The junior hockey player thought it was a little strange when his coach pressured him not to go home for Christmas. Although the player chalked it up to concerns about COVID-19 and being off the ice for too long, he soon came to believe there was another reason.
In the two months he had been playing for Bernie Lynch in the small northwestern Ontario town of Fort Frances, the player’s opinion of him had changed.
At first, the 66-year-old Lynch — a hockey veteran with more than 40 years’ experience behind the bench — seemed knowledgeable, friendly and generous, buying him equipment and promising to help him advance his career.
But lately the vibe had changed, as “Coach” had complained about being lonely and depressed, begging the player to come to his apartment and seeking to monopolize his time.
“He would get mad if I didn’t text him back right away. He would get mad even after games — like, we’d end at nine or 10 and I’d want to go hang out with my teammates,” said the 20-year-old player with the Fort Frances Lakers. CBC News has granted his request for confidentiality because of concerns he will face repercussions in the hockey world.
“He’d always be like, ‘Why don’t you just come hang out with me?’ Like, ‘We’ll have fun and watch a movie,'” he said. “Kind of weird.”
The nagging doubts crystalized over the holidays, as Lynch began to text, email and call with alarming frequency — up to 50 messages in a single day — all unsolicited and unwanted. Sometimes he’d want to know what the player was doing, and whom he was with.
“Please be careful…where are you guys going? Tell me…Call me when you get back…please,” read one text thread.
“You’re busy, busy, busy on here, but you can’t call me. Way to burn your bridges…I stayed up waiting for your call,” read another, sent in the middle of the night.
Other messages were supportive. “You’ve been working your bag off, under the radar for 2-3 years now and I need to give you every break and open every door I can for you,” said one email.
Another email, lauding the player’s talent and bravery, concluded with the acronym SHMILY — internet shorthand for “see how much I love you?”
On Jan 2, 2021, Lynch was suspended without pay from his job as head coach of the Fort Frances Lakers, a Junior A club in the cross-border Superior International Junior Hockey League (SIJHL), via a formal letter, which referenced “inappropriate” emails and conduct. He was also ordered to have no further contact with the players.
But more than two months later, neither the team nor the league has publicly disclosed this.
The suspension came one day after the player’s mother, as well as his billet family in Fort Frances, wrote to club president Gary Silander, laying out their concerns about the coach’s behaviour and sharing some of the messages.
Hockey Canada says it has launched an investigation, under the guidance of Glen McCurdie, its vice-president of insurance and risk management.
Yet neither the player nor his parents have been contacted. Nor, apparently, has Lynch.
Concern rose over the holidays
Lynch declined requests for an interview, but in a series of text messages — from the same number associated with the player’s complaint — he said he knew little about the reasons for his suspension.
“As of today…I’m suspended pending an investigation and have not been contacted by anyone,” he wrote. “I cannot comment at this time simply because it appears that you know more than I do.”
CBC News sent Lynch detailed questions about the messages and other allegations about his conduct made by Fort Frances players.
“Thank you for your note,” Lynch wrote in response. “I have no interest in discussing this with you…please do not contact me again.”
The player’s mother first became concerned a few days before Christmas, when she found an email from Lynch to her son that had been left open on a shared family desktop. The compliment-filled message struck her as “a little intense,” but after discussing the matter with her son, she decided to let things lie.
Then over the holidays, the player became moody and anxious as the pace of the messages quickened, and their content — including a plea from Coach to move in with him after New Year’s — became more disturbing.
“I can train you off-ice since the gyms are closed,” said one email. “I have lots of experience from Europe on this.”
Eventually, the player told his parents what had been happening and shared the texts and emails. “These were very concerning,” said his mother.
One in particular stuck with her so much that she can almost recite it word for word from memory.
“The last thing I think of when I go to sleep at night and the first thing I think of when I wake up is you … Always your friend and passionately missing you. Thank you and I love you,” it read.
“The content of the messages were the kinds of things that you would say to a lover, not what you would say to a friend … and certainly not what you would say to a player,” she said.
Long career in hockey
Lynch has enjoyed a long and successful coaching career. In the mid-1980s, he guided Saskatchewan’s Junior A Humboldt Broncos for three seasons, piling up a 220-85-7 record, before abruptly parting ways with the club on the eve of the 1987 playoffs.
In the 1988-89 season, he served as assistant and then head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats. In the ensuing years, he has coached minor hockey in Saskatchewan, spent a year behind the bench for the Minot State University Beavers in North Dakota and bounced between a number of junior clubs in the Czech Republic, Norway and Sweden.
Most recently, Lynch spent two seasons with Alberta’s Edson Aeros of the Western States Hockey League, winning two division titles before moving on to northwestern Ontario.
He was named head coach of the Fort Frances Lakers last September, but there were concerns, almost from the start, about his behaviour during practices, in the dressing room and on the team bus.
Another player, who also wishes to remain anonymous as he seeks to join a new team (the SIJHL cancelled its season on March 1, due to COVID-19 restrictions), told CBC News that he was shocked by Lynch’s frequent use of expletives, sexual references and slurs.
“One player, I won’t say his name, but he kept messing up a drill and Bernie just turned red in the face,” and used a slur denigrating people with disabilities. “Like, ‘your mental capacity has to be almost zero.’ He just went off on this guy for probably five minutes,” said the player.
“He didn’t have a filter. Every second word was a swear,” he said.
‘That type of behaviour is not right’
Cade Mozell, a former Lakers forward now playing in the United States, says Lynch would also be physical with players in a way that made them question whether it was an outdated attempt at horseplay or something more hostile.
On bus trips, he says, Lynch made a habit of walking down the aisle and punching his charges.
“One time he had a ring on and he hit me in the back of the head — not hard, but it was kind of enough to be like, what the f–k was that for?” he said.
The player who is looking for a new team shared a similar story.
Mozell and other players also described a series of profane and furious tirades by Lynch in the dressing room. One came after the coach was called out by a player for insulting his weight — a remark that had been made in front of several of his teammates.
Then there was the time that Lynch suggested someone was spreading rumours about him making inappropriate advances to players.
“He was super mad because he couldn’t believe that people would say that about him, and how it’s disgusting because he has a family of his own, and he’s a father and a grandfather, and like that type of behavior is not right,” Mozell recalled.
Hockey association has anti-harassment policy
Hockey Canada has had an anti-bullying and harassment policy called Speak Out! in place since 1997. Its stated aim is to create an on- and off-ice environment that is “accessible, inclusive and free from all forms of maltreatment.”
Among the prohibited behaviours: unwarranted personal criticisms, body shaming and comments that are “demeaning, humiliating, belittling, intimidating, insulting or threatening.”
The policy defines “physical maltreatment” as “punching, kicking, beating, striking, etc.” And its definition of “sexual maltreatment” includes “harassment, stalking, cyber-harassment, cyber-stalking of a sexual nature and engaging in grooming.”
It’s not clear what steps Hockey Canada plans to take with Lynch. The organization has not publicly disclosed the reasons for his suspension, saying only that it’s looking into “a complaint alleging a code of conduct violation.”
In a statement to CBC News this week, Hockey Canada said it has completed its investigation into the matter “for the time being,” and that Lynch remains suspended.
“There is no safety concern for the involved parties, and we cannot comment on Mr. Lynch’s future,” says the statement.
RCMP investigation in 1997
In the fall of 2000, media in Saskatchewan reported on a civil court action that Lynch had brought against Hockey Regina, a local minor hockey association, seeking to overturn a coaching ban that had been put in place during two police investigations into his relationship with players.
CBC News has reviewed the court file, which details how the RCMP launched an investigation in the summer of 1997 after receiving an anonymous tip Lynch had had “inappropriate and sexual involvement” with a player.
No charges were laid, but when Hockey Regina learned of those allegations, they requested another investigation by the Regina Police Service.
According to the court file, Lynch continued to coach a AAA Midget under-18 team for the rest of the 1997-98 season, as the police looked into the matter. But when more anonymous allegations surfaced in the summer of 1998, parents were informed and he was suspended from coaching.
In the 2000 court action, Lynch’s lawyer noted that no one had come forward to substantiate the allegations and that the investigations had been closed without charges. After a hearing, the judge issued an order in which Hockey Regina recognized that Lynch was no longer banned and free to apply for coaching positions, subject to the minor hockey organization’s approval.
Jim Olding, Hockey Regina’s executive director from 1997 to 2006, told CBC News that Lynch did eventually return to coaching, under the proviso that he wasn’t allowed to be alone with the players.
“There was never any charges,” said Olding. “The board at that time decided he had done a lot of coaching, and had a lot of experience and that, you know, would be a benefit to the organization … Under the conditions that someone would always have to be with him.”
It’s not clear how many years that arrangement remained in place, but it did not follow him when he left Hockey Regina.
‘Not what a coach is supposed to do’
Gary Silander, the Fort Frances Lakers’ president, told CBC News that he is “still in the dark” about the Hockey Canada investigation and its findings, suggesting that COVID-19 restrictions might be hampering the process.
As the months pass, the player who received the texts and emails says he has come to see his entire friendship with Coach in a different light — distrusting the praise and promises of help and focusing more on what he now sees as attempts to manipulate him.
He said that rejecting an invitation to come and visit his coach was sometimes met with mentions of suicide.
“He would make jokes that he would pop himself with a gun in the head, so that kind of freaked me out a little bit,” said the player. “But now I know, like, he was just using that.”
He doesn’t think that Lynch should ever be allowed to coach again.
“He uses his power against his own players, and that’s not what a coach is supposed to do. A coach is supposed to mentor and teach and guide people,” said the player.
His mother has formed an even harsher opinion. She worries that her son was being “groomed” by his coach, in an effort to try and coerce the 20-year-old into a relationship.
She thinks that authorities should be taking a closer look at Lynch’s behaviour in Fort Frances, and his long coaching history across North America and in Europe.
“Bernie Lynch is a coach. And so as a coach, he’s in a position of authority. He’s in a position of power over his players,” she said.
“He is clearly in a position to manipulate his players into actions or behaviours or whatever the case may be that they may not otherwise be willingly engaged in,” she said. “This is a power differential in my mind. This is no different than a professor and a student.”
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