Chicago Blackhawk’s scandal shows need for better investigative journalism in sports

In a landscape filled with highlight reels, there has to be more meaningful reporting

Davis believes sports journalists should pursue more complex stories than player statistics
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This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424. The Centre's online chat feature can be reached here

Last month, the hockey world experienced a day of reckoning when Kyle Beach, a professional hockey player, revealed himself as John Doe — the plaintiff in an ongoing sexual assault lawsuit against the Chicago Blackhawks. 

This story identified an urgent need for in-depth, investigative journalism in the sports world. 

Beach identified himself during an interview with TSN’s Rick Westhead, the journalist whose determination and persistence brought this 10-year-old scandal into the public eye. 

Those who follow the sports world closely are likely already familiar with the story. In 2010, as the Blackhawks were in the middle of a playoff run that would end with a Stanley Cup win, Beach was called up to join the team as a Black Ace —an emergency substitute unlikely to see game action but with the ability to compete at the game’s highest level. 

During these playoffs, Beach was sexually assaulted by Brad Aldrich, the Blackhawks’ video coach at the time. In May 2021, Beach brought forward a lawsuit against the team, with a full report on the incident from law firm Jenner and Block detailing the events. 

In Beach’s interview with Westhead, he said he was subjected to homophobic slurs from teammates after word of his assault spread quickly throughout the Blackhawks organization. 

The investigation found Blackhawks executives, including General Manager Stan Bowman and Head Coach Joel Quenneville, met shortly following the assault to discuss what, if any, action was required. 

Ultimately, the executives determined no action should be taken in the middle of a playoff run. Aldrich left the team in June the same year, and even got a day to celebrate with the Stanley Cup in his hometown before being hired by Miami University in 2012. 

The saga, which was never publicized by the team, could have ended there. Aldrich was gone. Beach returned to the minors, where he played for another four years in the Blackhawks organization before pursuing other opportunities in Europe, where he continues to play. 

Enter Rick Westhead, a senior correspondent at TSN and an award-winning investigative reporter—in otherwords, a‘capital-j’ journalist.

Westhead isn’t the most well-known reporter in the sports realm. His Twitter following stands at 55 thousand, paling in comparison to more recognizable hockey "insiders" like Darren Dreger and Elliotte Friedman, each of whom have over six hundred thousand followers. 

Yet, it was Westhead’s hard work that brought this decade-old cover-up to light. 

Westhead began writing about an alleged sexual assault lawsuit against the Blackhawks early in 2021. The team responded to these allegations with a statement that said an internal investigation had already been conducted and the claims were “meritless.” 

Westhead’s persistence on the subject resulted in the Blackhawks agreeing to an independent review, which eventually turned into an investigation by Jenner and Block. 

The findings of this investigation contradicted with the Blackhawks’ initial statement. Not only did the sexual assault claims have merit, but Bowman and Quenneville participated in the meeting that determined no further action was required at the time of the incident. 

The hockey world was shaken. 

Although Beach’s identity was not made known until his interview with Westhead, many felt Westhead’s exposure of the Blackhawks represented a culture shift of epic proportions. 

"Toughness" and "winning at all costs"—two of the NHL’s hallmarks—had blinded Blackhawks executives. Westhead’s exposure of the organization indicated the lack of an ethics of care between teams and players. People didn’t matter; winning hockey games mattered.

Quenneville, one of the most decorated and well-respected coaches in the sport, was revealed as someone who views hockey players not as people, but as vehicles for winning hockey games. 

Last month, he resigned from his role as head coach of the Florida Panthers following the scandal’s uncovering.

Maybe this incident would have been handled differently if it didn’t take place during playoffs. However, the idea that a team’s on-ice success should ever take precedence over a player’s individual well-being reveals the need for a culture shift.

Westhead recognized this. 

Kyle Beach’s story extends far beyond the hockey world. It demonstrates a significant problem in a world driven by "content," and illuminates the ongoing need for real journalism. 

Bringing this story to light was the product of Westhead picking up a real phone to contact real people and perform actual reporting.

Westhead was not required to pursue this story as fervently as he did. 

He could have taken the route of many other hockey "journalists’" and spent this summer writing about free agent signings and player power rankings. While those stories are fun to read, they don’t enact change. 

Westhead’s work was rewarded through the attention his interview with Beach received. The interview also provided an embarrassing moment for Sportsnet, a rival network, which was forced to air Westhead’s interview in its entirety, as none of their journalists were diligently following the story.

Westhead’s initiative and hard work provided much needed support for Beach, who was forced to suffer alone for over a decade. 

It will also hopefully prevent other major sports teams from covering up incidents of sexual assault in the future. 

Westhead’s deeply emotional interviews with Beach demonstrates the importance and impact of quality journalism in sports media. 

Social media has given people instant access to news from across the world and these platforms are littered with so-called journalists. 

As a result of this, the sports media landscape has transitioned to a point where attention and "clicks" are prioritized over important human-interest stories that can’t be adequately communicated via a TikTok—quality investigative journalism is often lost amongst the clickbait and highlight reels. 

The fact that this scandal was covered-up for over a decade points to the need for more investigative journalism in sports.  Reporters like Westhead provide a critical service by unearthing meaningful stories that, while perhaps less conducive to the current media landscape, provide value to readers and incite changes. 

Thankfully, last month Westhead got his due. His hard work was noticed by the masses and, most importantly, Kyle Beach’s story was told.

Davis is a first-year Master’s student in Environmental Studies.

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