Building and destroying men: The Greater Toronto Hockey League's assault on childhood

Youth hockey has still not come to terms with how it exploits children

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A silhouette of an adult looms over an empty hockey net on a red background, with a pair of children's hockey skates.
The GTHL has a long history of ignoring the exploitation of children.
Illustration: Rebecca Fassola

Scott Fraser inhales deeply. “I got way too many things in the vault, brother.”

Like so many Canadian children, Fraser dreamed of being a professional hockey player.

In 2014, he initiated civil proceedings against the pedophile hockey coach Gordon Stuckless, Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), and Hockey Canada. As the suit evolved, Fraser’s team added the Ted Reeve Hockey Association (TRHA) and Ted Reeve Community Arena to the list of defendants.


Despite the startling list of well-established hockey entities named in the suit, the media showed little interest in Fraser’s case. Earlier this year, after a nine-year legal battle, Fraser’s case was settled out of court.

For the 1970-71 season, Fraser played for the Ted Reeve hockey team in the GTHL, then known as the Metro Toronto Hockey League (it was also known as the Toronto Hockey League, but ‘GTHL’ will be used throughout this article), where Stuckless was a coach.


Fraser told Deadspin Stuckless groomed both him and his parents. He endeared himself to the family, nurturing his persona as a reliable, well-intentioned, hockey coach. He took Fraser to the movies and bought him gifts.

In the Statement of Claim, Fraser’s legal team, headed up by Michael Wilchesky of Rochon Genova LLP, details how Stuckless groomed their client, exploiting both his love hockey and modest socio-economic status.

Grooming children and their parents

The sexual abuse started at the movies, where Stuckless first masturbated in front of Fraser, according to court documents. “Because of the close relationship Stuckless cultivated with Scott’s parents as a trusted hockey coach,” explains the Statement of Claim, “Stuckless was invited to sleep over at Scott’s house on multiple occasions. Nearly every time this happened, Stuckless sought out Scott in the basement, where he slept…and forced Scott to watch him masturbate…”


“Now you gotta realize, I’m a child. What the fuck do I know about any of this?” Fraser said during a phone conversation with Deadspin.

Stuckless was a hockey coach, a celebrated role in Canadian culture, entrusted with building men out of boys during the rough-and-tumble days of Bobby Clarke and Phil Esposito. The prevailing notion that hockey was a proving ground, where boys became men, and men became leaders, with the necessary aggression and perseverance required to thrive in society, was still very much in vogue.


Ten-year-old Fraser struggled to make sense of it. Why was Stuckless doing this? What did it all mean?

The grooming and abuse continued. The Statement of Claim explains how “Stuckless gave Scott a goalie glove for Christmas (1970), which Scott loved, and slept with. Gifts such as the hockey glove were one of the ways Stuckless manipulated Scott’s loyalty and coerced his silence.”


The abuse escalated.

In the 1970s, Canadians still viewed sport as inherently good, providing time and space for physical activity, while building character, nurturing friendships, and instilling resilience.


The parents of young athletes often revered coaches, praising them for selflessly donating their time and expertise to the community. The notion that a coach might use their position to exploit and abuse children was unimaginable.

The situation in hockey was particularly problematic. Intimately connected to Canadian national identity, serving as a unifying cultural force from coast to coast, hockey produced its own pantheon of folk heroes, cherished franchises, and celebrated personalities. It was a Canadian cult of manhood.


Recently, Nathan Kalman-Lamb and Ian Kennedy argued that minor hockey, and especially the GTHL, was an “institution through which children are systematically exploited.” Children are no longer simply playing a game they love, but rather laboring within the complex market of professional sport. “It is unquestionably difficult to consider one of this country’s most cherished cultural forms as an institution through which children are systematically exploited,” explain Kalman-Lamb and Kennedy. “But, this is the reality we need to face if we are serious about protecting our children.”

GTHL was a pipeline to the NHL

By the mid-twentieth century, the GTHL was more intertwined with professional hockey than most Canadian youth leagues. These connections, running straight through the Toronto Maple Leafs and National Hockey League (NHL), dehumanized children, treating youthful hockey standouts as commodities requiring control and investment.


The GTHL integrated many aspects of the professional sport into its league, fueling a toxic culture of exploitation and abuse permeating all aspects of the game. The arenas were violent spaces, with players, coaches, officials, and parents all vying for control.

For bad actors, the chaos created opportunities. It was an ideal setting for sex offenders like Gordon Stuckless, Robert Brown, and James Willard to groom young boys.


Up until the late 1960s, the NHL exerted considerable control over many of the most talented young hockey players in Canada. Before the league implemented a universal junior draft in 1967, which is problematic in its own ways, NHL clubs simply sponsored junior teams, tying these clubs to their farm system.

The GTHL and other minor hockey leagues could be informally incorporated into the NHL farm system. In 1954, for example, Dan Odette of the Windsor Star reported a “cute arrangement” by the Toronto Maple Leafs, circumventing age restrictions to control hockey players as young as 11 years old. This was an egregious example of a broader practice known as “pro sponsorship.” NHL franchises, seeking to build and control talent, sponsored minor hockey clubs in exchange for roster spots. NHL clubs could then guide youngsters through the minor hockey system on de facto farm teams, until they were old enough to sign a C-Form contract.


The NHL’s C-Form contract bound young players to a single club before they even turned professional. In return, these athletes received a tryout with the NHL club, but signed away control of where they could play in the process. Only a tiny fraction of C-Form players would ever skate for an NHL club, most finding themselves dispersed throughout a sprawling pro farm system. If a player signed a C-Form with the Maple Leafs in the 1960s, for example, the club could send them to a variety of locales, including Tulsa, Rochester, Sudbury, or Denver.

Some GTHL presidents did mount resistance to NHL influence. In 1956, J. Norman Sharp ridiculed the NHL when Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings and Tod Sloan of the Toronto Maple Leafs engaged in a stick-swinging incident, leaving Sloan too injured to finish the playoff series. Sharp also publicly opposed Red Wings’ general manager Jack Adams’ suggestion that the NHL should formally control all minor hockey.


“The game is in better hands when governed by amateur organizations who are interested in the game for the game’s sake,” Sharp told the Toronto Star, “rather than as a spectacle in which players who maim opponents are glorified.”

Resistance by Sharp and likeminded minor hockey officials played an important role in ending some of the more exploitative aspects of the NHL-GTHL relationship, but a professionalized sporting culture was already deeply rooted in the GTHL by 1967, when the NHL abandoned C-Forms and pro sponsorship, to rely on a junior draft.


The GTHL tried to bring things under control, but matters were well out of hand by the late 1960s. Referees faced appalling abuse from coaches, players, and parents. As the decade ended, extreme incidents highlighted the need for meaningful, sustainable change. A player knocked a referee to the ice before kicking him with his skate. A parent threatened to stab an official. Parents hurled profanity all game long. The GTHL suspended numerous coaches for durations of three to five games for abusing or defying referees. The league barred one coach for a whole season.

This, remember, is a youth league.

It was at this chaotic time in the GTHL’s history that Gordon Stuckless entered the league as a coach of the Ted Reeve Hockey Association (TRHA). Although media reports focused on Stuckless’ employment as an assistant equipment manager at Maple Leaf Gardens – in part because he, George Hannah (equipment manager), John Paul Roby (usher), and Dennis Morin (security guard) used their positions at the arena to commit hundreds of sexual assaults – his activities in minor hockey, particularly the GTHL, sparked little interest from reporters.


In 1971, Fraser told his mother that Stuckless was abusing him.

“This guy was hanging out at my place like he’s living there. So, of course, my parents are going, ‘Oh shit,’” he told Deadspin.


When the Fraser family informed the association, they were shocked to learn that there were already one, possibly two, other complaints of abuse submitted against Stuckless.

Stuckless was removed from the league, but the abuser-coach was back by at least 1975, this time with the Dorset Park Bruins, a position he leveraged to increase his power over a player named Martin Kruze.


When Stuckless started at Dorset Park, he and George Hannah were already abusing Kruze at Maple Leaf Gardens. He was insidious, always seeking a deeper connection with his victims, weaving their lives into his own, winning the trust of their friends and family.

Kruze was not the only Bruin that Stuckless abused. In a 2005 Statement of Claim against Stuckless, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and the GTHL, another anonymous member of Dorset Park explained how Stuckless befriended him and his parents, took him to Maple Leaf Gardens, and subjected him to sexual abuse. The plaintiff died in 2008 before the lawsuit was resolved.


Around the time Stuckless was coaching Dorset Park, Fraser says he called the police to put Stuckless on their radar. Fraser saw Stuckless working for the Conklin Shows at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). Conklin was responsible for rides and games at the CNE between 1937 and 2002. Fraser told the police, in no uncertain terms, “Keep this guy away from kids.”

Stuckless was not the only Maple Leaf Gardens abuser to work at the CNE. Dennis Morin exploited the event as well.


In 1977, Fraser called again, shortly after Robert Wayne Kribs, Joseph Woods, and Werner Gruener sexually assaulted and murdered Toronto shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques. Fraser saw a newspaper photo of Stuckless with Jaques’ mother. He alerted the authorities again.

“I called the police and told them to look at him,” explained Fraser. He was in his late teens at the time.


Stuckless’ presence at the funeral, and friendship with the Jaques family, is well-documented. In addition to the photo noted by Fraser, Stuckless is quoted in the Toronto Star, telling a reporter that many well-wishers “came with sympathy donations” for the family. Robert J. Hoshowsky also documented the Stuckless-Jaques relationship in his true crime book Outraged: The Murder of Shoeshine Boy Emanuel Jaques.

A monster hiding in plain sight.

How many people knew, by the end of 1977, that Stuckless was abusing children? Call it what you want. Complicity. Apathy. Enablement. Adults knew and did nothing. Instead, Stuckless continued coaching and volunteering as a teacher’s assistant, furthering his serial abuse.


Change was excruciatingly slow.

Finally, in 1988, a court convicted Stuckless of sexually assaulting one boy, sentencing him to just two months in jail and two months probation. On March 28, 1996, Stuckless pled guilty to 12 counts of sexual assault against eight survivors in Thornhill and another two in his native Newfoundland.


Later that year, on November 22, 1996, police charged major junior hockey coach Graham James for sexual assaults both prior and during his tenure as coach of the Swift Current Broncos. He pled guilty to sexually assaulting Sheldon Kennedy on 300 occasions and an anonymous survivor on another 50 occasions. The court sentenced James to 3.5 years in prison. Later, additional survivors, including Theo Fleury, Todd Holt, and Greg Gilhooly, shared their stories, highlighting the breadth of James’ assaults.

In Swift Current, players including Darren McLean and Kevin Powell, had tried to get the organization to take action. Team management dismissed their concerns. James led the team to the Western Hockey League championship the previous season. Back in 1989, he coached them to a Memorial Cup. Winning was everything. Unfortunately, in many corners of Canadian hockey, it still is.


The James conviction shook the nation, but GTHL President John Gardner felt such abuse was virtually impossible in his league.

“The communication grapevine in hockey is so strong that it is highly improbable that any individual with social problems such as these can fit into the system without provoking suspicion,” Gardner told the Toronto Star’s Lois Kalchman. “If there are suspicions, they report it to us and we have our solicitor do a subtle check of the allegations.”


Rather than entertain the possibility that a pedophile could intentional infiltrate the GTHL, Gardner emphasized the need to protect the reputation of the league. “One has to be extremely careful,” he explained. “Someone could use a false allegation to intimidate an organization.”

After seeing Kennedy come forward, Martin Kruze was emboldened to the same. His action rallied another 23 of Stuckless’ survivors, including Scott Fraser. Together, they detailed the horrors perpetrated by Stuckless. How he used coaching hockey and lacrosse to identify young boys, often grooming them with his connections to Maple Leaf Gardens, sexually assaulting them at the arena, movies, his house, and their own homes. Stuckless pled guilty to abusing all 24 boys. The prosecution asked for the maximum 10 year sentence. Stuckless received just two years less a day.


Martin Kruze committed suicide three days later. He jumped from the Bloor Street Viaduct. He was just 35 years of age.

Upon appeal, Stuckless’ sentence was increased to five years.

Flash forward two years to 1999. Robert Brown, a coach of the GTHL’s Markham Islanders Bantam AAA, is arrested and ultimately found guilty of sexual assault and sexual interference. The crimes occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.


Gardner and company had dropped the ball. Their in-house approach to allegations of sexual abuse allowed Brown to slip into the GTHL undetected. Unlike Stuckless and James, Brown was a convicted sex offender.

When the police initially charged Brown, Gardner sent a memo around the league, noting the coach was on indefinite suspension. He did not, however, inform clubs why Brown was suspended, citing GTHL policy against such a disclosure.


Even when suspicions rose to the level of police charges, Gardner carefully guarded the information, protecting the image of the league.

Then there was James Willard.

Willard, a coach of multiple GTHL hockey teams in the 1990s, was found guilty of “possessing, distributing and accessing child pornography.”


In total, he possessed over 2,000 photos and 160 videos. Did the GTHL know Willard was a pedophile? No, but they should have.

By the time he became a coach in 1990s Willard already had three convictions for sexually assaulting boys. His record also included eight convictions for broader sex crimes. The GTHL missed eleven convictions. Eleven.


Gardner remained unrepentant. “The individual clubs check out the coaches and usually do a pretty good job of it but it’s awfully difficult if someone is deceitful,” he told the National Post. “Some things can sneak through the system.”

Eleven convictions feels like more than “some.”

Ultimately, Gardner argued the futility of police checks. “We’ve got 50,000 kids and thousands of coaches involved — I don’t think police services are in a position to handle that kind of onslaught at the beginning of every year.”


Little solace for the players in harm’s way.

Scott Fraser fears the same culture persists. “The children don’t matter [to them]. The coaching doesn’t matter. Nothing matters but spewing out more and more hockey players.”


At the moment, skeletons are pouring out of the GTHL closet.

The GTHL board recently rejected Akim Aliu’s Toronto Dream initiative, “that would have assured roster spots for BIPOC players, had mandates for female representation and people of colour in managerial positions, and had the financial backing of major sponsors.”


Commenting on the GTHL’s actions, the Toronto Dream noted other issues in the league, including “profit-driven ownership groups.” This launched Ian Kennedy and Nathan Kalman-Lamb on a journalistic journey of their own, highlighting the vast amounts of money changing hands in the GTHL, including six-figure payments to minor hockey coaches.

Shortly thereafter, the GTHL indefinitely suspended one of its members following an “inappropriate comment” at the league’s semi-annual Member’s Forum. The GTHL was vague regarding details about what was said, suggesting the league’s tendency to put reputation before transparency and accountability persists.


Most recently, TSN’s Rick Westhead reported on the practice of selling GTHL clubs, despite the status of such organizations as not-for-profits. One perspective buyer told Westhead, “I’m embarrassed and a bit ashamed I was a part of this and came so close to buying an organization…But I think it’s important that the public know what is really happening in the GTHL, where deals like this are an open secret.” The individual asked that their anonymity be maintained, because they “feared family members involved in hockey might suffer retaliation.”

Culture change takes time and effort. The latter seems to be in short supply.