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We now have clarity on the reason for Carter Hart’s indefinite leave of absence from the Philadelphia Flyers, which the team announced last Tuesday.
And as was speculated — in large part due to a Globe & Mail report on Wednesday — it is indeed related to the investigation of an alleged 2018 sexual assault, which occurred on June 19, 2018 after a Hockey Canada Foundation Gala & Golf event.
TSN’s Rick Westhead reported on Tuesday afternoon that Hart and three other NHL players — Dillon Dubé, Michael McLeod and Cal Foote — are being charged with sexual assault by London, Ontario police, following the charges filed against former NHLer Alex Formenton on Sunday. A few hours later, Hart’s legal representation confirmed Westhead’s report.
When asked for comment, the Philadelphia Flyers responded with a statement mirroring general manager Daniel Briere’s prepared statement from last Wednesday morning.
“We will respond appropriately to this very serious matter when the outcomes of the investigations are made public. The NHL has been very clear that teams should refer all investigation-related questions to them. In the meantime, members of the organization, including Flyers players, will not be commenting any further.”
The criminal investigation into the 2018 incident was reopened in 2022, after a public outcry in the wake of a lawsuit that was filed by a woman against Hockey Canada, the Canadian Junior Hockey league (CHL) and eight players alleging that she was sexually assaulted four years prior. In the wake of this re-launched investigation, the London Police appear to have brought charges against five players, with the details of said investigation yet to be released.
Last Wednesday, Briere was directly asked about the possibility of Hart being charged as a result of the investigation, what the organization’s response would be in that scenario.
“I cannot comment on that at this time. We will be waiting from the league on that,” Briere noted.
The implication: if charges were filed, Briere was under the impression that the NHL would take the lead on an initial response. The Athletic’s Chris Johnston and Ian Mendes reported on Tuesday morning that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has three different mechanisms that he can theoretically deploy to punish off-ice misconduct. He could expel or suspend the player for a definite or indefinite period, he could cancel any contract said player has with an NHL club, and he could impose a fine on the player.
Neither Hart nor any of the other four players charged in this case have yet been convicted of a crime. However, Bettman has in the past suspended players as a result of merely a charge and not a conviction. Johnston and Mendes noted that in 2014, Kings defenseman Slava Voynov was suspended with pay after being charged with domestic violence, a situation that ultimately led to his contract being terminated by Los Angeles and Voynov returning to his home country of Russia rather than face deportation proceedings.
For now, Hart remains on an indefinite leave of absence. It remains to be seen if the NHL will impose any immediate discipline in the wake of today’s revelations. But with Westhead reporting that a trial very well may not begin until 2026, this is not a situation likely to be legally resolved in the near future.
Hart does remain under contract with the Flyers through the remainder of the 2023-24 season, before becoming a restricted free agent this summer. The Flyers could look to terminate what remains on Hart’s three-year, $11.937 million contract — which was signed on August 9, 2021, before the 2022 lawsuit was made public and the criminal investigation re-opened — citing a terminal breach of the morality clause of an NHL standard player contract. Based on Briere and the Flyers’ statements over the past week, however, it appears the organization will await any possible response and discipline from the NHL before deciding on their own course of action in 2023-24.
At the end of the season, when Hart’s current contract expires, the Flyers would have to issue Hart a qualifying offer equivalent to the value of a one-year, $4.479 million contract in order to retain exclusive negotiation rights with him. Given the nature of the charges against Hart and the uncertainty regarding his NHL future, it’s an open question as to whether the Flyers will issue such an offer to him, or choose to non-tender Hart, making him an unrestricted free agent with no further ties to the organization.
This remains a developing story. But in the here and now, Carter Hart has been charged with a heinous crime, with a victim at the center. The NHL’s immediate action stemming from today’s news remains to be seen, while the London police department has scheduled a February 5 press conference to provide updates on the status of the case.
In the meantime, Hart remains on his indefinite leave of absence, and away from the Flyers.