Content Warning: The following article contains references to sexual assault
Seven years after Catherine Laroche said she was sexually assaulted at a house party by a major junior hockey player, she works with college and minor hockey teams across Quebec to educate players on issues such as consent.
While Laroche, 30, says she is still processing her alleged assault, her expanding program helps him find purpose after his attempts to navigate the justice system lead to frustration and anxiety.
Her story offers insight into why some abuse survivors do not report sexual assault allegations or take years to do so. Laroche said a year and a half had passed from the time she first reported her alleged assault before detectives informed her they were ready to start speaking with witnesses.
“It felt like an eternity. It was all consuming,” Laroche said in a series of interviews with TSN over the past three months. “I felt anxious, and if you have that much anxiety with a process, it may not be your path. Maybe you need to do something else. So I chose another route.
Laroche said she thought she was on the road to justice when she walked into a Montreal police station on July 30, 2020 to report that she had been sexually assaulted in June 2015. She told police that her alleged attacker had drugged her before taking her into a bedroom and assaulted her.
The man, who went on to play major junior hockey in Quebec, became a star in the National Hockey League, Laroche said.
After reporting the incident, it took more than six months before a police detective contacted Laroche asking him to provide a videotaped statement. After that February 9, 2021 interview, it took another 10 months before police contacted her again, this time to say that a new detective had been assigned to her case and planned to start speaking with witnesses in January 2022.
Laroche said she told the police to drop the case. She said it was clear it would take years for her case to go to court and for her alleged abuser to be held accountable, if it happened.
“The way victims are treated…it’s not fair,” she said.
Dr. Lise Gotell, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Alberta and an expert in sexual assault law, said the time Laroche had to wait for the criminal justice system to proceed was typical for people reporting a sexual assault.
“It’s glaring, but this length and lack of communication characterizes so many investigations,” Gotell said. “Memories fade and witnesses disappear. After this amount of time, it also means the survivor may have inconsistencies in their story because so much time has passed and they may have forgotten details. That is why it is so difficult that it becomes so difficult for Crown prosecutors to obtain convictions. And then they just stop pursuing cases because those convictions are so hard to get.
Gotell said she was raped in Toronto in 1987 and filed a police report the next day. But police only contacted her again in 2007, when they were matching DNA from a rape case with samples from a closed case file, she said.
“The police do a terrible job informing complainants,” Gotell said. “Crown prosecutors and the police should be obliged to meet investigative deadlines and should also be obliged to maintain contact with complainants. We hear the phrases trauma-informed and victim-centered a lot now, but often that just means they might be nice to a survivor, and there’s really no guarantee even of that.
Rather than telling her story in a courtroom, Laroche, now a mother of two, decided to build a workshop so she could share her cautionary tale with college and minor hockey players across Quebec.
She interviewed 36 active and retired elite hockey players, asking them about their attitude towards women and their understanding of consent, and turned to Montreal detective Geneviève Boucher and Marie-Claude Methot, a criminologist who works for the Government of Quebec, and created a program to provide hockey players and teams.
In January, she met university hockey players three times at Collège Laflèche in Trois-Rivières.
During his first 90-minute session, Laroche spoke about the “masks” some people wear and discussed players’ relationships with their teammates. During their second meeting, she told the players the story of her alleged assault.
“A lot of guys were shocked because they thought she was just there to give them life advice,” said Vincent Dumont, Laflèche’s head coach. “She spoke of her own case and of Victoriaville [two Tigres players have been charged with sexually assaulting a woman in a hotel room in 2021 and are awaiting trial] and on Gabriel Gagne.
Gagné was drafted 36th overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2015. He last played with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League and was charged in August 2021 with sexual assault of two alleged victims in 2016 in Montmagny and Trois-Rivières.
Trois-Rivières’ alleged assault allegedly took place while he was a member of the Shawinigan hockey team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the highest level of junior hockey from which many chosen players hail for the World Juniors. Gagné was arrested again in February and charged with the alleged luring of a 14-year-old girl in December 2021, The Journal of Montreal reported in July.
Laroche now meets with the Laflèche team once a week, and also meets individually with the players.
“She wants to spark a spark in the players, talk to them about consent and remind them that even if a woman says yes, if she’s drunk, it can’t be a real yes,” Dumont said. “These lessons may not all be learned by the players today, but maybe they will trigger something in them in one, two or three years.”
Laroche said she was satisfied with the attention paid by the players to her message.
“I tell them they can’t control the laws and they can’t control women who don’t have good intentions, because that’s there too,” she said. “But they have to ask themselves two questions: do they know the consequences if they go there and are they prepared to have those consequences in their lives?”
Laroche also shared the story of her sexual assault in detail, explaining that she attended a house party in June 2015 and drank two glasses of wine before entering a sauna with a young man. She said she took a bottle of water with her into the sauna and believes a man who was also in the sauna or a friend of hers spiked the water with GHB, a drug that has been linked to rape cases.
“I’ve never done drugs in my life,” she said. “I knew what a hangover from alcohol felt like and that was not what I felt. I felt so bad the next morning that I couldn’t even drive. I tell my story to the players and I answer all but one of their questions. I won’t answer ‘Who was that?’ The process of dealing with that is so personal and individual and the players all respect that.
Laroche began working last month with the bantam and midget teams at Collège Charles-Lemoyne in the Montreal suburb of Sainte-Catherine.
Charles-Lemoyne’s coach, Olivier Latendresse, said he wanted Laroche to meet with his school’s teams following media reports of an alleged sexual assault in 2018 in London, Ontario, involving members of Canada’s 2018 World Juniors team.
“We have more stories like this coming out now, and I wish when I was playing junior we had the kind of conversations that Catherine helps with,” said Latendresse, a former QMJHL player who played professional hockey in Europe until 2020.
“It’s not just about sexual assault. It’s about how to treat people. Sometimes you don’t realize, when you say something to a teammate, the pressure they may be under or the consequences your words may have. I already see a change in the way players talk to each other.
Laroche has yet to work with QMJHL teams.
In May, Laroche said former Halifax Mooseheads goaltender Zach Fucale, who now plays in the AHL with the Hershey Bears, put her in touch with QMJHL officials. Although they had a number of conversations on Zoom, Laroche said he was told teams didn’t have enough free time to commit to his schedule.
(The QMJHL declared in September it was updating its policies to better educate players about sexual misconduct. Players must watch instructional videos during the first week of the regular season, sign codes of conduct and ethics, and participate in three webinars during the season on sexual abuse and consent.)
Over the past few months, Laroche has been featured in French media and appeared this summer as a guest on Juiced Up, a podcast hosted by Saskatchewan Roughriders player Jordan Beaulieu.
About 20 victims of abuse contacted Laroche as his profile grew, including a woman who was allegedly assaulted in 2014 by four players from the Gatineau Olympiques QMJHL team. Quebec police said they recently reopened their investigation into the case, which was initially cleared without charge.
“Hearing from survivors is not a burden at all,” Laroche said. “I want to serve. I want to help people.”