Canadian police have apologized for the time it took to bring charges against five ice hockey players accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2018.
Police in London, Ontario, filed charges last week against four National Hockey League (NHL) players and one former player.
A review of the case found evidence that was “not available” in an initial investigation, police said Monday.
All five have denied any wrongdoing and say they will plead not guilty.
All five were members of Canada’s world junior hockey team when the alleged assault took place.
At a news conference on Monday, Police Chief Thai Troung said: “My sincere apologies to the victim and family for the time it has taken to get to this point.”
“I’m really not happy about this,” he said.
Police closed an initial investigation into the alleged assault in 2019 and no charges were laid, but the file was reopened three years later when the case came under public scrutiny in Canada.
Sergeant Katherine Dann, who led the review of the case, said her department found there were “additional steps that could have been taken to advance the investigation.”
On Monday, lawyers for the players appeared for the first time on behalf of their clients in a London court. None of the players showed up.
Prosecutors also requested a ban on publishing the identity of the victim and two witnesses in the case.
All five players face a charge of sexual assault. Player Mike McLeod is also accused of being a party to the offence.
The four NHL players are McLeod and Cal Foote with the New Jersey Devils, Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers and Dillon Dubé of the Calgary Flames.
The fifth is former NHL player Alex Formenton. Until his arrest, Formenton played for the Swiss hockey club Ambri-Piotta.
They have been on leave from their teams pending the outcome of the case.
Asked if charges could be laid against more players, Sgt Dann said: “We have made changes for all parties for which we have reasonable grounds.”
In 2022, the woman at the center of the case filed a lawsuit against Hockey Canada, which manages programs and teams in the country from the entry level to the world championships and the Olympics, alleging that she had been assaulted by eight players. her in a hotel room in July 2018.
In May of that year, sports network TSN revealed that Hockey Canada had quietly reached a settlement with the woman.
The revelation was met with national outcry in Canada, causing the organization to lose federal funding and several high-profile sponsorship deals.
When asked why it took police nearly six years to lay charges and whether the force failed in its initial investigation, Troung declined to elaborate, saying it could compromise the investigation.
“Why it took so long will be part of the process,” he said.
The NHL also launched its own investigation, which has since concluded, but commissioner Gary Bettman has said its findings will not be made public as the matter is now before the courts.
Speaking to reporters on Friday during the NHL All-Star weekend in Toronto, Bettman added that the NHL players, who are all free agents at the end of the current season, will no longer be with their teams when start the test.
“At this time the most responsible and prudent thing to do is to wait for the conclusion of the judicial process,” said Mr. Bettman.
He also called the allegations “abhorrent” and defended the sport in light of the charges.
“This is not representative of what happens in our game,” Bettman said. “We want people to know that our game is inclusive, welcoming and safe.”
The players’ next court appearance is scheduled for April 30. Under Canadian law, a conviction for sexual assault carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.