Low expectations: Head of women’s shelter doubts hockey players will take sensitivity training seriously

By Grant Fleming

STRATFORD, ONTARIO – A leading advocate for abused women is concerned that hockey players and officials for a junior team will ignore lessons on sexual consent.

Leslie Reynolds, the chair of Optimism Place, was commenting on the recent partnership between her organization, Optimism Place, and the Stratford Cullitons junior hockey team.

Optimism Place is a women’s shelter based in Stratford.

Reynolds said she’s not hopeful her shelter’s workshops will make a difference.

“The problem is, these boys think the world revolves around them,” Reynolds said, adding, “Many boys who play hockey treat women like possessions.”

“That attitude is as old as the hills. I don’t see how that will ever change,” Reynolds predicted.

On October 3, 2014, a hockey player for the Cullitons, Mitch Vandergunst, 20, was convicted on two counts of sexual assault involving a young woman. The rapes occurred in July 2013, in South Huron, Ontario.

On February 4th of this year, Vandergunst was sentenced to one year in jail plus two years of probation.

On the day Vandergunst was sentenced, many of his teammates showed up wearing team jackets that featured a logo of a red-faced, Aboriginal warrior. The young men were seen smiling while they milled around the building.

Despite his criminal proceedings, Vandergunst remained with the hockey team for two seasons, including for four months following his conviction. He was officially dismissed from the team on February 5th of this year.

Six weeks before his conviction, coaches and players appointed Vandergunst as an assistant captain. He kept the title after the guilty verdict. His duties included serving as an ambassador for the club at community events.

The head coach and director of operations, Phil Westman, was forced to resign from the Cullitons the same day Vandergunst was kicked off.

In early February, the team’s president, Dan Mathieson, told reporters that Westman stepped down willingly.

Mathieson, who is also the mayor of Stratford, explained that the 50-year-old coach didn’t dismiss Vandergunst immediately, or tell his bosses about the sex offender, because he was confused.

“At the time, there was some discrepancy whether it was a charge versus a conviction,” Mathieson said. “(Westman) was told there was a publication ban, and Mr. Westman believed that he could not breach that.”

Court records show that Vandergunst’s identity was never covered by a judge-issued publication ban. As is customary, the victim’s identity was protected by the ban.

At the same news conference, Mathieson announced that the Cullitons would seek sensitivity training education from Optimism Place.

Anne McDonnell, the executive director for the women’s shelter, told reporters at the news conference that hockey players can be “put on a pedestal [and] that can be a good thing.” She added that it can be a hard fall if they make poor choices.

McDonnell’s boss doesn’t think hockey players deserve that lofty perch.

Reynolds, who taught school for 35 years, said, “The world revolves around these boys [and] it’s because their parents make them think they’re so special.

“I had boys tell me they didn’t have to do their homework because they were hockey players,” Reynolds said, recalling her time in the classroom. “And I had moms tell me, ‘boys will be boys,’ when I told them their sons were bullies.”

On February 14 of this year, Optimism Place conducted a workshop for the Cullitons. The topic was sexual consent. According to an organizer, all players and several members of the coaching staff attended. One member of the board of directors was present.

The Cullitons’ website lists 15 people in charge of the team’s day-to-day operations. They include a director of hockey operations, a general manager, and an assistant general manager.

In addition, the team lists 25 members on its board of directors, 24 of whom identify as men.

Reynolds believes more people in charge of the Cullitons, including all managers and board members, need to be educated.

“Sure they should go [to the workshops],” Reynolds said, but she wasn’t optimistic that they would.

“What will the attitude of these men be while they’re in the room?” Reynolds asked. “I think some of them will balk at it.”

Lorraine Smith is the lone female member of the board for the Cullitons. She’s also in charge of the team’s “booster club.” She declined to answer a reporter’s questions about her club’s partnership with the women’s shelter.

Ms. Smith said she didn’t know about Vandergunst’s conviction on charges of sexual assault until she was informed by the team’s president, Dan Mathieson.