Ex-coach refuses to accept blame

(Warning: coarse language.)

By Grant Fleming

MILVERTON, ONTARIO – An ex-junior hockey coach claims he did nothing wrong by allowing a convicted rapist to play for his team.

Phil Westman spoke out for the first time on Friday when a reporter came to his home. The encounter lasted for less than two minutes.

Westman refused to answer questions. He did suggest to the reporter that he was a victim.

“I got put in a very, very bad position,” Westman said. He wouldn’t elaborate.

Westman’s comments came nearly two months after he was forced out in the wake of a scandal involving the Stratford Cullitons, the junior hockey team he coached.

In July 2013, Mitch Vandergunst, of Exeter, Ontario, was charged with two counts of sexually assaulting a young woman. The incidents happened in South Huron, Ontario. The woman’s identity is protected by a court-imposed publication ban.

On October 3, 2014, Vandergunst, who was 18 years old when he assaulted the woman, was convicted on both counts. The judge described his crime as “predatory in nature.”

On February 4, 2015, Vandergunst was sentenced to one year in jail plus two years of probation. Judge George Brophy denounced Vandergunst’s sex offences “in the strongest possible terms.” Vandergunst is appealing the decision.

Despite his criminal proceedings and eventual conviction, Vandergunst played with the team for two seasons, including for four months following the guilty verdict.

Cullitons officials kicked Vandergunst off the team on February 5th of this year, one day after he was sentenced to one year in jail. He’s out on bail pending his appeal.

Westman was forced to resign the same day Vandergunst was dismissed.

The deposed coach lost his temper when a reporter tried to ask questions.

“Here’s my daughter,” Westman said, pointing at a teenager who sat nearby. “You know what my daughter thinks? That I’m part of a sexual fucking assault case that I had nothing to do with, and guys like you come to my fucking door.

“Get the fuck out of here.”

While Vandergunst’s trial was going on a year ago, the team’s executive promoted Westman. In addition to his job as the head coach, Westman’s bosses put him in charge of the club’s hockey operations.

Last August, Westman handed out a promotion of his own. He gave Vandergunst a leadership role, making him an assistant captain. Westman refused to explain why he chose an alleged rapist to lead the team.

Vandergunst attended numerous team parties and served as a team ambassador at community functions during that time.

Tyler Canal is the team’s new coach. Previously, he worked for four years as an assistant to Westman. It’s unclear whether Canal knew about Vandergunst.

Vandergunst’s criminal case spanned 20 months, but senior executives for the community-owned Cullitons insist that Westman was the only club official who knew about Vandergunst’s sex crimes during that period.

In early February of this year, the team’s president, Dan Mathieson told local reporters that Westman concealed information about the Vandergunst case because he thought the publication ban prevented him from talking to his bosses.

Vandergunst’s identity and the description of the charges laid against him weren’t covered by the ban.

Mathieson told reporters he personally didn’t know about Vandergunst’s trial or rape conviction. He said he first learned about Vandergunst’s case and conviction on January 30th of this year when a local reporter contacted him.

Mathieson is also the mayor of Stratford.

Mathieson told reporters that Westman left the Cullitons after admitting he made what Mathieson described as “an error in judgement.” He said Westman was “forthcoming” when they met to discuss his future with the team.

Mathieson told reporters he has advised his board not to speak with the media.

Earlier this week, another senior club official, Don MacArthur, defied Mathieson’s directive when he spoke with this reporter. He said he was unaware of Vandergunst’s case. MacArthur added that he doesn’t believe any of the teams 25 board members knew.

MacArthur spends a lot of time at the team’s rink. In addition to his 33-year run as a board member, he attends all home and away games, sells tickets, and works as a radio broadcaster and public address announcer for the team.

The Cullitons are popular in Stratford. They average more than 1,000 fans for their home games. Last night, 1,800 people turned out to watch the team’s playoff match.

The club’s president, Mathieson, said from now on players and coaches will be required to take sensitivity workshops addressing such issues as consent. He said a local women’s shelter will do the training.

The head of the Ontario Hockey Association, Scott Farley, announced last month that the league won’t investigate what happened in Stratford. Farley said he’s satisfied that Mathieson knows what he’s doing.