How University is Ottawa is relaunching men's hockey after sexual assault scandal

Neate Sager
Patrick Grandmaitre (centre) will be uOttawa's new coach (University of Ottawa photo)

Winning trust — and wins along the way — is job one for Patrick Grandmaître, who will helm the University of Ottawa's relaunch of men's hockey once a break stemming from a sexual assault scandal concludes.

Nearly all questions posed to the young coach at his introduction on Wednesday focused on the ins and outs of building from scratch for the Gee-Gees' return to Ontario University Athletics play in 2016-17. The real question, though, is about effecting a culture change in the wake of why the team was suspended last season and will not play games this winter. The wheels were put in motion, after all, when university president Allan Rock suspended the program in March 2014 once staff were informed by Thunder Bay, Ont., police about a sexual assault investigation involving players. The misbehaviour occurred during a boozy hotel party while the team was on the road at the school's expense, acting as its representatives. Two former players were eventually charged. Coach Réal Paiement was also fired.

Ottawa has reached out in sports figures such as Ottawa Senators CEO Cyril Leeder and former NHL coach Jacques Martin to consult and help reestablish credibility. The 36-year-old rookie coach also said the virtual "expansion team" he's leading will have to convince the university community it belongs on ampus.

"I think we'll have to be involved in some community projects," said Grandmaître, a former pro in Germany whom since 2009 has been a physical education teacher at Collège Nouvelles-Frontières, a private high school in neighbouring Gatineau. "Finding the right people, the right players, it's all about having the strong people sending the right message and having a sense of pride within the team to follow those rules. When some guys are getting off the rules, it's my job to bring them back but it's also the job of the leaders inside the team, to have a sense of accountability to not only the team but the school.

"It's not easy. It's not something where you just flip a switch. But you have to set the tone right away. We'll make it clear while we're recruiting so that the guys who are accepted here are aware of this reality. And they'll embarking on this journey to rebuild not only the hockey team, but the confidence in the hockey team."

"I think I'll have to go deeper than to just go see hockey games because I am looking for character traits, not just hockey traits."

Grandmaître added that indulging prospective recruits' misgivings about the code of conduct Ottawa enacted after its investigation of the hockey team would perpetuate a broader social ill.

"I can give these guidelines to players on paper if they want to see what they are," he said. "I want to be as clear as possible. Put it out there. If it scares some guys right away, then it's good for me to know so I won't waste as much time on those guys. It's a privilege to play CIS hockey. It's not a penalty to come. People will want to come here. I think from talking inside of the hockey community, I think that it won't be an issue for the players coming in. They'll be excited to be coming in, they'll excited to play CIS. It will be like an expansion team. It's exciting to be one of the 25 guys that relaunches the program."

Several former players have filed a lawsuit against the university over the program's suspension. No individual was stripped of eligiblity to play hockey elsewhere in CIS or, in theory, join another Gee-Gees team. Members of that 2013-14 team could also rejoin. 

Since the hockey team's suspension, uOttawa has instituted training for all student-athletes on the concepts of consent, signs of sexual abuse and bystander invention. Julie Lalonde, a public educator with the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, believes proper steps were taken to inform student-athletes about why rape culture can pervade the sports world.  

'Message has been sent'

"For me, the question about whether it's an appropriate time for the team to come back can't be separated from how they will be integrated," Lalonde said. "I think it's an appropriate time to come back. I think the message has been sent. Had it been done 10 years from now, my response would have been the same: 'what are you going to do to make sure that culture doesn't get recreated again?' It wasn't just that team that had a problem. I feel confident that them coming back now is the right move.

"I believe what the University of Ottawa did [by suspending the hockey program] was a gift to not only the women involved with this particular case, but to all survivors on campus," Lalonde added. "To see that the campus would elevate, to pull the team, to investigate, to speak out very strongly in public. That's the attitude all campus should have. People are taken off teams for plagiarism, for not having grades, for not coming to practice. It's unbelievable to say that you should be able to play hockey if you were part of a sexual assault or a conspiracy to cover one up. The campus has a priority to protect its students and the university did something that I hope resonated to all campuses."  

Starting over will be tough. Men's hockey, typically, is the second-most expensive CIS sport after football, which can offset costs with ticket sales. Marc Schryburt, who was hired as uOttawa's director of sports services this spring, said he plans to attract private sponsorship in order to increase the hockey budget from $450,000 annually to the mid-$600,000s. Schryburt visited 11 universities to glean ideas about how to get businesses involved with a CIS team.

"We'll be able to provide the equivalent of 25 entrance scholarships for 2016-17," Schryburt said. "That's unheard-of in CIS ... Rules are fairly strict in the CIS, especially in the OUA. You cannot provide more than $4,500 a year as [an athletic financial award]. And the athletes have to keep marks up to retain that each year. You can do the math. Forty-five hundred times 25, that's what we're working on to make sure that is what Patrick has to work with."

Martin will be a special advisor to Grandmaître for at least one season. He will also be a guest coach at the Senators rookie camp in September.

"We're surrounding ourselves with good people," Schryburt said.  

Grandmaître, who is a former assistant coach with the school's women's team, is in for a hectic 12 months. On the homefront, Grandmaître and his partner Jani Lalonde are getting married in August and are expecting their second child, who will be a sibling for their two-year-old son Louis.

Then there is the challenge of recruiting 25 players at once instead of a half-dozen or so. Many 21-year-olds who played an overage season of junior only look into CIS once it is evident a professional contract will not materialize. Grandmaître, a former captain of both the QMJHL's Victoriaville Tigres and Quebec Remparts in his youth, notes four junior leagues have a presence in the national capital region. No recruit will have to wait his turn behind a veteran, either.

At the same time, OUA coaches work in a scarcity economy when it comes to recruiting. Twenty teams are competing for former juniors, as opposed to eight in the Atlantic conference and seven in Canada West. 

"The beauty of our region is we have an OHL team [Ottawa 67's] and a QMJHL team [Gatineau Olympiques] 10 minutes apart," Grandmaître said. "It's easy to see games in those both leagues. We have a good [Central Canada] Junior A league and a Junior A franchise in Buckingham, Que., starting this year. Then it's networking. I don't have an unlimited budget to travel around Canada, but once network with contacts, you can see players and get them interested in junior hockey.

"There are a lot of players out there who can help start this the right way." 

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger.