Smith needs to quit

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Scott Smith has been fully responsible for the day-to-day operations of Hockey Canada for the past 15 years as chief operating officer.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 10, 2022.

OTTAWA—A fish stinks from the head. In order to fix the Hockey Canada mess, the organization’s president needs to go.

Scott Smith has been fully responsible for the day-to-day operations of Hockey Canada for the past 15 years as chief operating officer. He became president in 2016 and CEO this year. He has been at the helm during the use of secret funds designed to bury sexual assault allegations against players.

Yet the board of directors seems to think he is the person to lead them out of the mess that he has been directly involved in creating.

What is really painful is how Hockey Canada officials seemed to think that putting a female face forward to defend the status quo is the best way to communicate their willingness to change.

BS walks and money talks. With the departure of key sponsors like Canadian Tire, Scotiabank, Tim Hortons, Telus, and more, Hockey Canada must realize that this exercise is not simply about putting lipstick on a pig.

There needs to be fundamental, cultural change in the organization, and that means a complete overhaul of the operational and management structure.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has even weighed in, suggesting that the organization should be replaced by something called Canada Hockey.

Quebec and Ontario affiliates have already halted funding to the national body. It won’t be long before other provinces follow suit.

The acting chair of the board of directors, lawyer Andrea Skinner, probably wishes she never took on the job.

It’s one thing to be hockey captain of a women’s university team. It is another to root out what’s gone rotten at Hockey Canada and fix it.

The organization hired an expensive communications team in preparation for last week’s grilling by a parliamentary committee.

But the doubling down strategy adopted by Skinner did little to elicit sympathy from Members of Parliament.

If anything, Skinner’s comments added fuel to the fire when she questioned who would turn on the lights at local arenas if Hockey Canada did not exist.

She also sought to deflect attention from the internal problems at the organization by claiming that hockey was being scapegoated “as a centrepiece for toxic culture.”

It wasn’t exactly the mea culpa that most Parliamentarians were waiting for.

Skinner claimed that there should be no changes in leadership, stating “it would be very impactful in a negative way to all our boys and girls who are playing hockey. Will the lights stay on at the rink? I don’t know. We can’t predict that. To me, it is not a risk worth taking.”

No one on the parliamentary committee agreed with her. Their negative reaction was so visceral that even the prime minister weighed in several times, suggesting that none of the members of the Hockey Canada organization were irreplaceable.

If you review the board membership, you should not be surprised that no one has actually demanded Smith’s resignation.

From the interim chair to the members of the board, most appear to have been chosen for their interest in the sport, and not their management skills.

From the former reeve of Eckville, Alta., to manager of community services for the City of Kenora, Ont., from a trustee on the library board in Lampman, Sask., to a volunteer of the year in Miltonvale Park, P.E.I., board members’ main credential is they once coached or played hockey.

The majority of board members do not appear to have experience in culture change or organizational transformation, precisely the skills that are needed in the current climate.

As long as government and sponsorship money kept pouring in, the organization did not need a strong board.

But given the current mess they have created for themselves, Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge is right: the members need to fix this organization.

Provincial affiliates refusing to send along their $3 registration fee for each minor league player is a good place to start.

The sport minister was blunt, seeking the resignation of the full leadership at the national level. “I hope they understand the message and leave before they burn the place to the ground,” she said upon leaving cabinet on Oct. 6.

Multiple corporations have withdrawn their support, as have former hockey players, including Sheldon Kennedy who has called on all board members and those on the operational side to step down.

The World Juniors are coming to Halifax and Moncton over the Christmas season.

If Hockey Canada refuses to fire Smith, the financial viability of that series will be threatened.

It may be time for Canada Hockey.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.