NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says it's not "necessary" for the NHL to suspend without pay four players who have been criminally charged with sexual assault.
The charges are tied to an alleged group sexual assault by players from Canada's 2018 World Junior team who went on to play in the NHL. Police allege the incident happened in a player's hotel room following a Hockey Canada Foundation Gala and Golf event on June 19, 2018.
Bettman told a press conference Friday the NHL players allegedly involved are now all on leave from their teams and are free agents. He said they either don't have contracts or their contracts are set to expire at the end of the season, so they don't need to be suspended.
"I don't think that's necessary at this stage," said Bettman. "This is, as I've said repeatedly, a fairly complicated ... matter.
"The fact that they're away from their teams and not playing, I'm comfortable with. They've been paid the vast bulk of their salary for the year anyway."
Bettman confirmed the players accused of crimes are currently receiving their paycheques.
He said that in order for an NHL team to terminate a contract "successfully, you need to be able to prove certain things."
New Jersey Devils player Michael McLeod faces one charge of sexual assault and another of being a party to the offence, according to court documents. His teammate, Cal Foote, was also charged with one count of sexual assault.
The Devils re-signed McLeod and Foote last summer to one-year contracts worth $2.2 million combined.
Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers, Dillion Dubé of the Calgary Flames and former Ottawa Senator Alex Formenton, who now plays in Switzerland, were also charged, according to court documents.
NHL won't release results of probe
Bettman said the NHL's own year-long external investigation into the alleged group sexual assault wrapped up last year. He also said the NHL would not release the results of the investigation "while these charges are pending."
When asked why the league didn't share its findings earlier, Bettman said the NHL was in the process of talking to the players' association about how to move forward when news broke that the players were going to be criminally charged.
"I want to be clear. From the moment we first learned about this on May 26, 2022, I have repeatedly used the words abhorrent, reprehensible, horrific and unacceptable to describe the alleged behaviours," he said. "And those words continue to apply."
From left to right: Dillon Dubé, Cal Foote, Michael McLeod, Carter Hart and Alex Formenton. (USA TODAY Sports/Reuters; Getty Images; The Associated Press; Getty Images; USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)
Lawyers for the players say they have denied any wrongdoing and will plead not guilty.
The woman at the centre of the allegations, known only in court documents as "E.M.", filed a $3.5 million lawsuit that Hockey Canada settled.
The settlement shook the sports world and parents were outraged to learn that their registration fees paid for the settlement without their knowledge, along with other settlements over the years tied to sexual abuse allegations that were worth millions of dollars.
The five players allegedly involved in the case requested and were granted leaves of absences from their NHL and European teams last month ahead of surrendering to police.
London Police are scheduled to hold a press conference on Monday about the investigation they initially closed in 2019 without charges, only to re-open it in 2022 following a public outcry.