Criminal charges against athletes often present team and league public relations staffers with some challenges. And they’re often not handled well. But the way the Calgary Flames handled this around forward Dillon Dubé looks particularly bad and may go down in history as a textbook example of what not to do in public relations. And it’s now leading to them being roasted over the coals publicly.
What exactly is going on with Dubé? Well, on Jan. 21, the Flames put out a statement that the 25-year-old winger was taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team “while he attends to his mental health”:
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) January 21, 2024
At the time, that message received a lot of support from Flames’ fans and NHL fans. Mental health is a serious issue and one that’s starting to get more awareness and discussion in sports. And while some still question the idea of athletes taking time away for that, many are entirely on board with it. But the problem here is that this does not appear to be even close to the full story of why Dubé is not currently with the team.
The Flames issued this statement on Sunday, Jan. 21. On Wednesday, Jan. 24, Robyn Doolittle of The Globe and Mail broke the news that London, Ontario, police had asked five unnamed players from the Canadian team for the 2018 World Junior Championships to travel to that city and surrender to be booked on sexual assault charges. That’s in relation to allegations from a woman referred to as E.M. in court documents. She alleged in a civil lawsuit that she met one player from that team at a bar in June 2018 following a Hockey Canada golf event. She went to his room and had consensual sex with him, and he then invited other players to the room to have sex with her without her consent.
In May 2022, Rick Westhead of TSN reported that that lawsuit had been quietly settled by Hockey Canada and the Canadian Hockey League (which oversees the major junior teams and leagues the players involved played for) and that that had been done without consulting any of the players involved. That led to incredible backlash, including Canadian parliamentary hearings and significant Hockey Canada leadership change, as NHL and Hockey Canada-commissioned investigations. It also led to London police reopening a criminal investigation there. And that’s now led to these charges against five players.
What’s strange about those charges and how they came out is that the police have not yet released the names of the players involved. Their main statement to date has been that they’ll hold a press conference on Feb. 5. But people started making links with five particular announcements from teams that players who had been on that 2018 Canadian roster were taking leaves of absences. And one of those announcements was confirmed to be connected Sunday when Alex Formenton (who currently plays internationally for HC Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland)’s lawyer stated that he had turned himself in. And on Tuesday, Westhead reported that the four NHL players taking leaves of absence from their team (Dubé, Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers, and Michael McLoed and Cal Foote of the New Jersey Devils) are the other four players expected to surrender to London police this week:
Four National Hockey League players – Carter Hart, Michael McLeod, Dillon Dube, and Cal Foote – have been directed to surrender to police in London, Ont., to be charged with sexual assault in connection with an alleged incident that occurred during a Hockey Canada event in the city in June 2018, two sources familiar with the matter told TSN.
The players are expected to surrender before the London Police Service holds a press conference on Monday to update the public on the high-profile case.
Dubé’s lawyers later confirmed that charge and said he will plead not guilty:
A lawyer for Calgary Flames forward Dillon Dube confirms Dube has been charged with sexual assault and says he will plead not guilty. pic.twitter.com/uBSQ77qqRw
— Rick Westhead (@rwesthead) January 30, 2024
All of those players’ departures from their teams were initially announced as indefinite absences and personal leave. And that’s not fully reflective of the situation and has drawn some criticism for all of them/ But at least the team releases other than the Flames did not specifically cite mental health. And the Flames are taking tremendous heat for that. Here’s some of that:
Wishing Dillon Dube all the best as he “attends to his mental health” (aka surrenders to London Police). Grateful to hear he’s “under the care of health professionals” (aka criminal defence lawyers). What a gross smoke screen from the @NHLFlames. https://t.co/AUVt1VQRnw #NHL pic.twitter.com/FlFhzLQ3CW
— Ryan Jespersen (@ryanjespersen) January 30, 2024
I wonder what the @FlamesFdn think of @NHLFlames using "Mental Health" as a reason for a player leaving to front the police on serious charges? Considering how much they've donated to mental health causes in Alberta. pic.twitter.com/sQJIFp4iwg
— drex (@drex) January 30, 2024
This looks significantly worse now.
I don’t doubt Dube is struggling.
But this should not have been how the @NHLFlames handled this and they should be ashamed.
I really think they need to own up to how bad this statement is https://t.co/oykkHcTU39
— Allison (@AlleyDalley) January 30, 2024
Hey @NHLFlames, thank you for covering up Dube’s absence with mental health as the excuse!
Consistently for my entire life you have disappointed our fanbase but I can honestly say I’ve never been more upset than I am today. How dare you use mental health to cover this https://t.co/NUQC4kHTVx
— Will Baldwin (@TheWillBaldwin) January 30, 2024
— Patrick Smith (@plsmithca) January 30, 2024
Reminder that the @NHLFlames organization BLATANTLY LIED and said Dillon Dube was on leave for “mental health reasons”. Disgusting.
There have been fines for far less https://t.co/pUHbT4Iv3u
— NHL Review (@nhl_review) January 30, 2024
No one is disputing that criminal charges are challenging for team or league social media staffers to address. There’s a need to communicate the situation’s seriousness and what steps the team or league is taking (including investigations, leaves of absence, suspensions, and/or releases). Still, there are also notable difficulties to consider with an outside organization providing comment on an ongoing criminal case.
And this gets tougher still when much to all of the information about the criminal case is not yet public (and the London police deserve their share of criticism for keeping this so under wraps, to a point where even anonymous sources wouldn’t confirm the players’ identity for almost a week since the report of police asking players to surrender; that led to a lot of speculation and to unfortunate impacts on players who were on that team but not accused here).
And we don’t know what the Flames did or didn’t know at this time, and what Dubé and his camp did or did not tell them. And that’s been floated as a possibility to keep in mind by ESPN’s Emily Kaplan:
I've heard that some of the players were directed by their lawyers not to tell their teams any details about potential charges. Not sure how this played out in Calgary, but something to keep in mind.
— Emily Kaplan (@emilymkaplan) January 30, 2024
But with all that said, a statement citing “mental health” as a rationale for a leave of absence to face criminal charges should not have happened. It’s not great when teams can’t say much, but at least it’s somewhat understood. And while the Flyers are having their own media challenges elsewhere at the moment, the way general manager Daniel Brière addressed Hart’s situation at a press conference Thursday was more promising than what the Flames have done.
Brière made it clear he and the team couldn’t say much there. But he did not issue a denial Hart’s absence was related to the London situation (which would have been expected if it wasn’t connected), and he did not try to throw up any “mental health” smokescreens. He was quoted in the initial team statement on Jan. 23, citing “personal reasons” and saying there would be no further comments. That may not be perfect, but it is significantly better than how the Flames approached this. And whether that was on them getting bad information from Dubé’s camp or straight-up putting out wrong information despite knowing better, it led to a big problem in the end.
There’s plenty of room for criticism to go around in this situation. From the initial Hockey Canada response (including the quiet lawsuit settlement) to the delay in these investigations to the slow response from teams and the NHL to the eventual statements this week, much could have been done better. But the Flames’ incorporation of “mental health” in their statement on Dubé’s absence particularly stands out. Regardless of how this mess actually happened, it produced a statement that was insulting to readers, and one that diminished the actual mental health challenges many athletes do face. And that’s why this team is getting roasted harder than anyone else.