PITTSBURGH — The NHL’s investigation into sexual abuse and grooming accusations against Lightning defenseman Ian Cole " found no evidence to substantiate the allegations,” the league announced Saturday in a news release.
The Lightning, who had suspended Cole with pay pending the results of the investigation, have cleared him to return to the team.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to respond to and refute the anonymous allegations made against me, which I categorically deny,” Cole said in a statement released by the Lightning. “I’m looking forward to returning to the ice with my teammates and will have no further comments on this matter going forward.”
The announcement came an hour before the Lightning were scheduled to play the Penguins in Pittsburgh to wrap up a season-opening, three-game road trip. Cole, who was not with the team, presumably will return for Tuesday’s home opener against the Flyers at Amalie Arena.
The NHL Players’ Association released a statement later Saturday criticizing the Lightning for suspending Cole.
“We are pleased that the situation with Ian Cole is now resolved and that the NHL has closed the matter,” the statement read. “However, players should never be subject to suspension or discipline in response to unsubstantiated and anonymous accusations. Removing a player from his team under these circumstances is inappropriate and grossly unfair.”
The players’ association said it is having discussions with the league about how to address similar situations in the future.
The investigation, which was conducted by the NHL’s security and legal departments, included two interviews with Cole as well as league personnel and other individuals with potentially relevant information, according to the release from the league.
Despite detailed reviews of online and social media, public information including court record and law enforcement checks, the league said it was unable to make contact with the accuser, who posted the accusations Oct. 7 on Twitter under the pseudonym Emily Smith (@emily_smith3333).
“On the basis of the foregoing,” the release read, “the National Hockey League now considers this matter closed.”
The Lightning quickly followed with a release of their own, stating that the organization supports the findings of the investigation and has cleared Cole to return.
“The organization takes these accusations very seriously and supports the conclusion from the NHL investigation,” the Lightning release reads. “We look forward to Ian returning to the team and appreciate his full cooperation throughout the process of this investigation.”
The accuser alleged that Cole, now 33, had a four-year sexual relationship with her that began when she was a minor. She said he pressured her into sex during their first meeting and later asked her to bring other high school girls to their meetings, which she said included visits to his team hotel.
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Cole, a 13-year NHL veteran, joined the Lightning in July when he signed a one-year, $2.5 million free-agent contract. Tampa Bay hoped the left-shot defenseman would provide a veteran presence and contribute shot-blocking and penalty-killing following the trade of Ryan McDonagh to the Predators.
Prior to joining the Lightning, Cole played with six other teams: the Blues, Penguins, Blue Jackets, Avalanche, Wild and Hurricanes. He was a member of the Pittsburgh team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and ‘17.
The Lightning organization, including players and coaches, will not make any further comment on the matter, according to their release.
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