Hockey has long been a sport where it has been known that is a sport with that of a tough mentality. However, as we grow older, and new generations come into the game, the game itself evolves. How the game evolves is always dependent on the new generation coming in. Whether it’s curves on sticks, to moving from wood to composites for sticks, or even how the game is played with finesse and speed rather than with brute strength and lots of obstruction. Even fighting is becoming less and less as the game continues to evolve. But one thing that has always remained has been the tough mentality, and now we are seeing it rear it’s ugly head as we have seen people lose their jobs over this as more people speak out about the faults we don’t see and need to be brought to light.
The first clear case was that of now former Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry whose “Coach’s Corner” segment was a staple of Saturday nights in Canada. Heading into Remembrance Day Cherry said some off color comments that were directed immigrants. Cherry, who has been known for his boasting of Canadian pride, and bashing of foreigners, would be let go by Sportsnet two days later for the comments he made. While Cherry has acknowledged that he should have said “everyone” instead of “you people”, he would not apologize for his comments, and even doubled down on them. Cherry being removed from HNIC by Sportsnet was the correct move, and one that came years too late.
Then we have now former Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. When Babcock was relieved of his duties by the Leafs nobody thought twice about what may have been going on in the locker room or behind closed office doors. Toronto was not performing well, and a coaching change was needed. However, not that long after we learn that when Mitch Marner was a rookie Babcock had him list the players on the Leafs and rate their work ethic, and then would let the players know where Marner had ranked them if they had ranked low. To many, and myself included, that was a low blow on the then rookie. Then we would find out that during Babcock’s time in Detroit he would verbally assault forward Johan Franzen on the bench which would cause Franzen to suffer a nervous breakdown. Chris Chelios would bring that story to light on the “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast.
And now this where everything gets interesting as Akim Aliu would finally break his silence of ten years to bring up how now former Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters would use racial slurs towards Aliu for the music he was listening to. Shortly after these allegations were made the Flames would remove Peters from behind the bench for investigation into the matter. Then after that would take place former Carolina Hurricanes player Michal Jordan would step forward and would make public that Peters kicked him during a game while on the players bench. Jordan’s story would be confirmed by others including current Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. Peters would eventually resign from the Flames, but the questions still remains.
As a result of all of these recent developments in the past month we look at ourselves and ask “what can we do to improve our game?” It’s an important question, and one that the NHL Board of Governors discussed in their meetings in Pebble Beach, CA this week. The meetings would also give us our first public comments from Commissioner Gary Bettman on the situation.
“We are now obviously aware of conduct that was and is unacceptable. Whether it happened 10 years ago or last week, the answer must be the same – it is unacceptable.”
The BOG would create a four-point plan of action in their meeting on Monday, and here is the full four-point plan as released by NHL PR (along with our comments on each point):
“1. We don’t like surprises – the Bill Peters situation was a complete surprise.
Going forward, our clubs are on notice that if they become aware of an incident of conduct involving NHL personnel on or off the ice that is clearly inappropriate, unlawful or demonstrably abusive, or that may violate the League’s policies, involving NHL Club personnel, on or off the ice, we at the League office – Bill Daly or me – must be immediately advised. There will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us and in the event of such failure, the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline.
As it relates to incidents involving Bill Peters in Carolina – there seems to be some confusion between statements by Peter Karmanos and Ron Francis, which I still need to sort out. However, I am fairly clear that none of this has anything to do with Carolina under Tom Dundon, who was among the first to call me when Peters’ conduct came to light and he first learned about the Peters physical abuse allegations in Carolina.”
While I don’t like surprises myself, the Bill Peters situation was a surprise that the NHL needed, and more importantly the hockey community needed it. Now with that said I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more surprises were to come out of the wood shed in the next few weeks/months because in all honesty there are more situations out there that have not come out to light yet, that we know will eventually come out at some point. Now in regards to the fact that all NHL clubs are now on notice by the League office that they must advise either Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly or Bettman immediately, that’s good, but how will it get prioritized when it gets to the League office? Will those in question be removed right away, or is there a time period that has to elapse before that can take place? How soon would this information become public too? These are some of the key questions that need to be asked, and we need more defined answers as to what happens once these incidents are reported to Bettman and Daly.
“2. While I do not believe most NHL coaches conduct themselves in an inappropriate manner – in fact, I believe most NHL coaches are professional and respectful in the way they coach and the profession is not deserving of blanket condemnation because of the conduct of some individuals – however in order to expedite a change in culture and make clear the expectations we have for the conduct of coaches and other personnel, we will formulate a mandatory annual program on counseling, consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion.
This program will be required for all Head Coaches, Minor League Coaches under contract with NHL teams, Assistant Coaches, General Managers and Assistant General Managers. We will focus the programming on training and other exercises and initiatives to ensure respectful locker rooms, training facilities, games, and all other hockey-related activities; and teach to ensure bystander intervention techniques, anti-harassment, anti-hazing, non-retaliation and anti-bullying best practices.
The exact structure of the program will be created by outside professionals in the field and we will consult with the Players’ Association and the Coaches’ Association in the program’s creation. We will also discuss with the Players’ Association the extent to which this program or another customized program should be presented to the players. Also, under the direction of NHL Executive Vice President Kim Davis, we will form a multidisciplinary council to suggest initiatives, monitor progress and coordinate efforts with all levels of hockey. The council will also make resources available to help any organization that might reach out for assistance.”
So there is a lot to take in on this one because of the opening statement to this second point. While I agree that most coaches conduct themselves in a professional and respectable manner, and that blanket condemnation should not be warranted, I think it should for the time being. All coaches currently active should be under that microscope, and with the new training being implemented for counseling, consciousness-raising, and education and training on diversity and inclusion, we should be given updates on how this new program is working, and how the coaches are adjusting with the new classes they are taking. But one major question is how is this educational material being created for the coaches? We know that the NHLPA and the Coaches’ Association will be involved, but what outside parties that would be more of an authority that can be brought in to create the educational material and work with the coaches?
The multidisciplinary council will be a good addition, but again, how will it really work, and who would be on this council? Also, how would this council truly function? What would the protocol normally be, and with what type of review process?
“3. Inappropriate conduct engaged in by club personnel will be disciplined, either by the team, the League or both. While discipline as always must be on a case-by-case basis – it is my intention that it must be severe and appropriate and designed to remedy the situation and ensure that the conduct does not occur again.”
This is kind of straight to the point, but yet again whenever we hear the line “case-by-case basis” we all kind of wonder how that really works given how Player Safety is currently. If Player Safety can’t do it right, I mean three games for spitting and then fines for blatant head shots, then this leaves me a little weary that this will be truly effective.
“4. In that light, the passage of time is not the most effective way to address these situations. Accordingly, we will create a platform – perhaps a hotline – where instances of inappropriate conduct connected to the NHL can be reported either anonymously or for attribution for us to follow up. It can be any team personnel such as a teammate, trainer, or even the player himself. In this regard, we understand the critical importance of ensuring that no one is retaliated against for raising a concern or participating in an investigation – again either anonymously or for attribution – and I guarantee we will take all reports seriously and follow up. My expectation is that this hotline can function like our SABH hotline, which has been credible and effective.”
Now this is the bread and butter to me right here. In regards to passage of time it’s really hard to determine when the best time to step forward and speak is because of how the culture currently is as a whole. As men we’re always told to hold it in and “be a man”, and in all honesty that is such an archaic way to approach things in the final days of 2019 and in the upcoming year of 2020. People are more open about things today, and the NHL needs to catch up with the times. We shouldn’t have anymore Theo Fleury or Akim Alius stepping up years later after going through what they went through. They should be able to speak out right away when an injustice is done. And to those who belittle those who do speak out need to be disciplined as to why it is okay to speak out when a wrong has been done. Mental health is an important thing for everyone, and if the NHL truly believes that “Hockey is for Everyone” then they need to prove it by making it more welcoming for everyone who plays this game no matter their race, or creed, or gender. At the end of the day we all play hockey for the same reason, and that reason is because we love it.
I genuinely believe the NHL wants to change the culture of the game, and strive to remove physical and verbal abuse, along with racial and homophobic language from the game, but there are still a lot of questions that need to be asked, and answers that need to be given for those questions.
Can the NHL change their ways, and make the culture more inviting to everyone to play the greatest game on earth? Only time will tell.
**Editor’s Note: We also would like to acknowledge the issues going on with Marc Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks. He is currently being investigated by the team over allegations of physical abuse and choking players at a past job.
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NHL PR – Statement from Commissioner Gary Bettman