While the on-ice focus around the NHL is about the ongoing Stanley Cup Final, the biggest story around the league may be about the Chicago Blackhawks’ management team’s alleged failure to report sexual assault of players by video coach Brad Aldrich in 2010. Not only did the team not report anything about Aldrich to the police, they allegedly gave Aldrich positive references when he moved on to other jobs, including volunteer work at Houghton High School in Michigan and a paid video role with Miami University (in Oxford, Ohio). In 2013, Aldrich pled guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct with a high school student and was sentenced to nine months in jail. And that story’s now gotten worse, with TSN’s Rick Westhead reporting Wednesday that a former Miami University hockey player accused Alridge of 2012 sexual assault in a 2018 report:
In a Sept. 4, 2018, email to Miami police, the alleged victim wrote he didn't want to press charges against Aldrich but wanted "something on record in case he ever does something like this again, particularly to children."
Unclear if victim was aware of Aldrich's 2013 conviction. pic.twitter.com/7puMhUjqIX
— Rick Westhead (@rwesthead) June 30, 2021
This means there are now at least four significant allegations of sexual assault against Aldrich. The Blackhawks are currently facing two lawsuits, one from a former player (who mentions that he and an unidentified teammate were assaulted by Aldrich in 2010) and one from a high school player (who says that the Blackhawks are to blame for not reporting Aldrich to authorities and helping him move on to other roles). Now, there are actual allegations against Aldrich from his time at Miami as well.
Of course, that was always a possibility, as Aldrich left the Miami team extremely suddenly on Nov. 19, 2012 (although Westhead notes that his official resignation didn’t come until the 27th, and he was paid through the end of the month and had health coverage through January 2013). But it was also possible that his dismissal there was about revelations of his past with the Blackhawks. Now, it’s clear that Aldrich’s behavior at the university led to another sexual assault allegation. And this may well not be the last one; The Athletic’s piece on this last week has an extensive list of people at Aldrich’s various jobs talking about inappropriate behavior from him, and it’s certainly possible more allegations could be forthcoming.
Amidst all of this, many have offered a lot of criticism for how the NHL and the Blackhawks have reacted to the situation. The team’s initial response to the lawsuits was largely avoiding comment because of pending litigation, but arguing in court that the lawsuits should be dismissed over the statute of limitations. Since then, they’ve hired an outside firm to conduct an investigation of these claims, but that’s drawn a lot of criticism too. And the NHL themselves has been extremely reticent on this topic; vice president Bill Daly told The Athletic Friday “We have been in contact with the Club regarding the matter but there is no ongoing investigation. We do not have any further comment at this time,” and commissioner Gary Bettman deferred most of his response to this team-commissioned investigation in his remarks Monday:
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league learned of the sexual assault allegations against former Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Brad Aldrich “relatively recently” and, while it found them “concerning,” he said it will wait until an independent review is complete before deciding on potential discipline.
“But my first reaction is, ‘Tell me the facts,'” Bettman said at his annual pre-Stanley Cup Final news conference Monday. “Once we know what the facts are, we’re in a better position to evaluate what may or may not need to be done.”
…According to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, the Blackhawks’ deputy counsel first alerted the league office to the Aldrich allegations. Neither Daly nor Bettman specified an exact time they were made aware, but Bettman classified it as “relatively recently considering the allegations … from at least what we know publicly, are 10 years old.”
Bettman said “all options are available” when it comes to disciplining individuals or the club.
“Let us see what the investigation reveals, and then we can figure out what comes next,” Bettman said. “I think everyone is jumping too far, too fast. This is going to be handled appropriately and professionally, and done right.”
Meanwhile, that investigation’s approach has already taken criticism, including from the plaintiffs’ lawyer and NHL agent Allan Walsh. Here’s more on that from Katie Strang, Mark Lazerus and Scott Powers at The Athletic:
“The statement that they will not agree to release the result of the investigation at this time makes me conclude that it is not independent. If it were independent I believe they would provide the assignment … and make public all of the information they plan to provide, such as all of their files … to the investigator and none of that has been done, so the answer is no, I do not think it is ‘independent,’” Susan Loggans, the plaintiffs’ attorney for two different lawsuits against the Blackhawks in the matter said when reached for comment via email Monday night.
…NHL agent Allan Walsh said the league should be asked to provide a specific timeline for when the investigation is expected to be completed and be transparent with the results.
“If you’re not committed to making the reports public, all you’re doing is managing a PR nightmare/crisis without actually doing anything meaningful,” Walsh said.
The comments from Walsh in particular make a good point. At this point, all the Blackhawks have done is hire a law firm and told them to look into it, and they have not committed to relaying anything in particular from that firm’s report to the public (much less the full report). Similarly, the NHL is just piggybacking on the team-commissioned investigation; this would look better if it was league-commissioned rather than team-commissioned, or if there was at least a parallel league investigation, but at this point, all the league appears to be doing is saying “We’ll wait for the Blackhawks to tell us what the investigation they commissioned says, then we’ll decide what, if anything, we should tell anyone else” (Bettman’s above “Let us see what the investigation reveals” quote is in response to a question about releasing that report). That seems like remarkably little in comparison to the investigations commissioned by other leagues into matters of much less actual significance, from steroids to deflated balls. These are events that led to a criminal conviction and at least two lawsuits, and they’re events that one former Blackhawks’ player told Westhead he’s still struggling with 11 years later.
The NHL response also seems like remarkably little when considering the potential league-wide impact here. The league appears to be saying “This is a Blackhawks’ issue,” but it goes much wider than that. Three executives from that 2010 Blackhawks team are currently NHL general managers (Stan Bowman still holds that role in Chicago, Marc Bergevin is now the GM of the Montreal Canadiens, and Kevin Cheveldayoff is the GM of the Winnipeg Jets), while 2010 Blackhawks’ head coach Joel Quenneville is currently the head coach of the Florida Panthers. All of those individuals have questions to answer about what they knew, when they knew it, and why they didn’t report it. And those questions are notable for some players, too; it’s interesting that Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks’ captain then and now, pushed back on the previous anonymous 2010 player who told The Athletic “every guy on the team knew” by saying…he found out a few months later.
Toews said he didn’t hear about the allegations against Aldrich until right before training camp at the end of that summer of celebration. Aldrich was just gone — nobody knew if he left on his own or if he had been fired. That’s when, Toews said, he heard the stories from “those two players.”
“I don’t know who the player (that talked to The Athletic) is, but it kind of annoyed me because it seemed like it fed the fire a little bit,” Toews said. “When that player commented that everybody on the team knew, that wasn’t true. As far as I know, some guys may have caught whispers of it and some guys were clueless until the next year. I don’t think that was an accurate statement.”
Toews said he couldn’t comment much beyond that, offering sympathy for the players who were allegedly assaulted, calling it a “tough situation” and saying he couldn’t say for sure “if the team mishandled it.”
That’s not much of a defense. Yes, absolutely, the majority of the burden to report here isn’t necessarily on individual players or individual executives. The players in question did report the abuse, to skills coach Paul Vincent. Vincent then reported it (as confirmed through his own account and the account of associate coach John Torchetti) to team president John McDonough, vice president of hockey operations Al MacIsaac, general manager Stan Bowman, and team sports psychologist James Gary, and urged them to go to the police. They do not appear to have done that.
And yes, if that was a clear decision from that group of decision-makers, the hurdles for any other player, coach or executive in getting this story out rise. But it should be noted that there are always ways to get out information even against the wishes of organizational leaders, including through going to the media. And it’s remarkable to hear Toews say that players heard at the latest by “the next year” (which may be just the next season, but even if it’s a full year, that’s 2011), and at that point, Aldrich was still getting roles with high school and college hockey teams, where he would later be accused (and in the high school case, convicted) of further assaults. It sure seems like a lot of people knew about Aldrich’s behavior with the Blackhawks, and yet, that didn’t stop him from getting further jobs working with young players.
Something else that’s notable about this situation is that so far, the Blackhawks and the NHL have said very little about it. The team has offered next to no comment beyond their hiring of an investigator, and their primary response to litigation has been “Sorry, you waited too long.” And the league’s primary response has been “We’ll see what the team-commissioned investigation turns up.” Neither of those responses seems like nearly enough.