On Tuesday, November 15, Bob Nicholson appeared before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (CHPC). His appearance as a former CEO of Hockey Canada has reopened an old story that has never been fully told, one that may remain a mystery.
The testimony before the CHPC was wide ranging and focused on both current and past business practices of Hockey Canada, as well as their use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in general. These legal contracts were also discussed in one particular case. While the hearings into Hockey Canada have largely focused on their response to and payments made regarding claims by victimized people who have been sexually assaulted, the general issue of Hockey Canada’s use of NDAs has come up at past hearings. The various Members of Parliament who make up the committee have been unhappy with the practice, and have struggled to get clarification on their use.
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Nicholson, now with the Edmonton Oilers parent company, was CEO of Hockey Canada from 1998 to 2014. In 2013, less than two months before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Dan Church, head coach of the women’s national team, resigned. Or at least that’s how it was reported at the time.
Dan Church 'heartbroken' to step down as coach of women's hockey team
Before the Olympics even began, Church did an interview with Sportsnet where it was clear as a bell that he did not voluntarily leave:
After all this time, there are still questions as to why Dan Church left the women’s team. Asked if his players know the story behind his resignation, Church told Sportsnet, “I don’t believe they do.”
And not only that. “There are still parts of it that I don’t understand,” he says. “It became apparent to me that Hockey Canada didn’t have confidence in me. It’s not a good spot to be in as a coach, and so that’s when the decision became apparent to me that I was going to be resigning.”
Church won’t say why Hockey Canada lost confidence in him, or how he received that message, only that “it came out of left field.” He won’t say he was forced out, only that his resignation was “the only choice that I had in this situation.”
It is now clear that Church signed an NDA when he was allowed to resign.
Former WNT head coach Dan Church resigned before the 2014 Olympics.— Rick Westhead (@rwesthead) November 15, 2022
Church: “I have just reviewed my NDA and been advised by council that it would be inappropriate and in violation of the terms of the NDA to make any comment.”
Church now coaches at York University.
Nicholson, when questioned at CHPC by Anthony Housefather (MP, Liberal) referencing Westhead’s reporting (above) from earlier in the day, was asked if he was aware of the circumstances around the signings of what appears to be three NDAs, Church’s and two “staffers”.
Nicholson: There is an NDA that is in place. I know that Dan Church and two other coaches signed those NDAs. I was fully aware of how they got to that position. I was not involved, we had other senior people doing it. It was an evaluation of a coach going into the Olympic Games, and a decision was made after meeting with a number of the staff, and I think a majority of the players, that we would make a change in the coaching staff, and an NDA was signed by Dan and by two other coaches for sure.
Housefather then asked specifically if “allegations of harassment” led to this, or was it non-serious disappointment by the players in the coach.
Nicholson: What I remember is really an in-depth investigation by the players and by the staff, and after all of those individual meetings happened, they thought it was in the best interests for us to make a coaching change.
Later in the same hearing while being questioned by Peter Julien (MP, NDP), Nicholson was asked why there was an NDA if the coach was fired for performance issues. Julien asked if there were “special conditions” in this case. “Is something being covered up, is my question.”
Nicholson: We didn’t have set guidelines on NDAs. ... I can’t say too much because we do have a signed NDA with [Dan Church], but it was a number of very touchy subjects that were discussed with the assistant coaches, with a number of players on the team, and I’m sure that was the reason it came back to my desk to have NDAs signed from a recommendation from our HR and our senior staff.
Note: all transcriptions are by me from the official recording of the hearings.
The assistant coaches who worked under Church were:
Danielle Goyette, now the Director of Player Development for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Lisa Haley, now the head coach of the Toronto Metro University women’s team. There were also a host of other staff, including a goaltending consultant, and conditioning coach and many more. All seem to have remained with the team.
Goyette and Haley were named interim co-coaches of the team after Church left, and when Kevin Dineen was hired a few weeks later as head coach, they remained as his assistants. You can see them both in the image above along with Dineen. Also present, of course, is Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser, the Assistant General Manager for Player Development of the Maple Leafs.
Dan Church has been the head coach of the York University women’s team since 2004, and he remains in the position today. York and TMU are in the same division of USPORTS.
We don’t know if Goyette and Haley are the coaches who signed NDAs, and we don’t really know why Church was, as is clear, allowed to resign in lieu of being fired for cause. Church, who you will note Nicholson refers to informally by his first name, was frequently the subject of press reports that read as if he was the wronged party, cruelly deprived of his chance for Olympic glory.
When asked if Hockey Canada had released anyone from an NDA — something outgoing CEO Scott Smith promised to look into — current Hockey Canada Vice President Pat McLaughlin had to admit they have not.
Whatever anyone knew about this situation, it is covered by NDAs, at least at the coaching level. No players are believed to have been asked to sign away their rights to speak up. Everyone walked away with a career in hockey, and it’s hard not to see that as the point of the NDA exercise where the wronged party is asked to hold up the rug while the guilty get to sweeping.