At the Leon’s Centre arena, home to the junior hockey team in Kingston, Ontario, a sense of outrage mixed with anticipation as fans who had gathered for a game grappled with the news that five former Canadian junior hockey players — four of whom played in the National Hockey League — had been charged last week with sexual assault.
The first hearing for the five accused is scheduled for Monday at the Ontario Court of Justice in London, Ontario. There the police, who first investigated but didn’t bring charges in 2018, plan to hold their first news conference about the case on Monday afternoon.
The allegations have touched a nerve with fans, leading many to question how Hockey Canada, the nation’s governing body for the sport, has responded.
The case came to light in May 2022 after TSN, a sports channel that broadcasts the world junior championship, reported that Hockey Canada had paid 3.5 million Canadian dollars, or $2.6 million, to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman who said she had been sexually assaulted by eight junior league players. At the time of the assault is said to have occurred, all of the players were members of Canada’s national junior team.
It was later reported by the newspaper The Globe and Mail that the settlement payment had come from a slush fund bolstered in part by children’s hockey registration fees.
Although the N.H.L. has international fame and recognition, in many smaller communities, hockey, Canada’s dominant sport, is more often defined by junior teams of amateur players between the ages of 15 and 20.
Those accused of sexual assault are Michael McLeod, 26, now a center for the New Jersey Devils; Cal Foote, 25, a defenseman for the Devils; Carter Hart, 25, a goalie with the Philadelphia Flyers; Dillon Dubé, 25, a center for the Calgary Flames; and Alex Formenton, 24, who is on leave from a Swiss professional team and who previously played for the Ottawa Senators. Mr. McLeod faces an additional charge of sexual assault “by being party to the offense.”
The players have been given leaves from their teams. The men’s lawyers said in separate statements that they would vigorously defend their innocence and declined to comment further.
The assault, according to the woman’s lawsuit, took place in London, a city about 120 miles southwest of Toronto. The police there looked into the allegations in 2018 but abandoned that inquiry the following year. No charges were filed.
The investigation that led to Monday’s court appearance was opened in 2022 after the revelations about the lawsuit settlement came to light.
Before he was fired as Hockey Canada’s chief executive that year, Scott Smith rejected suggestions that the multimillion-dollar slush fund, formally known as the National Equity Fund, was a mechanism to hide accusations against players. “I adamantly oppose the suggestion that we covered this up or swept something under the rug,” he told a parliamentary committee in 2022.
Sexual assault cases are not new to hockey. But in the past, some of the most high-profile ones have involved abusive coaches. Over about two decades, Graham James, a former junior hockey coach, was convicted in three separate cases of sexually assaulting players, including Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury, who became N.H.L. stars.
In addition to the police investigation that led to the charges, Hockey Canada and the N.H.L. conducted their own inquiries, but neither released details. On Friday, Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the N.H.L., said that the league would wait until the court process was complete, which may take years. He described the allegations in the case as “abhorrent, reprehensible, horrific and unacceptable.”
Mr. Bettman said there was no need to suspend without pay the four men who are still with N.H.L. teams because their contracts expire at the end of the season.
“It becomes irrelevant in terms of the timing,” he said at a news conference. “They’ve been paid the vast bulk of their salary for the year anyway.”
At the Leon’s Centre on Friday about 3,600 people had gathered to see the home team, the Kingston Frontenacs, take on the Oshawa Generals. After the game, which the Frontenacs lost, 5-4, some of the players met fans at an autograph table.
Monica O’Neill, a nurse who had been the volunteer president of the team’s supporters’ club for about 25 years, said she would not judge the players facing charges until their cases were heard in court.
“It’s sickening to me, actually, because we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors,” she said after she signed up some fans for a bus trip to a junior game in Ottawa. “We don’t yet know who’s telling the truth.”
Michael McNamara, a lifelong Kingston resident who has held season tickets for 32 years, said that regardless of how the criminal cases unfold, Canadians fans will not be inclined to forgive the governing body.
“One way or the other, the truth is going to come out,” he said. “But I think Hockey Canada is going to be ridiculed because of the way this was handled — big time.”