Questions remain over NHL and Blackhawks’ handling of sexual assault case

Kyle Beach of the Chicago Blackhawks skates against the Detroit Red Wings during a pre season game on September 24, 2010 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) (Gregory Shamus, 2010 Getty Images)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An executive director with the Professional Hockey Players Association does not know how the agency was not contacted in 2010 during a period where allegations of sexual assault surfaced within the Chicago Blackhawks organization.

Last month, a report from an independent firm hired by the Blackhawks to investigate allegations of sexual assault was released. Inside, it detailed an individual player known as John Doe who was allegedly assaulted by the then video coach for the team. A day after the report was released, former AHL player Kyle Beach came forward stating he was John Doe.

“The fact that we didn’t know of it breaks my heart, said Larry Landon, executive director of the PHPA. “That fact that if other players on the team may have known and didn’t pick up the phone and call us.”

Landon said he found out who the player was the moment Beach went on television. The association’s primary function is to negotiate player benefits through the collective bargaining agreement which includes health and welfare benefits. The PHPA represents 1,800 players between the American Hockey League (AHL) and the ECHL, the league the Jacksonville Icemen play in.

In 2010, Beach was a player for the Rockford Ice Hogs in the AHL. However, during the Blackhawks historic playoff run he was called up as part of the ‘black aces.’ He, along with eight other players, were on call in case a Blackhawks player could not play. They went on road trips with the Blackhawks during their Stanley Cup run. The report details the alleged sexual assault between Beach and then video coach Brad Aldrich. It adds that Beach spoke to multiple people within the Blackhawks organization including staff, players and the NHLPA.

Aldrich resigned from the Blackhawks a week after the team won the Stanley Cup. He was still allowed to take part in the team’s Cup celebrations and host the Cup for a day in his hometown of Houghton, Michigan. Aldrich went on to work with the University of Miami of Ohio, Notre Dame University, USA Hockey and Houghton High School. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to fourth-degree sexual conduct involving a minor. Aldrich was sentenced to nine months in prison and five years of probation.

Landon says the American Hockey League teams’ payroll comes from the NHL parent club. In that regard, technically the NHL club is the employer. However, Beach was a member of the PHPA under the collective bargaining agreement with the league.

If a player is recalled to the NHL during the regular season, he is an NHLPA member and would pay that agency’s dues.

“If he is assigned to us, unless it’s on 14-day conditioning he is a member of our union paying dues on our level,” said Landon.

He went on to add Beach would have some insurance through the NHL while he and the rest of the ‘black aces’ were with the Blackhawks. This would be in the form of care for some type of injury.

“But we never received a call,” said Landon. “We checked with our Redline program, they never received any calls back then.”

The Redline program is a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a year phone number that players can call. It will give them independent third-party counseling. The program was rebranded to its current state in 2011 to expand the services available for both players and their families. But it has been a part of the PHPA since its inception back in 1967. Each year, the players are subjected to a seminar regarding the program and how they can use it.

To better understand what is going on inside each locker room, every team in the ECHL and AHL has a player representative. Landon said the association tries to have two alternates from each club, too.

“I do believe there’s trust between the players and the PHPA office,” added Landon. “They’re calling saying I want help and I want it fixed right now, that’s what we are here for.”

Landon is a former player and has been with the PHPA since 1981. He was supposed to retire this past June but was asked to stay on in his role for another five years. He has three children of his own but tells everyone in the hockey community he has 1,803 people to look after.

The report regarding the Blackhawks states the NHLPA was contacted in the fall of 2010 regarding the alleged incident. Current executive director for the NHLPA Donald Fehr is mentioned in the report to have suggested he could place Beach in contact with an NHLPA-affiliated therapist even though he was not an NHLPA member.

In light of the recent report, the NHLPA board approved a separate investigation into the agency’s handling of the allegations.

The PHPA is also taking steps to do what it can to help as well. Landon mentioned that hindsight is 20/20. But the agency has reach out to Beach and it is trying to do what’s right.

“Anything like that I would be presented with I’m immediately on the speed dial to our lawyers saying what course of action do we need to take right now,” he said.

Since the report and the ongoing investigation, Landon has gone to his team within the Redline program. He wanted to make sure they understood the incident and be aware more calls for help could come through. Landon said the hotline has seen more calls regarding mental health in the past 18 to 20 months than any time in the last 11 years.

But the question remains, how does anyone make sure this does not happen again? Landon mentioned some of the things seen in the industry now with regards to inclusiveness are at the forefront right now as everyone takes a step back.

“It’s not terribly broken but it is broken,” he said. “We need to fix it and I think that’s the process we are going through right now.”

The PHPA believes its program is a good one but it is also working to make it a better platform. The agency is working on a whistleblower hotline that it would sponsor which would get immediate action.

Agency officials are also meeting with AHL President and CEO Scott Howson and ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin next week. The goal is to create a course that players, front office staff and anyone interacting with the players are going to have to sign off on.

Landon mentioned it could be like the AHL’s handling of the performance enhancing substance program. Each player is subjected to a video that he needs to see and sign off on before playing a game.

PHPA officials are working with Sheldon Kennedy and Wayne McNeil who are co-founders of the Respect Group Inc. on the course. Kennedy has become an advocate in Canada regarding sexual assault in the hockey industry. He came forward in 1997 about his own personal sexual abuse at the hands of the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos Coach Graham James.

“I told Sheldon once we feel we have a platform before we pull the shoot and say ‘yes, it’s going,’ I need to have a heart to heart with Kyle,” said Landon. “Make sure he understands that if not for him something this monumental may not have happened.”

Landon has noticed a change in the culture over the years. He is hoping the industry can get to a point where if a player on the bench overhears something, he will then take charge and say that is not appropriate. He adds these guys get paid to play hockey and the PHPA does not want anything else harming their development like what Beach went through.

“The fact that he was 11th pick overall in the National Hockey League and didn’t play a regular season game in the NHL speaks volumes to what this horrific act did to his career,” said Landon.