By Grant Fleming
Stratford, Ontario — The junior hockey team in this southwestern Ontario city faces more questions about the way it handled a rape scandal that surfaced earlier this year. At issue: Why were club officials allowed to conduct what one source describes as a “sham” investigation?
In July 2013, Mitchell Vandergunst, a player and assistant captain for the Stratford Cullitons, was charged with three counts of sexually assaulting a woman. He was found guilty on two of the charges on October 3, 2014. In his ruling, the judge said Vandergunst’s crimes were “predatory.”
Mr. Vandergunst’s status as a convicted sex offender did not keep him off the ice. He continued to play for the Cullitons for another four months. He was kicked off the team, in early February of this year, but only after the father of the victim blew the whistle by calling a local newspaper. That same week, Mr. Vandergunst was sentenced to a one-year prison term plus two years’ probation. He is appealing the convictions. He is scheduled to appear in Ontario Superior Court, in Goderich (Ontario), on November 23rd.
Three days after Mr. Vandergunst was sentenced, Dan Mathieson, the president of the Stratford club, told reporters that the only person who knew about Vandergunst’s criminal proceedings, which spanned 18 months, was Phil Westman, the team’s head coach. Mr. Westman resigned the same day Mr. Vandergunst was kicked off the team.
During the February 6th news conference, Mr. Mathieson said none of the team’s approximately 35 board members and staff knew they had a convicted rapist in their midst. Mr. Mathieson is also the mayor of Stratford.
That same day, Mr. Mathieson announced measures to prevent future scandals. One of the steps involved hiring a private investigation firm, ostensibly to look into how Vandergunst’s sex crimes went unnoticed by everyone except the coach.
Eagle Investigations, a private eye firm based in London (Ontario), released its report in late June. The local newspaper, the Beacon Herald, which assigns a reporter to cover the team full-time, summarized, but did not challenge, the findings.
According to Mr. Mathieson, the third-party investigation “found exactly what we said,” that everyone associated with the team, except the coach, was in the clear. He added that a handful of players heard rumours about Mr. Vandergunst but did not want to share the gossip about their teammate with team officials.
Mr. Mathieson would not say how much the Stratford Cullitons paid Eagle Investigations, only that “the cost is secondary to getting it right.”
Senior officials with the Ontario Hockey Association, the league that provides oversight to junior teams such as the Cullitons, have refused to comment on what involvement, if any, they had in the investigation, or if they have levied any penalties against the club.
Not everyone buys the report’s conclusion. One source called the team’s internal investigation a “sham.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity (“I know many of the guys who run the Cullitons”), the source pointed out that a number of board members and staff have personal and professional connections with at least one employee of Eagle Investigations.
“All you need to do is look at which ex-cop at Eagle used to work here in Stratford,” the source said. “That’ll tell you how cozy this whole arrangement was.”
The source was referring to Dave Ashkanase. He is listed as the marketing manager and investigator for Eagle Investigations. Before that, he was a veteran for the Stratford Police Service.
The Eagle report does not mention Mr. Ashkanase as one of the investigators involved directly with the Cullitons’ case, but he has direct ties to at least four officials with the club.
Mr. Ashkanase and Dan Mathieson
The two know each other through work and sport.
Mr. Ashkanase joined Eagle Investigations in 2013 after a 32-year career as a Stratford cop. He served as the police union’s president. Mr. Mathieson, who was the mayor at the time, chaired the Police Services Board.
Hockey provides another bond. For years, Mr. Mathieson and Mr. Ashkanase have coached in Stratford’s minor hockey system. The source described the two as “buddies.”
Mr. Mathieson resigned as president of the Cullitons earlier this summer. It is unclear if his departure was connected to the team’s rape scandal. However, in an interview last spring, he said, “the buck stops at the top.” Since making that comment in March, Mr. Mathieson has ignored repeated interview requests.
Mr. Ashkanase and Jerry McEwin
Mr. McEwin took over as team president earlier this summer. He is best known in this city for being the police chief from 1996 to 2012. According to the source, “McEwin is one of the old boys in town, part of the gang Mathieson and Ashkanase belong to.” Mr. Ashkanase served under Mr. McEwin for many years.
According to the source, “McEwin and Mathieson needed a friendly private dick to do an investigation. Who did they call? Their pal.”
Mr. McEwin has not responded to a request for comment. In late June, he told a local newspaper he was satisfied with the Eagle investigation.
Mr. Ashkanase and Glen Childerley
This is one of the more intriguing and, according to the source, “disturbing, really fucked-up” connections.
Mr. Childerley is an active-duty cop with the Ontario Provincial Police, the force that arrested and charged Vandergunst two years ago. He is also listed as a trainer for the Cullitons.
According to the source, Mr. Ashkanase and Mr. Childerley know each other professionally as well as through their involvement with Stratford’s close-knit hockey community. One of Mr. Childerley’s sons played briefly for the Cullitons during the 2007-08 season. A second son is listed as a trainer for the Cullitons.
Mr. Childerley is not talking about the Cullitons’ scandal. When contacted by this reporter in mid-May, he hung up the phone. He did not respond to a follow-up message.
Mr. Ashkanase and Mike Robinson
Mr. Robinson is an active-duty cop with the Stratford police force. He and Ashkanase worked together for years.
Mr. Robinson is also the Prevention Services Officer for the Cullitons. The job involves ensuring that players and coaches comply with a league-mandated code of conduct, which includes a zero-tolerance policy on harassment.
When contacted last April, Mr. Robinson declined to comment on the Cullitons’ scandal. This summer, team officials told him he would have to share the role of prevention officer with Jasmine Clark. Clark, a sexual assault counsellor who works at a women’s shelter in Goderich, expressed interest in the job during an interview with this reporter last April.
The Cullitons play in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League (GOJHL). The league commissioner, Chuck Williams, said he learned about the Stratford scandal “when I saw it on the news” last February. He said he was “relatively new in the job [and] I was dealing with a lot of issues at the time.”
Mr. Williams said the Stratford case “never officially came to my office.” He said he did not hear from a Cullitons’ official until after Vandergunst was sentenced, meaning at least five days elapsed before the team’s president, Mr. Mathieson, told Mr. Williams about the scandal.
Mr. Williams said his office has no plans to conduct its own investigation into the Cullitons’ scandal.
“I know that the Ontario Hockey Association and Hockey Canada were taking over the situation,” Mr. Williams said, referring to the two governing bodies that provide oversight to leagues such as the GOJHL. “I felt it was in good hands with them.”
Hockey Canada does not seem to be investigating the Cullitons, either. In late June, Karen Phibbs, a top official with the national governing body, said, “I’m at a bit of a disadvantage with this Stratford thing. I only know what I’ve read in the newspaper.”
Ms. Phibbs lives in London, 65 kilometres west of Stratford. She is the first female to hold a senior executive position in the 100-year history of Hockey Canada. She also has direct ties with the GOJHL and OHA.
Ms. Phibbs explained that “the first step would be for the OHA to investigate the [Stratford] situation” before Hockey Canada became involved.
It appears that the OHA has no plans to conduct its own probe. Scott Farley was the CEO of the OHA when the scandal broke. Three days after Mr. Vandergunst was sentenced, the league boss seemed to indicate that he was satisfied that Cullitons’ officials, especially Mr. Mathieson, had the matter well in hand.
The OHA has experienced internal problems in recent weeks. Farley resigned suddenly last month. His replacement, Mark Ellis, has ignored repeated requests for comment on the Cullitons’ matter.
The Cullitons are dealing with their own staffing issues. Randy Petrie was the club’s general manager and head scout until he walked out the door recently. No explanation has been given for his departure.
(Saturday: An interview with a rival GOJHL coach who wants to know why the Ontario Hockey Association did not do its own investigation into the Cullitons’ scandal.)