Despite all the exciting hockey being played on the ice, the National Hockey League has unfortunately been in the news lately as much for things happening off the ice. A scandal surrounding coaches’ actions and behaviors is beginning to unfold. As more players come forward to share their stories alleging abuse and questionable conduct, the NHL, and likely all levels of hockey, will be forced to address the issue in a deeper way.
Phrases like “cancel culture” and “psychological abuse” are becoming as prevalent in the hockey lexicon as “save percentage” and “hip check.” Will these stories affect lasting change? The answer to that question likely lies in the answer to this one: Has the NHL gone soft or is it evolving in a positive manner?
A quick reminder of the whirlwind accusations and admissions that have occurred over the past couple weeks:
- Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters was fired after admitting to directing a racial epithet at former player Akim Aliu when they were both members of the minor league Rockford IceHogs.
- Longtime NHL head coach Marc Crawford was removed from his role as an assistant coach with the Blackhawks while the team investigates allegations of physical abuse, including kicking and choking his players, at his previous coaching stops.
- Philadelphia Flyers assistant Michel Therrien was called out about, but will not be investigated for, intimidating tactics he employed with former player Daniel Briere and others.
- The coach whose dismissal popped the top on this can of worms was the recently fired Mike Babcock. Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in late November after the team lost five straight games dropping their record to 9-10-4. Amidst the Leafs underwhelming start and Babcock’s removal, allegations of the coach’s mistreatment of players came to light. Leaf players were reportedly unhappy with Babcock’s treatment of Mitch Marner, among others. In the days following Babcock’s termination many more stories of his questionable tactics emerged. Former Detroit star Johan Franzen detailed his distaste for Babcock and his coaching manner, saying the coach’s behavior drove Franzen to have a breakdown and suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Without re-litigating each of these cases here, it is still plain to see the landscape is changing in the NHL.
Of course, not all of these situations are equal. Racism has no place in the game and should never be tolerated. Likewise, it would be exceptionally difficult to justify a coach physically abusing a player. The psychological strategies are a little murkier.
Any athlete who has participated in organized sports at any level, from Little League to the pros, has likely encountered a coach who aggressively engages his or her players. One man’s intimidation is another’s motivation. Humiliation and embarrassment are staples in an old school coach’s playbook.
Herb Brooks raised playing mind games to an art form as he prodded the Miracle on Ice team to a gold medal. Iron Mike Keenan routinely got in his players’ faces. John Tortorella often drags his players in the media. In a sport where toughness is a precious commodity, should players be expected to have a higher tolerance for belittling, manipulation, and verbal abuse?
Part of the problem is these things are not easy to define. The line between acceptable behavior and “too far” has become blurred. Speak to a handful of fans and you quickly understand there is no consensus on where this is going. Fan reactions range from mentioning the importance of protecting the players’ mental health to lamenting the “wussification of America.”
On Monday, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced guidelines regarding reporting abuse to the League. The NHL should be applauded for taking a first step, but managing these behaviors will be difficult to legislate. Likely, it will be up to teams to bridge the gulf between coaches and players, between the old school and the new. It’s possible these recent allegations are but the tip of the iceberg.
The NHL and its member teams have the opportunity to examine and change the culture of the locker room. Will the coaching style of men like Mike Babcock make them unemployable? Should it?
By Bryan Hailey