MONTREAL — Quebec Major Junior Hockey League commissioner Gilles Courteau announced his resignation Sunday amid intense scrutiny among the province's political class over hazing and initiations.
The 65-year-old Courteau announced his departure after 37 years at the helm of the junior hockey league and just a year away from a planned 2024 retirement.
Courteau was in the middle of a political firestorm after testifying at legislature hearings in Quebec City on hazing rituals in hockey last month, when he reassured politicians that none of the allegations described in a Radio-Canada report about an Ontario Superior Court ruling involved the league.
But the former QMJHL player who was part of that lawsuit had alleged he experienced sexual misconduct in his testimony, and Courteau was under pressure to testify a second time, accused of perjuring himself by Opposition members of the legislature.
The Legault government members on the commission had voted to put an end to the hearings, but Isabelle Charest, the province's sport minister, said last week she'd like to hear Courteau testify again. Premier François Legault told reporters Friday he wanted Courteau to recognize it was an issue and preferred to hear it before the committee.
On Sunday, Courteau announced his abrupt departure in a statement in which he said it was time to pass the torch. He said he contacted the chair of the league's executive committee, Richard Létourneau, and that his resignation takes effect immediately.
Courteau said that "recent events have been on such a scale that my family members have been affected," in a letter published on social media. He added that continuing in the post would not be the right thing to do.
"When you have dedicated most of your life to an organization, it can be difficult to know when it is time to pass the torch," Courteau wrote. "Yet, it is the only possible decision once you realize it."
The Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization for the country's three major junior leagues, expressed its appreciation for Courteau in a statement later Sunday.
"The Canadian Hockey League would like to thank Gilles Courteau for his extraordinary commitment to the development of hockey in Quebec and the Maritimes as QMJHL commissioner, and across Canada through his involvement with the CHL for close to four decades," the CHL said in a release.
The Quebec legislature studied the issue of hazings and initiations in February after a recent Ontario court decision revealed details of sexual assault and torture suffered by teenage hockey players in the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League and QMJHL going back to 1975.
In a Feb. 3 decision, Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perell accepted evidence that former players suffered "horrific and despicable and unquestionably criminal acts'' at the hands of teammates and staff during initiations. He accepted the evidence from the former players and called lead plaintiffs Daniel Carcillo, Garrett Taylor and Stephen Quirk "genuine heroes."
However, the Ontario judge denied a request to certify the 2020 class-action lawsuit request against the hockey leagues and their teams after determining they failed to present a workable plan to litigate because the premise was all three leagues and 60 member teams were "jointly and severally liable for each other's wrongdoings regardless of whether the particular team participated.''
The plaintiffs can still appeal the decision or launch individual lawsuits against the leagues and teams.
Late last year, Courteau announced he would retire part way through the 2023-24 season, after 47 years of involvement in the Quebec league. Notably, he wanted to mentor his replacement.
In his letter, Courteau said he hoped his departure would be the beginning of a "new direction, a different direction." He said the league has changed from the one he inherited and called for an end to harmful practices in the sport.
Courteau took over the top job in the league in the middle of the 1985-86 season, replacing Guy Morissette. He started his QMJHL career in 1975 as a statistician with the Trois-Rivières Draveurs. The Presidents Cup, awarded to the QMJHL champion, is to be renamed the Gilles Courteau Trophy starting with this season’s playoffs.
In a statement, the league's executive committee issued a statement thanking Courteau for his service.
Martin Lavallée, the current assistant commissioner, would assume top job in an interim role while the recruitment process for a new commissioner is concluded.
The league said that hiring process is already in its final stage. Owners would also meet in the coming hours to discuss next steps, including any actions on player safety.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2023.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press