A hockey team’s rape scandal that no one cares about

Column by Grant Fleming

“Have you pitched your stories to media outlets?”

A few readers have asked me that question. They’re referring, of course, to the story about the Stratford (Ontario) Cullitons, a junior hockey team whose officials let a convicted rapist playing for it this past season.

Before I answer, allow me to recap the story.

Last October, Mitchell Vandergunst, a player for the Cullitons, was convicted of raping a woman. In February of this year, he was kicked off the team, one day after a judge sentenced him to a one-year jail sentence (plus two years of probation). Between the day he was convicted and the day he was sentenced — a four-month stretch — Vandergunst laced up his skates for 40 games. During that time, he served as an assistant captain for the club.

In early February of this year, the team’s president, Dan Mathieson, who’s also the mayor of Stratford, told reporters that the only person who knew Vandergunst was a convicted rapist was the head coach, Phil Westman. Mathieson says he accepted Westman’s resignation the same day Vandergunst was dismissed.

At that February news conference, Mathieson gave a confounding explanation for the coach’s involvement in the cover-up. He went on to say that no one else connected to the team — certainly no one on the 25-person board of directors — knew they had a convicted rapist in their midst. (For details on what Mathieson said, check the story I published on April 17th.)

That’s the gist. To date, I’ve written a number of stories as well as a FAQ, all of which are on this site. 

I started investigating on the scandal in late March. I did so because, to my knowledge, no one else was. That includes the two local papers, the Stratford Beacon Herald and the Stratford Gazette. They providing occasional spot news coverage but they weren’t digging.

It’s been 15 years since I worked as a regular journalist. In the 1990s, I was a sports reporter and, for a brief time, a current affairs host for CBC Radio, in places such as Winnipeg, Regina, and Kelowna.

Back then, I reported on a major cover-up connected to the case of a junior hockey coach who raped a number of his players. You may have heard of Graham James as well as some of his victims, including Sheldon Kennedy and Theoren Fleury. High-ranking people — politicians, lawyers, police, teachers, hockey executives — in cities such as Winnipeg (Manitoba), Swift Current and Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan), and Calgary (Alberta) allowed James to run amok. In 1997, The Canadian Press named the James scandal as its “Story of the Year.”

As mentioned, I took on the Cullitons rape story because I spotted a disturbing silence when it came to local coverage. This is not a paid gig; I don’t have blog sponsors; and I’m not looking to cash in, either. I chose to go down this road.

Back to whether or not I’ve pitched the story: the answer is yes. I’ve contacted a number of media outlets. I’ve done so this way:

  • to let them know “I believe there’s a story here” (I made those calls before I started writing my own);
  • to let them know “I’m doing the stories now, and maybe you can jump in and cover different angles to it;”
  • to let some of them — the two local papers, for sure — know “this story’s right in your back yard, it’s getting bigger, and you’re nowhere to be found.”

What responses have I received? Here’s the roll call:

  • Bruce Urquhart, managing editor, Stratford Beacon Herald (owned by Sun Media). Earlier this month, Urquhart suggested that the two of us have coffee (that hasn’t happened yet);
  • Steve Rice, news reporter, Beacon Herald. A couple of weeks ago, Rice left his post as the long-time sports editor at the paper. He hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment. Since the Cullitons were his primary focus, for years, I’d like to find out what he knew, if anything, about the convicted rapist on the team. One local resident — Jim Hagarty, a former reporter for both Stratford papers — told me he has no doubt doubt that the beat reporters for the Cullitons would have known about Vandergunst.;
  • Jeff Heuchert, editor, Stratford Gazette (Metroland). Of the two papers in Stratford, the Gazette probably does smarter, more serious journalism than its bigger rival. Huechert is the only local newspaperman who has talked with me. He told me his paper can’t cover the story because his bosses and small staff aren’t up to it (he gave me a bunch of reasons);
  • CTV Kitchener: It was the first media outlet I called, back in mid March. CTV Kitchener is the # 1 news station in this area. Its newsroom runs an “I-Team.” Here’s a sampling of their investigative reports: The Cost of an Average Wedding! When its “I-Team” needs to decompress from that trauma, they come to Stratford to look for Justin Bieber banging around on a dirt bike;
  • CBC Radio London (Ont): A reporter there told me that the small bureau has no resources. Stratford is a 45-minute drive from their office. The hockey team’s cover-up of a convicted rapist involves the mayor of one of Canada’s most popular, and desirable, small cities. The CBC can’t fill up the gas tank and pop over? But you can count on one of their reporters to be standing by the red carpet when Hamlet opens here next month. That must-see occasion promises to be — what’s the CBC word? – wonderful;
  • London Free Press (Sun Media): no response to my email. In fairness — I’m not being facetious here — few people in Stratford read the “Freep” (there may be a big online subscriber base I don’t know about);
  • Kevin Donovan, reporter, Toronto Star: He hasn’t replied to several phone calls and emails. Mind you, he’s a busy and decent reporter, breaking stories (more than most journalists do). I told him to feel free to pass along my information, including my blog, to anyone else in his newsroom. That went nowhere, too;
  • Laura Armstrong, reporter, Toronto Star: I contacted her on April 18th, pointing her to my blog. She’d been covering a junior hockey-sex assault story this spring out of Cobourg, Ontario. She said she’d get back to me. Haven’t heard from her yet;
  • canadaland.com: One of their regular contributors, Laura Robinson, put me in touch with an editor, Sean Craig. He seemed interested, at first, but then he faded away. Probably just as well. (To be fair, though, the people there are, as someone once said about muckrakers, scurrilous but necessary journalists.)

But one journalist stood out: David Flaherty, the editor and court reporter for the Goderich (Ontario) Signal Star (a Sun Media paper and a sister publication to the Beacon Herald). I spoke with him a few weeks ago to ask him why he didn’t cover the Vandergunst criminal trial, which was held in Flaherty’s town. His response: “I’m not really that interested in covering court stuff. I don’t know much about it.”

I asked Flaherty how often he goes to the courthouse to check the docket. Answer: “I don’t do it very often.” (How often? “Not often. Why are you asking me these questions?”) Remember: in addition to his duties as the paper’s editor, Flaherty’s the court reporter.

In the past month I’ve received these comments:

  • “Your stories are small and fragmented…think big.” (A comment texted to me by a friend and former reporter/producer for CBC and CTV. She now teaches in the journalism program at a Canadian university. We worked together in the late 1990s. I helped to train her. Maybe this was payback.)
  • “Our [province-wide] noon show can’t pick up the story, but I’d be happy to guide you on how to cover it.” (Comment made over the phone by Amanda Pfeffer, a part-time host for CBC Radio in Ottawa. In the late 1990s, she and I worked for CBC in British Columbia.)
  • “If you can’t do the stories yourself, I know a freelancer in London (Ontario) who’d jump all over it. Her name’s Amanda Marjison. She’s like a dog with a bone between its teeth.” (Ms. Pfeffer again. I reached out to Marjison. No reply – not so much bark and bite.)

Back to the local media. The reporters in this city — the ones within easy reach of Stratford, too — have ignored an important story. Some of them are worried that Mayor Mathieson and his boys are going to get pissed off with them. Two of them spoke on the record. Jeff Huechert, the Gazette editor, said, “Mathieson gets very upset if we publish a story that criticizes him. We have to be careful because many of our advertisers are his friends.” Jim Hagarty, who worked as a reporter and columnist at both papers during his career, told me, “Mathieson is a bully. He still scares me.”

Other local reporters believe what the popular Mathieson has said about this scandal. One told me, “Mathieson says no one except the coach knew they had a convicted rapist on the team. He’s probably telling the truth.”

Reporters would do well to stop believing everything a smooth talker like Mathieson says. The second people like him announce, “it’s time to move on,” which he said about his hockey team’s scandal, that means it’s time to start digging.

Earlier this week, Jan Wong, the great journalist and author (and these days a journalism professor), told me that it’s a journalist’s job to “burn all bridges.” In other words, to hell with upsetting a small town mayor and his cadré. I appreciate that it’s not the only strategy available to reporters. But in the case of the rape scandal here, it seems that reporters would rather be pals with the mayor and all those board members with the Cullitons hockey team.

I’m aware of the irony here: a hockey team suppresses important information about a rapist; a blogger writes stories about the conspiracy of silence; and no one pays attention, partly because they don’t know about my stories.

But it’s not that ironic; in fact, people are paying attention. Friends such as David Staples (columnist, Edmonton Journal) are tweeting all my stories. He’s got a lot of followers.

People in Stratford are paying attention, too. Mathieson is concerned enough about my stories that he’s been telling other team officials (as well as Hockey Canada and the Ontario Hockey Association) not to speak with me. He’s not doing a great job of it. People keep talking.

The other day, my barber told me, “People are pissed off with your stories.” I furrowed my brow. What was his proof? He gave me a couple of names of people who railed at my stories while they sat in his chair. A couple of them have close ties to Mathieson and the team. I called them. They refused to talk.

Mitch Vandergunst, pride of the Stratford Cullitons hockey team, raped a woman. Not one club official – the leading lights of this city (so called) -– saw fit to get rid of him the day he was convicted. A bunch of people who should be stepping up, including the ones in charge of the hockey team, are keeping tight-lipped. That should tell any reporter that something’s rotten in Stratford.

Comments and suggestions welcome.