Bettman apologizes to Beach, defends response in wake of sexual assault allegations

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman came under fire Monday as he defended the league's response to last week's release of a damning report into how the Chicago Blackhawks handled sexual assault allegations made by one of their prospects against an assistant coach during the team's 2010 run to the Stanley Cup.

Bettman opened his remarks by apologizing to Kyle Beach, the player at the centre of the allegations against former video coach Brad Aldrich, before fielding a number of pointed questions related to punishments levied — and not levied — by his office, including the decision to absolve Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff of wrongdoing.

An assistant GM with the Blackhawks at the time, Bettman told reporters during a 50-minute virtual media availability Cheveldayoff was "such a minor player" in the process and that he didn't deserve sanctions more than a decade later.

The independent third-party report by an outside law firm, commissioned by the team in response to lawsuits by Beach and a former high school student Aldrich was convicted of assaulting in Michigan after leaving the NHL team, indicated senior Blackhawks' leaders discussed Beach's accusations at a meeting on May 23, 2010, after Chicago advanced to the Cup final.

The report stated the allegations were largely ignored by management. Cheveldayoff is the only person who attended that meeting still employed in the league.

"(Cheveldayoff) thought it had been fully resolved by the people that he reported to," Bettman said. "He was an assistant general manager with fairly limited responsibilities."

But Aldrich, who has told investigators the encounter with Beach was consensual, was still around the team for another three weeks, got a day with the Cup following Chicago's victory, and had his named etched on hockey's holy grail.

"(Cheveldayoff) had no reason to believe that anything other than the right things were going on," Bettman said.

The commissioner also defended the decision to allow Florida Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville — a mainstay with Chicago from 2008 to 2018 — to be behind the bench for his team's game last Wednesday following the report's release.

"I wanted to make sure that no one, including (Quenneville), could say that I had prejudged him," Bettman said. "People can disagree on this, but I was focused on the long-term, not that one game."

Quenneville met with Bettman on Thursday before resigning.

Asked if the now-former Panthers coach was presented a framework of what discipline might look like if he declined step down, Bettman responded: "Joel ultimately concluded that the most sensible course of action for him was to resign."

Bettman spoke to Cheveldayoff some 24 hours later and was satisfied by the Winnipeg GM's recollection of events.

"He didn't have access to information," Bettman said. "And he had no reason to believe that what he had seen or known had been dealt with any other way than appropriately."

Cheveldayoff released a statement Friday that didn't include an apology to Beach, but he's scheduled to speak with reporters Tuesday in Winnipeg for the first time since the report shook the hockey world.

Jets owner Mark Chipman, who the team said is suffering from a health issue that delayed the press conference by a day, is expected to also be on hand.

"It wasn't a question about speaking up," Bettman said of Cheveldayoff. "It's not a question of values. You can't speak up and be focused on values on things you don't know about. He didn't know and he didn't have access to the information.

"What he did know led him to believe that it was being dealt with appropriately."

The consequences of what the Blackhawks did in 2010 — specifically the period during the playoffs when they failed to act on Beach's allegations, allowing Aldrich to remain around the team — have reverberated throughout the NHL.

Blackhawks president and GM Stan Bowman resigned in the wake of the report, while the club announced Al MacIsaac, another top hockey executive, was also no longer employed by Chicago.

The league fined the team US$2 million for "the organization's inadequate internal procedures and insufficient and untimely response" to Beach's allegations.

The Arizona Coyotes, meanwhile, were docked a pair of draft picks in August 2020 for violating the NHL's scouting policy. And in 2010, the New Jersey Devils faced a $3-million fine and were stripped of two picks for salary cap circumvention.

"Different context, different facts," Bettman said. "This was to make clear that the way the Blackhawks organization handled this matter was not appropriate, even though ownership was not aware.

"And it was also a message to the rest of the league that you need to make sure your organization is functioning properly on these matters."

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Monday in the same media availability that the NHL first learned of a potential lawsuit last December, though it was downplayed by the Blackhawks' lawyers.

"They claimed to have looked into it," he said. "They said there was no merit."

Daly added the first time the league learned of the specific allegations was in May when the first suit was filed.

NHL Players' Association head Donald Fehr, meanwhile, was contacted twice about allegations connected to Aldrich, including by a Beach confidant, according to the report. Fehr told investigators he couldn't recall either conversation, but didn't deny they had occurred.

Fehr, who held a call with the union's 32-member executive board Monday, said last week in a statement there was "no doubt" that the system had failed Beach and "we are part of that system."

The NHLPA said Monday night that on the call Fehr had "recommended that an independent investigation be commenced by outside legal counsel in order to review the NHLPA’s response to the Kyle Beach matter. The executive board is currently voting on this matter.”

Beach took part in an gut-wrenching interview with TSN's Rick Westhead on Wednesday where he revealed himself as the "John Doe" initially named in the report.

"My reaction was I was horrified," Bettman, who spoke with Beach over the weekend, said of the 27-minute interview. "It was emotional. I was distressed. He had obviously been suffering just by watching him, and I wanted to make sure that we were continued to be focused on how to deal with what was now in front of us.

"And I was sorry, as a personal matter, that anybody had to go through what he was discussing."

Bettman said he believes the league has taken strides in the last decade to deal with situations like the one Beach faced, including a hotline to report all forms of abuse.

"That is something that we're going to continue to hammer home," Bettman said. "If this horrible situation should serve any constructive purpose, it's to demonstrate that this will not be tolerated. And if you have a problem in your organization, you better deal with it.

"And if you're in a position of authority, you shouldn't be overlooking it, because there'll be a consequence to that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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