Ethan Rabidoux and the Stratford Cullitons: the two-way race for story of the year


By Grant Fleming

Rabs! How 'bout them Cullies?
Rabs! How ’bout them Cullies?
Tom and Ethan share their last happy moment together.

Ethan Rabidoux, the federal NDP candidate here in Stratford, Ontario, may have just supplanted the rape coverup by the local junior hockey team, the Stratford Cullitons, as this city’s Story of the Year (with apologies to Shakespeare and The Biebs).

The rub: Rabidoux’s self-made mess has become a national story. But the rape scandal involving the storied hockey team, the Cullitons, never made it beyond southwestern Ontario, despite the fact that many high-profile people, including the mayor and ex-police chief, are involved in the story because of the positions of trust they occupy with the team. They were nowhere to be found while a rapist was allowed to play for the team.

His Worship, the charismatic (and occasionally short-fused) Dan Mathieson (team president), and ex-top cop, Jerry McEwin (team vice-president), claimed they didn’t know that the player in question, Mitch Vandergunst, had been arrested and charged back in July ’13 (and subsequently convicted on two counts of sexual assault, in Oct ’14). Instead, he was allowed to keep playing until January of this year. They did kick him off the team, but only after the victim’s parents complained publicly.

The Cullitons are regarded (by themselves, at least) as the model junior B club in all of Ontario. The team has sent many players to the NHL. They include Hall of Famer, Rob Blake, Chris Pronger, and Ed Olczyk. The team ices a winning team practically every season, and draws bigger crowds than most, if not all, junior B teams in the province.

Ask the locals who’ve lived here all their lives: many will tell you that hockey, not theatre, rules this town. (Even CBC newsman, Peter Mansbridge, a newbie resident and erstwhile hockey coach here, marvels at the city’s abiding love of the game. He even did a documentary to give glory to the hometown arena where the Cullitons play. Take note: he interviews Mathieson. The mayor’s fond of telling people that the two are buddies.)

But the coverup has never been investigated by reporters who have clout and curiosity. One journalist, Colin Butler, a CBC’er in Kitchener (40 kilometers east of here), wrote, “Sorry, we jut don’t have the resources.” (Well, unless Bieber’s back home for some ATV mayhem.) And lucky for Mathieson & Co., the local citizenry hasn`t been clamouring for answers, either. I`ve taken a swing at it, but my readership probably maxes out at 50.

Speaking of which, an ex-Culliton player, Jeff McArdle, tried to take a swing at me. It happened last week at the local YM/YWCA. He came out of nowhere, yelling and screaming (“ya fuckin’ queer”) until he turned crimson; he threatened poetically (“I should fuckin’ drop ya right here, ya fuckin’ queer”); and then he was tracked down by police and served with a no-trespassing order (and a lifetime ban from the Y). Like his buddy, Vandergunst (the rapist), McArdle served as an assistant captain for the team last year.

I‘m not ignoring the usefulness of social media for getting the story of the Cullitons coverup out there. It’s what I’ve been relying on (and what Rabidoux probably wishes he hadn’t for his stories). However restricted their attention spans may be, reporters working for chains like Sun Post and Metroland did cover the story for a couple of days (without breaking anything major). But other big news gatherers — CBC (Radio and TV, including their outlets in nearby Kitchener and London), Global, CTV, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, etc — steered clear, most of them completely. I wonder why.

For any reporter worth their salt, this is a big story. It contains enough angles. Here’s a bunch:

– Mayor Mathieson’s role with the team (and questions around why he’s on the executive);
– the many cops who are linked to the team;
– a “sham” investigation the team did with help from buddies at a private eye firm (so laughable, it’s like something out of a “This is That” skit);
– the parents of the victim going public by speaking to a lowly blogger;
– Sheldon Kennedy — an Order of Canada recipient — speaking out about the coverup (“stop sweeping it under the carpet”);
– the head of the local women’s shelter doubting much will change with the team;
– a rival coach for the Guelph junior team airing his concerns about the coverup;
– the governing bodies (OHA and Hockey Canada) ignoring the coverup;
– the sex offender trolling for another team to join, but doesn’t reveal his status (he’s facing prison time, hoping to win on appeal);
– Mathieson out as team president, McEwin in;
– the CEO for the governing body, the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA), resigning suddenly;
– the role of the friendly hometown media in ignoring the story of the year (their choice: something to do with swans).

And this: Rabidoux was the radio play-by-play guy for the Cullitons before leaving to take a shot at politics. What are his thoughts about what happened with the Cullitons?

Some, maybe even many, of the angles may lead to dead ends. Maybe the head of the OHA resigned “for family reasons” or because he got a better job (he’s not talking), or the Stratford mayor resigned as team president because he realized, “I have a full-time job as mayor” (also not talking). That happens. But anytime hockey, politics, cops and something serious happens, you’d think a journalistic leader would want to take a swing at it.

At any rate, my stories about the Cullitons are posted on this blog. Come back to this space soon for another one about the team’s logo — not to mention, the “tomahawk chop” — that one Aboriginal sports leader describes as “offensive and threatening.”