By Grant Fleming
TAVISTOCK, ONTARIO – The captain of a junior hockey team caught up in scandal is staying true to a teammate who was convicted of rape.
Trevor Sauder, 21, has played for the Stratford Cullitons for the past four years. He says his former teammate, Mitchell Vandergunst, deserves the benefit of the doubt.
“He’s a best friend. He always stuck up for me,” Sauder said, adding, “It’s a tough scenario for him.
“Obviously, you feel bad about the girl, but then you look at him. He truly is a great guy.”
On October 3, 2014, Vandergunst, 20, was convicted on two counts of sexually assaulting a young woman. The victim was the girlfriend of one of Vandergunst’s friends. The assaults took place in July 2013, in South Huron, Ontario.
A publication ban prohibits naming the victim.
In August 2014, while his criminal trial was going on, the players and coaching staff picked Vandergunst to be an alternate captain for the Cullitons. His duties included serving as a team ambassador at community events involving young fans.
Asked when he knew about Vandergunst’s trial and eventual rape conviction, Sauder said, “I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Vandergunst continued to play alongside Sauder for four months following his rape conviction. He was officially kicked off the team on February 5th .
Vandergunst’s dismissal came the day after he was sentenced to one year in jail plus two years of probation. The judge called the sex offender’s crimes “predatory.”
At the sentencing hearing, many of Vandergunst’s teammates arrived at the courthouse wearing jackets that featured the team’s logo. It depicts a red-face Aboriginal warrior wearing a headdress.
Earlier this month, an official with Optimism Place, the women’s shelter in Stratford, said the players’ attire at the courthouse was “inappropriate.” Jasmine Clark said she voiced concerns to the team about their show of force in front of the victim.
Sauder said he missed the sentencing hearing, but then added, “I probably would’ve gone” if not for a university exam scheduled that day.
Club officials tight-lipped since Vandergunst and coach dismissed in February
In early February, the team’s president, Dan Mathieson, told reporters that no one on the board of directors for the Cullitons knew about Vandergunst’s conviction. Mathieson is also the mayor of Stratford.
But at least one senior official knew about Vandergunst’s rape conviction. The coach of the Cullitons, Phil Westman, was forced to resign in early February on the same day Vandergunst was removed from the team.
Mathieson told reporters in early February that Westman made a mistake.
“At the time, there was some discrepancy as to whether it was a charge or a conviction,” the president explained.
Mathieson added, “He [Westman] was told there was a publication ban, and Mr. Westman believed that he could not breach that.”
According to court records, Vandergunst’s name was never protected by the publication ban.
At his February news conference, Mathieson did not explain what he meant by Westman’s confusion about the criminal charges versus the conviction. Further, he would not say who told Westman about the publication ban, or why the coach did not seek legal advice after learning that Vandergunst was a convicted rapist.
Since that news conference, Mathieson has refused repeated requests for comment, saying league officials and the team’s lawyer advised him to keep quiet.
Among the questions that remain unanswered: What legal advice, if any, did Westman seek in order to sort out is confusion about the publication ban? Andrew Phillips, the team’s lawyer, has not responded to a request for comment.
Westman’s only public comment about the Vandergunst affair came in late March. He said he was put “in a really, really bad position.” He refused to elaborate.
Vandergunst is out on bail while he awaits an appeal hearing. It remains unclear if he is challenging his conviction or the jail sentence.
Sauder, whose eligibility to play junior hockey has expired, said he hopes to play university hockey next year.