By Grant Fleming
STRATFORD, ONTARIO — The top politician in a southwestern Ontario city says he had no idea a convicted rapist was playing for the team he presides over.
Dan Mathieson is the mayor of Stratford, a city 150 kilometers west of Toronto. He’s also the president of the Cullitons junior hockey team.
Mathieson says he didn’t find out until late January of this year that a veteran player and team captain, Mitch Vandergunst, was convicted last October on two counts of sexual assault.
Vandergunst, 20, raped a young woman in July 2013. She was the girlfriend of Vandergunst’s friend. The judge, who sentenced Vandergunst to one year in jail plus two years of probation, described his crime as “predatory in nature.”
The woman’s identity is protect by a judge-imposed publication ban.
Mathieson told local reporters he didn’t even know that Vandergunst was charged with the crimes back in 2013.
Last August, the Stratford Cullitons named Vandergunst as the team’s assistant captain. His criminal trial was underway at the time he was appointed to the leadership position.
Vandergunst continued to play this season, including after he was convicted of rape. He was allowed to go to parties and served as a team representative at community functions.
The team’s coach and director of player personnel, Phil Westman, 50, left the team early last month, six days after a local newspaper reporter confronted Mathieson about the rape conviction. Mathieson says he contacted Westman immediately, and Westman resigned willingly.
According to Mathieson, the deposed coach withheld information about Vandergunst’s sex crimes because he was confused about what he could tell anyone about the case due to a judge-imposed publication ban.
According to court documents, Vandergunst’s name was never part of the publication ban.
Westman, who was with the Cullitons for 15 years, hasn’t spoken publicly about Mathieson’s version of the events surrounding his departure from the team, or what he knew about the Vandergunst case. Mathieson has described Westman as “professional” and “forthcoming.”
Mathieson hasn’t explained why, as the team’s president as well as a prominent politician, he didn’t know about Vandergunst’s trial and conviction.
Mathieson claims that at no time did any of the team’s executive and directors – 25, in total – know about Vandergunst’s case. The criminal proceedings spanned 20 months.
The team’s board is comprised of a number of other leading citizens of Stratford, including the city’s ex-police chief, Jerry McEwin. McEwin has not spoken publicly about the Vandergunst case or Mathieson’s assertions.
The hockey team has a Prevention Services Coordinator whose job is to ensure that players, staff, board officers and volunteers behave according to a code of behaviour. The policy manual includes how to report illegal activity. Mike Robinson serves as the coordinator.
Robinson is also a full-time officer for Stratford’s police department. He hasn’t commented publicly to confirm Mathieson’s version of events.
Mathieson told reporters in early February that he wanted the team’s leadership to be open and honest about the Vandergunst matter.
At least one young man who played with Vandergunst knew about the criminal trial. Mathieson announced in early February that Ty Bilcke, 20, was also kicked off the team. The team president has released few details about Bilcke’s dismissal. In a recent message posted on a social media site, Bilcke says he was let go because he openly supported Vandergunst.
Mathieson says he and team officials will take steps to make sure another scandal doesn’t happen. He says the Cullitons were scandal-free until the Vandergunst case.
For now, the measures don’t include changes at the top. Mathieson has not offered to step down as president of the club. He added that it was time for the community to “move on” from the Vandergunst scandal.
The head of the league says he’s satisfied with Mathieson’s explanation for what happened. Scott Farley, the CEO for the Ontario Hockey Association and a friend of Mathieson’s, says he’s satisfied with Mathieson’s investigation.
Stratford, a small city with a population of 32,000, is best known for its annual Shakespeare Festival as well being the hometown of Justin Bieber.
The Cullitons are a popular attraction, too, drawing more than 1,300 people to home games. Their main sponsor is a local HVAC company. The team uses an Indigenous warrior’s headdress as its logo. It plays the “tomahawk chop” song to celebrate goals.