The National Hockey League (NHL) Board of Governors met in California on Monday evening to tackle what has been a challenging month for the world’s leading ice hockey league. Two now-unemployed head coaches, Mike Babcock and Bill Peters, have been implicated by players for abusive behaviour. Additionally, Marc Crawford, an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks franchise, has been suspended pending an investigation into allegations that he physically assaulted players.
"Our message is unequivocal, we will not tolerate abusive behaviour of any kind", Bettman told reporters.
'#MeToo Moment' in Hockey
The public interest in reassessing abusive behaviour within professional ice hockey began a month ago on 11 November. Veteran outspoken ice hockey expert, Don Cherry, who formerly coached in the NHL, was fired from his role presenting the Coach’s Corner segment on Sportsnet’s flagship Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. Cherry, who often mixes hockey analysis with fervent support for Canada’s armed forces, criticized those not wearing remembrance poppies, worn to honour the memory of fallen soldiers. His comments appeared to target immigrants.
"You people … you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that", Cherry said during the Hockey Night Canada broadcast on 9 November.
This event appeared to open the floodgates for former and current players to publicly come forward with their experiences of homophobic, racist and abusive insults and assault. Some commentators have called this ice hockey’s #MeToo movement, as key stakeholders are taking a broader look at unacceptable actions, such as hazing and initiation institutions within junior teams in North America.
NHL’s Planned Steps
Late on Monday, Bettman unveiled to reporters a four-step plan that the league believes will tackle abusive behaviour in every capacity. The commissioner stated that the NHL, on behalf of the teams, players and coaches, had to respond in a clear, meaningful and appropriate manner following the string of allegations.
"The world is changing for the better. This is an opportunity and a moment for positive change and this evolution should be expedited for the benefit of everyone associated with the game that we love. And even while change is taking effect, we still must acknowledge things that were wrong in the past, and that acknowledgement allows those who were wronged to be heard, and it gives all of us an opportunity to prevent these things from happening again", Bettman told reporters.
The first step in the NHL’s new plan states that teams must immediately inform league management if they become aware of an incident of conduct that violates league policies involving any member of staff connected to the team. Bettman outlined that there would be zero tolerance for any failure to the notification.
"We don’t like surprises", he stressed.
The second new NHL policy mandates that league personnel, including players and coaches, will take part in a mandatory annual educational program, which includes training on diversity and inclusion within the sport.
"We will focus the program 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", Bettman said.
Thirdly, the NHL commissioner outlined that discipline protocols for inappropriate conduct will be judged on a case-by-case basis, and punishment will be handed down by either the league or the individual team.
"While discipline 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", Bettman told reporters.
Finally, the NHL will establish a hotline for players or any member of staff to report inappropriate conduct. Reports, Bettman stated, can be made either anonymously or with accreditation. The commissioner stated that this policy had previously been a success for issues relating to substance abuse.
"However, or 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, a trainer or even the player himself. In this regard, we understand the critical importance that no-one is retaliated against for raising a concern or for participating in an investigation, again either anonymously or for attribution, and I guarantee we will take all reports seriously and follow up", the commissioner stated.
Ice Hockey Takes Look in Mirror
During the press conference, Bettman directly referenced Nigerian-born Canadian hockey player Akim Aliu’s allegations that now-fired Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters used racist insults over a decade ago, while both were part of the Rockford IceHogs organization.
Aliu initially came forward with the allegations on Twitter in late November, following the firing of Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock due to alleged abusive behaviour.
First, the Toronto Sun newspaper alleged that during the 2016-2017 season, Babcock asked rookies to rate the players on the Maple Leafs in order from hardest-working to those who were the least hardworking, before revealing this publicly to the rest of the team.
Many former players criticized Babcock’s behaviour on social media, and both he, and the player involved, Mitchell Marner, confirmed to the media that the incident took place.
After this story became public, Aliu alleged that Peters used racist slurs in a rant about the music Rockford IceHogs players were listening to in the locker room. Both Aliu and Peters were members of the IceHogs organisation from 2008 to 2010.
"Not very surprising the things we’re hearing about Babcock. Apple doesn’t fall far from the Tree, same sort of deal with his protege in YYC [Calgary]. Dropped the N-bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music", Aliu initially wrote on Twitter on 25 November.
Aliu’s allegations were then corroborated by two teammates, Simon Pepin and Peter MacArthur.
"I think everyone should be held accountable for their actions or words spoken", Pepin said, as quoted by the TSN broadcaster.
The NHL and the Calgary Flames organisations both publicly announced that they were investigating Peters’ behaviour on November 26. The Flames announced that Peters would be suspended pending the results of the investigation.
On 27 November, a letter written by Peters, addressed to Calgary Flames General Manager Brad Treliving, was made public.
"Please accept this as a sincere apology to you, and the entire Calgary Flames organisation, for offensive language I used in a professional setting a decade ago. I know that my comments have been the source of both anger and disappointment, and I understand why. Although it was an isolated and immediately regrettable incident, I take responsibility for what I said", the letter read.
Akim Aliu responded to this letter, raising doubts as to the sincerity and the fact that Peters called the incident isolated.
"I have read the statement of Bill Peters, which I found to be misleading, insincere and concerning. I have accepted an invitation from the NHL to meet and discuss this situation. Out of respect for that process I will not respond publicly to the statement or discuss the racism and discrimination that I have endured until after my meeting", Aliu stated on Twitter.
In a press conference called on 29 November, Treliving announced that Peters had offered to resign from his position as Calgary Flames head coach, due to the ongoing investigation and public outcry related to the public allegations.
"The subject matter that we have been dealing with over the last three days is difficult, it’s hard and it does not in any way reflect the core values of the Calgary Flames. It’s been a difficult time, but we are going to move forward", Treliving told a press conference.
While Peters is no longer coaching in the NHL, hockey players are continuing to come forward with allegations of abusive behaviour on the part of head coaches.
On 2 December, Swedish hockey player Johan Franzen conducted an interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen, slamming now-fired Babcock for an incident in 2012 when both were part of the Detroit Red Wings. During a game against the Nashville Predators, Babcock is alleged to have verbally assaulted Franzen.
"I get the shivers when I think about it. That incident occurred against Nashville in the playoffs. It was coarse, nasty and shocking. But that was just one out of a hundred things he did. The tip of the iceberg", Franzen was quoted as saying by Expressen.
Franzen added that this incident was not an isolated one and that Babcock had a history of abusive behaviour.
"He’s a terrible person, the worst I have ever met. He’s a bully who was attacking people. It could be a cleaner at the arena in Detroit or anybody. He would lay into people without any reason", Franzen stated.
One day later, Marc Crawford, an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks, was announced as the subject of an internal investigation by the team, relating to comments made by former players, such as Patrick O’Sullivan, that he had physically assaulted them.
"I talked about his physical abuse in my book 4 years ago kicking me and others on the bench. Verbal abuse included homophobic slurs on a regular basis. I look forward to participating in your investigation", O’Sullivan wrote on Twitter.
With investigations still ongoing, the NHL was forced to take swift action in order to set out protocols to deal with abusive, homophobic or racist behaviour, in the light of a month of public outcry.
Can the Situation in Ice Hockey Change?
Both the NHL and Treliving stated that they hoped to use these incidents as a learning process, as a means of evolving in order to ensure that the sport does not experience a similar scandal in the future.
"The world is changing for the better. This is an opportunity and a moment for positive change and this evolution should be expedited for the benefit of everyone associated with the game that we love. And even while change is taking effect, we still must acknowledge things that were wrong in the past, and that acknowledgement allows those who were wronged to be heard, and it gives all of us an opportunity to prevent these things from happening again", Bettman said.
Akim Aliu, who has been in consultation with the NHL throughout the whole process, also lent his support to the proposed measures immediately after Bettman's press conference.
"I am encouraged the commissioner embraced many of the changes we proposed at the meeting. Now the hard work begins of focusing on specifics and implementing policy that will make this sport more diverse, safer, and accountable. We have to ensure that future generations of hockey players do not face the barriers and racism that I have throughout my career. Together we can do something truly great and transformative for hockey", Aliu wrote on Twitter.
It may take some time for protocols and behaviours to be accepted by players and coaches. Reports detailing incidences of sexual assault by coaches in Canadian junior hockey, as well as hazing and initiation processes have been long documented and set a baseline experience for both players and coaches before entering professional hockey.
Other incidents in Canada’s troubled hockey history include the imprisonment of former coach Graham James, who was given a federal sentence for sexually assaulting players while coaching of the Swift Current Broncos in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s and 1990s. He was given full parole in 2016, after serving a number of jail terms, according to media reports.
In his statement, NHL's Bettman announced that the league would help any organisation which would come to it for advice regarding establishing the suitable protocols to address abusive behaviour. This appears to be a watershed moment after a painful month which has brought many societal ills to the surface.
While Don Cherry outlined, in a video interview with the Global News broadcaster published on 12 November, that he would not apologize for his Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, the NHL is taking the lead in changing "hockey culture". The league will reveal further information regarding the specific proposals that will be implemented in the coming months.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.