Kraken cut ties with Calumet player convicted of sex assault in 2013, organization says

Geoff Baker
Seattle Times

Seattle — That’s one Kansas City-sized cow pie the Kraken just barely avoided stepping in last week upon announcing their latest minor league affiliate.

Hours after last Thursday’s pact with the Kansas City Mavericks became official, social media was abuzz about the ECHL team last season employing a player, Calumet native and former Michigan Mr. Hockey high school award winner Ben Johnson, once imprisoned for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in a Windsor, Ontario, nightclub bathroom in 2013.

Turns out the Mavericks even made a qualifying contract offer to Johnson by a June 30 deadline before he opted to play overseas, meaning they still owned his rights mere weeks before the affiliation agreement.

New Jersey Devils prospect and Calumet native Ben Johnson skates with the puck during the 2013 training camp at the  AmeriHealth Pavilion in Newark, N.J.

Kraken general manager Ron Francis told me last Friday he’d been unaware of Johnson or his history before the social-media revelations but was subsequently assured he’d left. Mavericks GM Tad O’Had, a Yakima native, reaffirmed by email: “Ben Johnson is not on the roster and is no longer a member of the KC Mavericks. He has signed to play in Slovakia for the 22-23 season.”

Sure, even had Johnson accepted the qualifying offer he’d be a Mavericks – not a Kraken – employee. The affiliation allows the Kraken to place prospects on Kansas City’s roster, but the Mavericks are independently owned and have their own players not controlled by the NHL team.

But let’s face it: Johnson staying would have risked becoming a public-relations nightmare for a Kraken organization that prides itself on community involvement and hockey inclusivity devoid of any threatening or abusive behavior.

Not to mention, the NHL and hockey in general are currently undergoing quite the reckoning with regard to a perceived tolerance for sexual misconduct. It began a year ago when the Montreal Canadiens drafted Ontario Hockey League defenseman Logan Mailloux, who played in Sweden during the pandemic and was criminally convicted there of secretly photographing a woman while she performed a sexual act on him and later distributing the picture to teammates.

Ben Johnson takes a shot during the New Jersey Devils' 2013 rookie camp in Newark, N.J.

Then in November, an independent investigation commissioned by the Chicago Blackhawks concluded that team’s front office covered up an alleged sexual assault by video coach Brad Aldrich against onetime Everett Silvertips player Kyle Beach during the squad’s Stanley Cup championship run in 2010.

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman and a key front office associate resigned in the investigative report’s aftermath, as did former Chicago coach Joel Quenneville from his new position with the Florida Panthers.

Beach gave a compelling television interview lambasting the internal team silence around his case.

And right now, just when things seemingly couldn’t get worse, there’s a junior hockey scandal playing out in Canada rocking every level of the sport all the way up to the NHL. It became public in May that Hockey Canada – a federally funded entity overseeing amateur hockey in that country – had settled a $3.55 million lawsuit brought by a woman claiming she was gang-raped in June 2018 by eight members of Team Canada’s gold medal squad from that year’s World Junior Hockey Championships.

The alleged crime occurred in a hotel room after a Hockey Canada function in London, Ontario.

Player names were not divulged in the settlement, which is a problem because several are believed to currently play for NHL teams. The NHL is investigating, as is Canada’s federal government.

Some players from the 2018 squad have since gone public denying involvement. Among them is former Silvertips netminder Carter Hart, now with the Philadelphia Flyers.

So, yeah, the Kraken are very fortunate Johnson didn’t accept that qualifying offer and drag them into a dark place they want nothing to do with.

For those inclined to engage in “whataboutism” regarding scandals in other sports or defend Johnson’s right to earn a living after serving his three-year prison term, save your breath.

Yes, other sports have had issues with sexual misconduct. And yes, Johnson has served his prison term, but nothing says he gets to work in any field, especially a public-facing professional hockey job.

Hockey’s reckoning has also been long coming and shouldn’t be diminished by issues in other sports. The fact Johnson remained a New Jersey Devils prospect and AHL player up until his 2016 criminal conviction and was employed by two ECHL teams since his 2018 prison release means hockey executives tolerated his past in return for what he does on the ice.

As for the Hockey Canada scandal, it keeps getting worse.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has demanded answers while a federal parliamentary committee in Ottawa is conducting public hearings. Last month, the Globe & Mail newspaper revealed the existence of a special multimillion-dollar Hockey Canada fund used for payouts in sexual-assault cases.

Hockey Canada confirmed it maintained the fund, drawn from minor hockey membership fees. That outraged parents and youth hockey organizations, with some now threatening to withhold registration fees or pull children from leagues. Corporate sponsors withdrew Hockey Canada funding while federal moneys were paused.

If that wasn’t bad enough, police in Halifax, Nova Scotia, are investigating rumors of another alleged gang rape by members of Canada’s team at the 2003 world junior tournament co-hosted there. A half-dozen unidentified players are said to have raped a woman on a pool table at a bar while being videotaped.

The majority of the 2003 team later enjoyed NHL careers, and one member, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury of the Minnesota Wild, continues to. If true, the two decades of ensuing silence raises myriad questions about how tolerated such behavior remains within the sport’s highest levels.

Clearly, ECHL player Johnson – a registered sex offender in Canada – continuing to find hockey employment suggests tolerance for his crime. And explains why this hockey-wide reckoning and even public shaming of teams and officials is deserved.

The NHL, in particular, for largely profit-driven reasons centered on expanding its fan base, has been on a public crusade to open the sport to people from nontraditional hockey backgrounds. And a key component has been a supposed zero-tolerance approach to abusive behavior.

Well, it doesn’t get much more abusive than rape.

So if the NHL wants to trumpet itself one way, then it’s fair game to call out the league, teams, players and their major junior, AHL and ECHL feeder systems for contradictory behavior.

Because up until now, as mounting evidence suggests, the tolerance for this type of abuse continues at a rate far greater than zero.