As the holiday weekend kicked off late Friday afternoon, the NHLPA dropped a consequential 19-page report on the union’s response to allegations that Brad Aldrich, a Chicago Blackhawks video coach, sexually abused forward Kyle Beach in 2010. The report, authored by attorneys at Cozen O’Connor, directed blame away from NHLPA leaders and toward an unfortunate series of “miscommunications.”
Beach, whom the Blackhawks drafted with the 11th overall pick in the 2008 NHL draft, was a minor league player at the time. The Blackhawks had called him up to join the “Black Aces,” the team’s practice squad for the playoffs. According to an investigative report authored by attorneys at Jenner & Block last year, Blackhawks management learned about the alleged abuse but took no disciplinary action until after the team won the Stanley Cup in June 2010. Aldrich was given the choice to resign or be fired. He elected the former.
Cozen O’Connor attempted to assess Beach’s claims that the NHLPA essentially ignored his pleas to warn others.
In December 2011, Beach’s agent, Ross Gurney, says he called NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr upon learning that USA Hockey—the national governing body for hockey in the U.S. and overseer of hockey programs for young players—had hired Aldrich. While he omitted details of what Beach had experienced, Gurney urged Fehr to alert USA Hockey that it had retained a person whom Beach described as a “pedophile” and “sexual predator.”
Fehr denies having this call. He also insists that as an attorney, he wouldn’t have acted unless Gurney had supplied details on such a serious accusation and unless he knew that Beach had reported or was prepared to report the allegation.
Faced with conflicting “he said-he said” accounts of an alleged phone call from a dozen years earlier, Cozen O’Connor reviewed Fehr’s emails. Fehr, the law firm wrote, had a “documented practice of immediately following up with others.” His emails failed to show any reference to a call with Gurney. Cozen O’Connor also interviewed those who worked with Fehr and found no recollection of a call or Fehr raising the topic. The absence of Fehr memorializing the conversation in records or in conversation, the report noted, was suggestive of Fehr telling the truth.
Cozen O’Connor’s probe also explored communications between Joe Resnick, an agent for one of Beach’s fellow Black Aces, and Fehr. In April 2011, Resnick emailed Fehr to convey his client’s concerns about Aldrich. Fehr’s email history confirmed he received the email, but he says he has no recollection of it. Although Fehr’s phone records also revealed “a 14-minute call from Fehr to Resnick within hours of the email being sent,” neither Fehr nor Resnick recalled what they had discussed.
As with any internal investigation, this probe faced serious limitations.
First, there is inherent skepticism and suspicion of bias when the target of a probe is also the paying client. To its credit, the Cozen O’Connor eschews describing itself as “independent,” a moniker sometimes affixed in sports investigations. But as Sportico has previously explained, materials gathered and transcripts of interviews are usually protected by attorney-client privilege and thus beyond public reach—a point that has become a source of tension in the Washington Commanders workplace investigation and accusations of selective information sharing.
Second, attorney-investigators lack the powers of a court or a law enforcement agency. They have no subpoena authority and can’t compel witnesses to answer questions or share emails, texts and other digital evidence. This can lead to an incomplete and less reliable set of findings.
To that point, Beach and his unidentified Black Aces teammate—two central figures for investigators to gain a complete picture—declined interview requests. The report also underscored a “sparse documentary trail,” that consisted “primarily of one call (from Gurney to Fehr) and one email (from Resnick to Fehr).” Further, witnesses who agree to speak won’t be under oath. Without the accompanying risk of perjury charges, they could be more inclined to lie, exaggerate or omit information.
Last, the passage of time and limitations of human memory sharply constrained the investigation. “Reconstructing a handful of conversations consisting of only several phone calls, all of which took place over 10 years ago,” the report stressed, “is by any measure a difficult task.” The report also emphasized “the understandably imperfect and incomplete recollections of a few individuals.”
The report surmised that Beach’s warnings were seemingly ignored “on account of miscommunication and misunderstanding, rather than any individual or systemic failure.” One might question whether repeated “miscommunication and misunderstanding” over such an important topic is, in fact, a “systemic failure.”
Last December, Beach and the Blackhawks reached a financial settlement. The settlement came two months after Jenner & Block, whom the Blackhawks had retained to investigate Beach’s claims, released its own report.