Despite our climate, Australian hockey has thrived at the grassroots level. But its administration has long been beset with scandal, incompetence and spin, writes Sandi Logan.
Recruiters and the board of Ice Hockey Australia (IHA) have not ruled out the possibility disgraced businessman Grove Bennett could return to the organisation under a new six-figure contract position as general manager.
Bennett, who fled Canada in 2017 leaving behind millions of dollars of debt to 62 creditors, was a director on the board and then president of the national ice hockey organisation from September 2021, and was moving to embed himself as its chief executive officer before he was exposed, resigning in disgrace last May following an MWM exposé.
The Australian-born wannabe entrepreneur had racked up a $100,000 credit card bill and the Canadian tax office was after him for more than $1 million when he fled. He now lives in Patterson Lakes, south-east of Melbourne, where he manages several local tennis courts.
In a complicated web involving friends and an unlisted recruitment ‘‘business’’, the IHA board recently advertised for a GM through Vicki Pratt. Applicants were directed to apply through her email, but she listed no website, no ABN, and no phone number for follow-up queries.
Vicki Pratt is in fact executive leader of People Capability and Careers at Frank Green, a Melbourne-based company. However Frank Green’s marketing director, Clare Molesworth, told MWM her company has never had any association with Ice Hockey Australia.
She added: “We won’t be commenting on the matter any further.”
However Pratt is a former work colleague of IHA board member and company secretary, Jane Woodlands-Thompson. They worked at Collingwood FC between 2018-2021 where Vicki Pratt was GM, People Risk and Capability while Woodlands-Thompson was GM Women’s Sport.
“After the Grove Bennett debacle, it would have been wise for IHA to have engaged a completely separate agency to run the recruitment process to avoid any accusations of bias,” says former IHA board member Adrian Miller. He resigned as treasurer in early 2022 when Bennett failed to fully address Miller’s concerns about his murky financial past.
“Scrutiny of recruitment extends to the recruiting agent you engage, and the use of a former colleague, perhaps a friend, as the recruiter for a high paying position raises even further questions about the IHA board’s principles and governance protocols,” Miller added.
IHA is a public company limited by guarantee under the Corporations Act. As part of its online recruitment process, the IHA, through Woodlands-Thompson, appealed to all Australian ice hockey clubs and leagues in a widely distributed email to “circulate [the new GM vacancy] to your networks so we can get the most robust candidate pool and secure someone great for this critical role”.
An opaque process
While no dollar amount was advertised, the role would be expected to offer a six-figure package and involve extensive international and domestic travel. But how can IHA’s 5000+ members be assured they’re going to be attracting the best candidate, and one they can afford, with such an opaque and uncertain recruitment process?
IHA did not explain, when asked, why a “mate” was engaged to assess and short-list applicants, rather than a registered head-hunting firm for such an important hire. However an August 26 update on its website after a journalist’s enquiries about the recruitment process says “the Board of IHA advertised the role widely and obtained the assistance of an experienced sports industry HR professional, to undertake the processes of vetting and shortlisting candidates ready for interview”.
Two board members and a representative from the IHA member associations will comprise the interview panel for round one interviews for shortlisted candidates in Melbourne.
Woodlands-Thompson, from South Australia, was elected to the IHA board in March 2022, and has a strong sports administration and coaching background. She is general manager of Australian Masters Games, preparing for the 2023 event in Adelaide.
Another concern for IHA members is that no salary package has been advertised, so members have no idea what their obligation will be towards funding a new fulltime GM role for a sport, long beset with scandal, incompetence, and spin.
“After a few bumper years of Covid with no national teams or overseas travel to fund, the IHA surplus is large,” said Miller, who once managed the organisation’s multimillion-dollar turnover. “However, this surplus is not a year-to-year occurrence, so funding and sustaining the likely six-figure package for the position will most likely have to be levied on the members.
“They are already disenfranchised with what IHA provides them for their $165 annual fee. My estimate is there will be around a $100k shortfall in the context of all the IHA’s other operating costs, and members will be asked to pay via increased fees. It’s neither right, nor fair.”
An exciting role
According to recruiter Vicki Pratt, IHA has had an “overwhelming response” to the vacancy. “All applications are treated with the strictest of confidence to ensure the privacy of individuals (and) as such I am not able to provide visibility of who has or hasn’t applied for the position,” she said in an email reply to an MWM query about whether a Grove Bennett application would be accepted by the board.
“In relation to the remuneration package for the role, this will be determined by the market rate for the skills, experience and capability required for the effective performance of the position,” she added.
Either she has no idea what IHA will be paying, or the successful applicant can name their own package. Nice gig if you can get it!
While the advertisement for the GM role suggests the successful applicant will actively advocate for women’s, men’s and junior players of all genders, it specifically avoids any reference to the promotion and development of the Paralympic ice sledge hockey discipline.
IHA is a member of Paralympics Australia, and has been provided with substantial grant funds to develop sledge hockey under its auspices. The Australian Paralympic Committee, through the Agitos Foundation, provided IHA an $18,000 grant in 2017 for the purchase of specially designed paralympic sleds for ice hockey as well as sticks, with telescoping noses and picks the players use to propel themselves around the rink.
An additional $340,000 grant was made by the Commonwealth Department of Social Services to expand the para ice hockey program to every state where IHA has local associations in place including in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
“IHA [has access to] a major grant that has allowed me to purchase sleds and safety equipment as well as [pay for] ice costs,” according to IHA’s para sport director, Bill Siegloff.
“IHA has an MOU with Paralympics Australia to manage para ice hockey and IHA is bidding to host international para ice hockey events in Australia. We are building a national program that will help athletes play from a local level at an inclusive club with the ability to transition to national titles and international level.”
And yet nowhere in the IHA job description or duty statement for its general manager is there any reference to para ice sledge hockey.
The final word of optimism rests with the IHA’s recent unattributed website update: “IHA was blown away by the level of interest and quality of applicants for this exciting role, that will, along with the newly elected IHA Board, steer the sport into the next phase of its growth.”
Pigs might one day fly.
Sandi Logan was a journalist from 1974-1984 (Fairfax, Toronto Sun, ABC-TV & Radio); a DFAT diplomat from 1984-2002, serving in Port Moresby (1988-90), Bonn (1993-96) and Washington DC (1998-2002); a media adviser to federal Liberal and Labor ministers; a communications executive and spokesman for the AFP and the Department of Immigration; and most recently an author of the non-fiction book BETRAYED (Hachette). Originally from Canada, he has also played ice hockey for more than 60 years.