Canadian police have apologised for the length of time it took to press charges against five ice hockey players accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2018.
Police in London, Ontario laid charges last week against four National Hockey League (NHL) players and one former player.
A review of the case found evidence that was “not available” in an initial investigation, police said on Monday.
All five have denied wrongdoing and say they will plead not guilty.
The five were members of Canada’s World Junior hockey team when the alleged assault took place.
At a press conference on Monday, police chief Thai Troung said: “My sincerest apology to the victim and to the family for the amount of time that it has taken to reach this point.”
“I truly am not happy about this,” he said.
Police closed an initial investigation into the alleged assault in 2019 and no charges were laid, but the file was reopened three years later when the case came under public scrutiny in Canada.
Sgt Katherine Dann, who leading the case review, said her department found that there were “additional steps that could have been taken to advance the investigation”.
On Monday, the lawyers for the players made the first appearance on behalf of their clients in a London court. None of the players appeared.
Prosecutors also requested a publication ban on the identity of the victim and two witnesses in the case.
All five players are facing one count of sexual assault. Player Mike McLeod is also being charged with being party to the offence.
The four players in the NHL are Mr McLeod and Cal Foote with the New Jersey Devils, the Philadelphia Flyers’ Carter Hart, and the Calgary Flames’ Dillon Dubé.
The fifth is ex-NHL player Alex Formenton. Up until his arrest, Mr Formenton played for Swiss hockey club Ambri-Piotta.
They have been on leave from their teams pending the outcome of the case.
Asked whether charges could be laid against more players, Sgt Dann said: “We have laid changes for all the parties that we have reasonable grounds for.”
In 2022, the woman at the centre of the case filed a lawsuit against Hockey Canada – which manages programmes and teams in the country from entry-level all the way to world championships and the Olympic Games – alleging that she had been assaulted by eight players in a hotel room in July 2018.
That May, sports network TSN revealed Hockey Canada had quietly reached a settlement with the woman.
The revelation was met with national outcry in Canada, resulting in the organisation losing federal funding and several high-profile sponsorship deals.
When asked why it took nearly six years for police to press charges and whether the force failed in its initial investigation, Mr Troung declined to elaborate, saying it could compromise the investigation.
“Why it took so long will form part of the proceedings,” he said.
The NHL also launched its own investigation, which has since concluded, but Commissioner Gary Bettman has said its conclusions will not be made public as the matter is now before the courts.
Speaking to reporters on Friday during the NHL All-Star weekend in Toronto, Mr Bettman added that the NHL players, who are all free agents as of the end of the current season, will no longer be with their teams as the trial commences.
“At this stage the most responsible and prudent thing to do is await the conclusion of the judicial proceedings,” Mr Bettman said.
He also called the allegations “abhorrent” and defended the sport in light of the charges.
“This is not representative of what takes place in our game,” Mr Bettman said. “We want people to know that our game is inclusive, welcoming and safe.”
The players’ next court appearance is scheduled for April 30. Under Canadian law, a sexual assault conviction carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.