended two players and when the club was notified of the allegations, the NSWC immediately formed a disciplinary committee and upheld the suspensions while the committee investigated.” After the disciplinary committee concluded there were two incidents of bullying, “Discipline was bestowed, which included further suspension from team play, writing apology letters, and undergoing a professional anti-bullying session. We feel they have learned from their actions, understand the harm, and we do not expect this to be repeated. The suspensions have been served and the two boys have been reinstated.”

Since taking over as head coach, Mulock says he has enacted a new code of conduct. “Just trying to make sure these guys are accountable for their actions and how they behave and how they work on and off the ice, how they treat fellow teammates,” he said. He said he also stressed to his players that they can come to him anytime to talk. Some parents, however, remain uneasy. One who spoke to the Post on the condition of confidentiality said the circumstances are extremely upsetting. “I believe there should always be zero tolerance for misbehaviour like this,” he said. He said he supports Rihela’s decision to take a strong stand by quitting. “His actions do speak loudly. It’s important to safeguard the ideals of sport.”