fb-pixelDespite SafeSport bans, youth hockey organizations slow to remove coaches accused of abuse - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Despite SafeSport bans, youth hockey organizations slow to remove coaches accused of abuse

Rodman Arena is located on Providence Highway in Walpole.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Late one night in August 2021, 52-year-old Robert Barletta, who owns Rodman Arena in Walpole as well as one of the state’s largest youth hockey organizations, allegedly supplied liquor in his home to two of his 20-year-old female coaches, then forced one of them onto his bed, straddled her, and began kissing her neck, while she repeatedly objected, according to a police report.

“I thought I was going to be raped,” the coach was quoted as telling the Walpole police.

Ten weeks later, the US Center for SafeSport, authorized by Congress in 2017 to safeguard athletes from abuse, declared Barletta indefinitely ineligible to participate in any activity governed by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee due to alleged sexual misconduct.

Advertisement



Yet despite the SafeSport ban, Barletta remained on the ice at Rodman Arena as recently as early August, coaching girls at one of his many summer camps. He did so despite a federal law that requires the governing bodies of Olympic sports organizations — in this case USA Hockey and its state affiliate, Massachusetts Hockey — to enforce SafeSport’s sanctions.

An undated booking photo provided by the Walpole Police Department of Robert Barletta, owner of Rodman Arena in Walpole.Walpole police

It wasn’t until the Globe asked why Barletta was continuing to coach that the two governing bodies moved to ensure he is no longer involved in the hockey business while facing charges of felony indecent assault and battery on a person 14 or over, accosting and annoying another person, and two counts of providing liquor to a person under 21. He has pleaded not guilty.

What’s more, Barletta is not the only youth hockey figure banned by SafeSport who has continued operating in the state.

In 2012, Anthony DeSilva, who owned the Raynham-based Mass Maple Leafs youth hockey program, was charged in Florida with 75 offenses, including multiple counts of using a computer to seduce a child. In 2014, DeSilva pleaded no contest to one felony count of “offense against computer users,” according to court records, and was sentenced to the 259 days he served in pretrial detention and more than four years of probation.

Advertisement



DeSilva, 51, of Acushnet, now operates Top Hockey Prospect, a scouting service that claims to have placed 67 players of various ages and skill levels in competitive programs, including those governed by USA Hockey and Mass Hockey.

Barletta and DeSilva’s ongoing involvement with children has struck some former youth players who have reported abuse by other coaches as another troubling example of USA Hockey and Mass Hockey falling short in rooting out offenders, enforcing SafeSport’s disciplinary measures, and holding alleged abusers accountable.

Anthony DeSilva (left) appeared at the Central County Jail in Bartow, Fla., after his arrest in 2012.Adam Vance/Associated Press

These former players said they see similarities between Barletta and DeSilva’s situations and that of another youth coach whom Mass Hockey failed to restrain despite complaints over many years: Carl Gray, who owned the Valley Sports Arena in Concord and the acclaimed Assabet Valley girls’ hockey program until he stepped down in 2020 after Mass Hockey acted on Globe reports about his alleged misconduct.

“Mass Hockey and USA Hockey have continuously failed to do their job of protecting young hockey players,” said Katie Isbell, a former player for Gray who in 2020 went public with allegations that he sexually harassed and emotionally abused her in 2007, when she was 11 years old.

“I came forward two years ago in the hope that sharing my story would cause those in power to stop the cycles of abuse,” Isbell, now a student at Northeastern University School of Law, added. “The fact that Mass Hockey and USA Hockey have allowed this to keep happening is both heartbreaking and unacceptable.”

Advertisement



Mass Hockey issued a statement saying it supports and complies with SafeSport’s mission.

“If and when an individual is added to [SafeSport’s disciplinary] database,” the statement said, “Massachusetts Hockey feels that demonstrates the system is doing what it is designed to do — protect youth sports participants from potential harm.”

USA Hockey general counsel Casey Jorgensen said, “We’re never perfect, but people see things from the outside and have their own perceptions. They don’t see how diligent we are and how really hard we work to follow up and handle these things.”

USA Hockey and Mass Hockey, like nearly all governing bodies, have no staff to enforce SafeSport sanctions. They rely largely on reports from the public and news accounts. When the Globe inquired about Barletta, Mass Hockey alerted USA Hockey, which contacted Barletta’s attorney and received a written assurance he would not enter Rodman Arena or interact with youth hockey players until his legal case is resolved, according to the governing bodies.

Barletta, through his attorney, declined to comment, as did the attorney.

For Barletta, a father of three who has been separated from his wife, according to court documents, SafeSport’s action has thrown into question the future of his business. His Walpole Express youth hockey program and RB Hockey School serve thousands of players a year, and Rodman Arena alone is assessed at $5.3 million.

Advertisement



In Barletta’s absence, the operation is run by general manager Todd Stirling, 50, a scout for the Ottawa Senators who once coached the now-defunct Danbury Trashers of the United Hockey League. Stirling was indicted in 2006 on federal charges of conspiring with Danbury’s owner, waste management mogul James Galante, to defraud the UHL by falsifying salary cap reports. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years probation.

Jorgensen said USA Hockey has not disqualified Stirling to hold his current position based on the conviction.

As for Barletta, he received plaudits in early 2021 for helping former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling and others raise money for AJ Quetta, a former Walpole Express player who suffered a severe spinal cord injury while competing for Bishop Feehan High School.

Barletta’s arrest later in 2021 was not his first brush with the law. In 2020, he was charged with assault and battery on a household member: a 29-year-old woman who coached in his program and whom he dated for nearly two years before she ended the relationship, according to a police report.

That charge was dismissed, as was a charge of felony assault and battery with a dangerous weapon in 2014 after Barletta allegedly punched and kicked in the face a man who was on the ground during a bar fight.

Congress created SafeSport amid outrage over USA Gymnastics national doctor Larry Nassar allegedly sexually molesting more than 150 girls, including Aly Raisman and Simone Biles, while the governing body and others failed for decades to stop him. Nassar was subsequently convicted and is serving a 40-to-175-year prison sentence.

Advertisement



Today, SafeSport’s disciplinary database lists nearly 1,800 individuals who are suspended, indefinitely ineligible, or permanently ineligible. Of those, 175 have been associated with USA Hockey, including 19 in Massachusetts.

But SafeSport and USA Hockey have not always worked in harmony. Early this year, SafeSport reported to Congress that USA Hockey allegedly interfered with a SafeSport investigation, prompting Senator Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to warn USA Hockey in writing about its obligation to comply with SafeSport inquiries, The Athletic first reported.

“As the Nassar case exemplifies, inaction may lead to many more victims being harmed, which would be intolerable,” Grassley wrote to USA Hockey, according to a copy of the letter.

Jorgensen said that case stemmed from a parent’s complaint that her daughter was sexually harassed by players in a youth hockey game. A USA Hockey specialist in SafeSport complaints initially determined the incident did not warrant reporting to SafeSport, then changed his position after he received more evidence, according to Jorgensen.

The girl’s mother then reported the specialist to SafeSport for initially dismissing the complaint, and SafeSport opened an investigation of the specialist, Jorgensen said. And when USA Hockey notified the specialist of the inquiry, SafeSport reported USA Hockey to Congress for allegedly interfering with the inquiry. The case remains open.

As for DeSilva, the terms of his probation in Florida barred him from contacting two teenage boys the judge described as victims in the case. In addition to the 67 players, many of whom are teenagers, he already has placed in hockey programs, DeSilva told the Globe in e-mails that he currently is working to place an additional 35 players.

Mass Hockey said it notified DeSilva in 2012 that he was indefinitely suspended from youth hockey. But DeSilva said, to the contrary, that before he tried to register as a hockey official in 2018, his lawyer received an e-mail from Mass Hockey stating that no one involved in disciplinary matters in the organization was aware DeSilva was suspended. Both sides provided documents to support their statements.

Mass Hockey said Friday that a more thorough search of its records in 2018 would have shown DeSilva was suspended, and that USA Hockey notified DeSilva soon after the e-mail exchange that he indeed had been suspended by the governing bodies since 2012.

SafeSport also declared DeSilva permanently ineligible in 2018. In May, DeSilva and Barletta were among 11 individuals across the country identified in a NBC News report as appearing to remain active after they were banned by SafeSport.

In Barletta’s case, Mass Hockey and USA Hockey said they acted swiftly to restrain him, first after the May report and again this month after they were notified by the Globe. But DeSilva’s case, they said, was thornier.

The governing bodies can have DeSilva removed from events sanctioned by USA Hockey, as they did several years ago, and they can report anyone to SafeSport who allows DeSilva to participate in a program sanctioned by USA Hockey, which they also have done, Jorgensen said.

But DeSilva functions as an independent adviser through his scouting service and is not officially affiliated with the governing bodies. So, neither they nor SafeSport have authority to regulate his business, much less shut it down. They said parents seeking advisers for young players should vet those advisers carefully, specifically by checking SafeSport’s disciplinary database.

DeSilva said his reputation has been unfairly tarnished by SafeSport and the governing bodies and that he has received numerous death threats. He insisted his offense in Florida had nothing to do with minors and should not have warranted SafeSport declaring him permanently ineligible.

“I don’t think I’ve been treated fairly and appropriately,” DeSilva said. “SafeSport’s action is unjust.”

Meanwhile, some of Carl Gray’s alleged victims await a long overdue report by a committee USA Hockey formed in 2020 to investigate Mass Hockey’s handling of complaints about him.

Carl Gray was the founder of the acclaimed Assabet Valley youth hockey program.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Gray, now 84, has denied the abuse allegations. Moreover, he has declined to address assertions in 2020 by a former player, Estey Ticknor, who said he engaged in a sexual relationship with her in 1981, when she was a 17-year-old Assabet player and he was her 43-year-old coach.

USA Hockey told the Globe in June 2021 that the committee’s investigation of Mass Hockey would be completed by the end of the summer. More than a year later, the panel has yet to produce a report.

Fred Isbell, Katie’s father, a former volunteer Assabet coach who said he complained numerous times through the years to Mass Hockey about Gray to no avail, assailed the delay.

“The whole thing is a disgrace,” Isbell said. “No accountability whatsoever.”

Jorgensen said he expects a decision in the case to be issued by the end of the month.


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.