When Brad Aldrich brought the Stanley Cup home to northern Michigan, it was front-page news in a community that proudly calls itself the birthplace of professional hockey.
Standing in the bleachers of a high school gym, the former assistant coach of the Chicago Blackhawks hoisted the championship trophy overhead as dozens of students looked on. If they just worked hard, he promised that day in the fall of 2010, they could achieve the same kind of success.
Three years later, after Aldrich pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting one of the high school hockey players he had volunteered to coach, the anger and embarrassment stirred by the case left many in Houghton County anxious to forget.
But weeks after the Blackhawks resolved a pair of lawsuits accusing the franchise of covering for Aldrich after a similar allegation by player Kyle Beach in 2010, ugly questions raised by the scandal live on, not only in Chicago, but well beyond.
“It’s one of the biggest black eyes in NHL history and it’s because of a kid from our home area,” said Corey Markham, Houghton High School’s longtime hockey coach.
Hockey and community life are closely intertwined in Houghton County, and Aldrich hailed from one of its most well-known families. His father, Mike Aldrich, was the longtime equipment manager for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, and his uncle was a principal and an assistant hockey coach at Houghton. Before the Blackhawks, Brad Aldrich, himself, had been a youth hockey coach.
In the end, though, none of that mattered.
“If we had known that (was) the reason he was let go with the Blackhawks, he wouldn’t have been working with our high school kids and stuff like that,” Markham said. “So that’s very disappointing that they didn’t notify anyone.”
Attempts by the AP to reach Brad Aldrich, now 39, were unsuccessful.
After he resigned his position with Chicago, Aldrich worked or volunteered for USA Hockey, the University of Notre Dame and Miami University in Ohio before returning to his native Michigan.
Spokesmen for USA Hockey and Notre Dame said the organizations had not received any complaints about Aldrich. But trouble surfaced again at Miami.
Aldrich worked three one-week hockey camps at Miami before he was hired as director of hockey operations in July 2012, according to a report by an outside law firm that was commissioned by the school.
Aldrich did not provide any references on his résumé, according to the report. Then-coach Rico Blasi recalled that he and his staff received “favorable information” from coaches at Notre Dame.
The law firm’s report detailed two sexual assault allegations against Aldrich at Miami. The first, in November 2012, led to his resignation. The second was not lodged until August 2018, when a former student said he had been sexually assaulted by Aldrich at about the same time. Neither allegation was prosecuted.
The man who made the 2018 allegation is one of three people now weighing lawsuits against the Blackhawks for the team’s handling of the matter, said Christopher Cortese, a Chicago attorney representing the men.
They include a onetime player in the Blackhawks’ organization who told investigators he received two sexually explicit text messages from Aldrich during the 2010 playoffs. Cortese said he also represents Paul Vincent, a former skills coach with the Blackhawks who has said he encouraged team leadership to take the players’ allegations to the police. Vincent and the player believe they were blacklisted by the franchise after the allegations against Aldrich were brought to the team’s attention, the lawyer said.
Cortese told the AP on Thursday his firm is preparing lawsuits while maintaining talks with the team. The Blackhawks did not immediately respond to a message left by the AP seeking comment. The potential litigation was first reported by TSN.
Soon after the first allegation at Miami, Blasi held a team meeting to announce Aldrich was gone.
“He said just if any of you have his numbers, delete his numbers, don’t be in contact with him. He’s not part of our team anymore,” said Taylor Richart, a former defenseman on the Miami team.
Blasi, now the coach at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, did not return messages seeking comment.
“No one’s happy about what happened with the Blackhawks,” said Bryon Paulazzo, who played for the Miami squad and recalls Aldrich’s brief tenure and mysterious departure. “This is a terrible situation and it shouldn’t have happened.”
In Houghton, a close-knit and remote community on a bay that feeds into Lake Superior, the hurt lingers.
Hockey is a big deal in Houghton. On the downtown waterfront, Dee Stadium bills itself as the site where pro hockey began in the early 1900s, with a hockey history museum documenting the sport’s local roots. A mile away, the nationally ranked Michigan Tech University men’s team averages more than 2,500 fans for its games.
“It’s like a religion,” said John Ryynanen, a 50-year-old father of seven who grew up in the area.
“You can imagine a small community like this, a very well-known family. Something like this happens, it’s a shock,” he said.
Aldrich returned home in September 2010 with the newly won championship trophy loaned to him by the Blackhawks.
“Success is not easy but it’s fun,” he told students at Hancock Central High School, across a canal from Houghton. “With hard work and a lot of dedication, which is probably the biggest thing, you can do it.”
When he returned again in late 2012, his uncle, an assistant coach at Houghton High, asked Markham if he’d be interested in having Brad Aldrich work with the players.
The younger Aldrich had worked as a substitute teacher while a student at Northern Michigan University, simultaneously coaching youth travel hockey teams. He also had worked as a video intern for San Jose’s NHL franchise, before joining the Blackhawks.
“I had known Brad since he was a little kid,” Markham said, “So I figured how awesome for us that we have a Stanley Cup-winning coach that’s going to be in town and will help us out.”
Months after his return, Brad Aldrich was charged with sexually assaulting one of Houghton’s players after a party where teens had been drinking alcohol. He pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual assault and was sentenced to nine months in jail.
The Michigan Amateur Hockey Association said Aldrich was a volunteer coach with Marquette Junior Hockey Corp. from 2001 to 2005. MAHA said it had not received any complaints or reports of misconduct by Aldrich.
A former Houghton player, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said many people in the community “just want to move on from it, pretend it didn’t happen, because it’s embarrassing.”
The lawyer who brought the suits against the Blackhawks put part of the blame on the NHL franchise.
“The Blackhawks gave Mr. Aldrich the actual Stanley Cup to take to Houghton to show it off,” attorney Susan Loggans wrote in a letter to the team’s lawyers. “The Cup was inscribed with Mr. Aldrich’s name. Standing alone, this communication vouches for Mr. Aldrich’s suitability as a coach.”
Aldrich’s name on the Cup was marked over last year after Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz wrote to Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald, calling Aldrich’s behavior “unforgivable” and saying the team made a mistake by submitting his name.
The law firm hired by the Blackhawks found that franchise leaders largely ignored Beach’s allegations. Aldrich told investigators that the encounter was consensual.
Facing questions Wednesday for the first time since the firm’s report was published in October, an angry Wirtz refused to address the team’s handling of the sexual assault allegations.
“We’re not going to talk about Kyle Beach,” he said. “We’re not going to talk about anything that happened. Now we’re moving on. What more do I have to say?”
Wirtz, 69, ended up apologizing for his reaction later in the night.
Looking back, Michael Makinen, who prosecuted the Michigan case, still puzzles over his community’s willingness to trust Aldrich.
“Leaving the Chicago Blackhawks and turning up as a volunteer coach in a county of 35,000 people doesn’t make sense,” Makinen said.
“There’s a lot of local people who believe our area is the best area in the world. They accept someone saying, ‘I want to come here because the way of life is so good.’ … In my position, I’m a little more skeptical.”
Jay Cohen, The Associated Press