NHL coaches have been accused of racism and bullying this month. The only consolation is that it may force a change within the game
Who gets to decide what kind of sport hockey is? All it took was two high-profile dismissals in two weeks (with a third possible), and we now have an open question.
The most recent high-profile departure was Mike Babcock, ousted as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs less than a week ago. His young squad, brimming with talent, had hit a losing streak in which they looked even more disorganized and dejected than they had over the first few weeks of the season. In as Babcocks replacement came Sheldon Keefe, the 39-year old favourite of Leafs 35-year old general manager, Kyle Dubas. Two wins immediately followed. Night and day, defenceman Tyson Barrie told the Toronto Sun on Monday.
A few lines down in the same Sun story, a detail of the darkness came to light: during the 2016-17 season, Babcock asked then-rookie Mitch Marner to rank the Leafs players based on work ethic. Marner obliged, and was surprised when Babcock read the list to the rest of the team. Some mild psychological games, maybe. An abuse of power for sure. After the story came out, Babcock told Sportsnet that he had later apologized, but the anecdote sparked something nevertheless.
Not very surprising the things were hearing about Babcock, former player Akim Aliu tweeted on Monday evening. Apple doesnt fall far from the Tree, same sort of deal with his protege in YYC. Dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didnt like my choice of music. Aliu was talking about current Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters. He talked some more to TSN on Tuesday.
He walked in before a morning pre-game skate and said Hey Akim, Im sick of you playing that nigger shit, Aliu told TSN about the incident that allegedly occurred when Peters was coaching the AHLs Rockford Ice Dogs. The story had an immediate impact. The behavior that has been alleged is repugnant and unacceptable, the NHL said in a statement. But there was more. Michal Jordn, former defenceman for the Carolina Hurricanes, (Peters former NHL team), alleged via Twitter that Peters kicked him and punched another unnamed player in the head on the bench during a game. On Wednesday, current Hurricanes coach, Rod BrindAmour confirmed the account. It for sure happened, the two issues that are in question, he told reporters, adding that the players brought it to managements attention and it was definitely dealt with.
It hasnt escaped many that the Babcock and Peters revelations come less than two weeks after Don Cherry, the loudmouth octogenarian mainstay at the CBCs Hockey Night in Canada, opted to step down from his job rather than apologize for a racist on-air comment. As the years of his Coachs Corner segment wore on, Cherrys macho blustering, his rambling monologues, his lionizing of rock em sock em hockey became ever more off-kilter with modern reality a fact obvious to seemingly everyone but Canadas hockey broadcasters. Cherry hung on and so did his bosses. Until, one day, they just didnt.
Abuse is ripe throughout every single level of hockey. And if you dont think it is, just take a look at whats happening at the National Hockey League level and the OHL level with minors, former NHL forward Dan Carcillo, a longtime vocal critical of how players are treated, said in a video posted to Twitter Tuesday. These leagues need to change. These people need to be held accountable.
For the hockey world, its Carcillos reminder about minors that should prompt a serious pause. In his rookie season, Mitch Marner was 19 when he made his debut for the Leafs. He was not a child, but the uncomfortable question is that, even if he were, would the story have been any different? No. Alius comments about Peters were so shocking, almost everyone missed another detail he revealed: that, whilst with the OHLs Windsor Spitfires, he refused to participate in a hazing ritual that would have forced him and other rookies to stand naked in a bus washroom.
By Wednesday evening, Peters still hadnt been officially fired, but it seems likely he will be, even though he released a letter of apology for his actions. But will his exit change anything for anyone beyond the Flames organization? Clearly, the old school way of coaches manipulating players by way of power games and intimidation is on the wane, Sportsnets Eric Francis wrote Wednesday, before adding that the network had received several stories from players who did not appreciate Peters and his ways. But, he cautioned: now is not the time to pile on. Will everyone else agree?
Professional sports leagues like to position themselves at arms length from reality: no matter what happens in the world, you can count on hockey, or football, or basketball to stay the same. That separation is handy not just for creating stories of athletic gods, ageless dynasties, and fulfilled destinies. Its also good for business. Everyone, they tell us, is welcome to play and to dream in the world of sports.
But this is a lie. There is no separation at all. The world of sports is our world. Every once in a while, and more frequently of late, were reminded that the cultural framework that governs the world outside the rink, or off the court, or beyond the field is the exact same one that is at work within them. The same power structures exist. The same kind of men make the rules. Until they dont.
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