WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.
Five former players on Team Canada’s 2018 World Junior hockey team are set for their first court hearing today, starting the first stage of what lawyers say will likely be a long legal process that could take more than two years to reach a verdict.
NHL players Michael McLeod and Cal Foote (both with the New Jersey Devils), Dillon Dubé of the Calgary Flames, Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers and former NHLer Alex Formenton are scheduled for a London, Ont., court hearing at 9:30 a.m. ET.
All are charged with one count of sexual assault, while McLeod is also charged with one count of being party to the offence. Their lawyers have said they plan to plead not guilty. It’s alleged the incident occurred following a Hockey Canada gala in London in June 2018, when the players were honoured for their victory at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships.
Lawyers who spoke to CBC News, and aren’t involved in the case, said they don’t expect the players will be walking past news cameras for this court hearing — the court docket lists their appearance as happening via video conference.
“I would expect none of them to be there in person,” said Andrew Furgiuele, a Toronto-based defence lawyer who represented a junior hockey player in a separate sexual assault case.
Furgiuele expects lawyers for each player to speak to the judge just long enough to confirm they’re the counsel of record.
After that, Furgiuele said, the lawyers will likely ask the court for timely disclosure of the information the Crown is using for their case. This information won’t be made public until it’s introduced as evidence at trial.
“My hope would be that the Crown is ready to go with at least some substantial disclosure at the outset,” said Furgiuele. “But there are times when it takes weeks. The process will start on Monday, but it won’t finish on Monday.”
Here are some other key legal questions:
Will the 5 defendants be tried together?
Furgiuele said he expects the five players will be tried together, not separately, as part of a single court proceeding.
While it’s possible one of the defendants could apply to have their case “severed” from the others, Furgiuele said such a move is becoming “increasingly rare” to avoid multiple trials.
What about the extra charge for McLeod?
While all five players are charged with sexual assault, only McLeod faces an additional charge — being party to an offence.
Furgiuele said “being party to” simply means aiding or encouraging a principal offence. It essentially leaves the Crown two routes to conviction for McLeod.
How long could a trial take?
Carolyn Conron, a criminal lawyer based in London, said that based on Supreme Court decisions, criminal trials should happen within 30 months, minus any delays caused by the defence. If they go longer, the players’ legal teams could file requests for stays, arguing their clients didn’t get a trial in a timely manner.
Judge alone, or judge and jury?
Furgiuele said whether or not the players will be tried by a judge alone or by a judge and jury is one of the most difficult strategy decisions for defence lawyers in cases like this. If one of the defendants requests a jury, that’s how the case is tried.
“Judge and jury trials are the default for indictable offences,” said Furgiuele. “But if one of [the players] wants a jury, all of them are going to get a jury.”
He said there are pros and cons to each option. Judge-alone trials can be quicker, while juries can be unpredictable.
Will the players be released from NHL contracts?
Four of the players, excluding Formenton, are under contract with NHL teams until the end of this season. They are technically on paid leave from their teams.
Now that they face charges, does this mean the NHL will move to drop them from their contracts?
Eric Macramalla, an Ottawa-based lawyer and legal analyst who specializes in the sports industry, believes the NHL will just wait because the contracts will expire long before the trial starts. This avoids any challenge from the players’ union.
“The last thing you want to do if you’re a team is terminate or fire a player,” said Macramalla.
That echoes what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday: That the league doesn’t need to suspend the players because they’ll soon no longer be members of their teams.
What about sentencing?
Under the Criminal Code, sexual assault carries a maximum 10-year jail sentence. However, Furgiuele said, in cases involving first-time offenders, something in the neighbourhood of a two-year sentence is much more likely if there’s a conviction. He added that the sentence ultimately depends on the evidence presented at trial.
What about today’s police news conference?
London police haven’t spoken publicly about the charges, but they’ve called a news conference today for 2 p.m. ET at RBC Place, London’s downtown convention centre.
Conron said she’ll pay close attention to whether or not police reveal any new evidence. London police closed the case in 2018, then reopened it in 2022 in response to public outrage following a lawsuit.
“One of the questions I would have is: What has changed?” said Conron. “Experienced officers have already looked into the allegations, interviewed witnesses and determined there was no reasonable grounds to lay a change. What’s changed between then and now? I’d be very curious to investigate that.”
For anyone who has been sexually assaulted, there is support available through crisis lines and local support services via this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.