The month of November 2019 will easily be remembered as one of the craziest, most game changing and revolutionary times in modern hockey history.
It all started off on the November 9th edition of “Coach’s Corner” on CBC in which Don Cherry made remarks he was later fired for. After his firing, many videos emerged on social media showing both sides of Mr. Cherry’s personality. One side showing a tough as nails old timer whom doesn’t like European hockey players or believe women should be doing interviews and another lighter side showing his support and work with veterans, sick children, minor and junior hockey and family.
This would end up being the spark that would end up lighting the preverbal powder keg.
Then on November 20th, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was fired. Not because of any allegations made against him, but because his team had underperformed up to that point in the season and GM Kyle Dubas and Leafs President Brendan Shanahan decided to let him go and replace him with AHL (American Hockey League) affiliate Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe.
Here’s where it starts to get sticky…
Sheldon Keefe is a former NHL player himself and is closely tied to one of his former junior coaches, agent and mentor, David Frost. Frost, now retired, was charged with sexual abuse of three female teens alleged to have happened between 1995-2001, while he was a coach on the same team Keefe played for. Frost was found not guilty as crown prosecutors said they had a hard time finding witnesses to come forward and testify against Frost.
After his firing, Leafs forward Mitch Marner corroborated a story from his rookie season about his former head coach Mike Babcock making him write a list of players on the team in order of hardest working to least hardest working. Babcock then took that list and showed it to the bottom players including former Leaf Nazem Kadri whom was none too pleased. Babcock later apologized to the players but the damage was done.
This got the national conversation within hockey circles to start to open up about abuse and racism within the game.
On November 25th, former NHL player Akim Aliu made an allegation on twitter that Bill Peters, his former head coach during his time in the AHL and current head coach of the Calgary Flames of the NHL, used a racial slur towards his choice of music in the team’s locker room.
What followed was an independent investigation by the Flames organization, an apology issued by Peters concerning the incident and ultimately, Peters resigning as head coach of the Flames.
Remember that powder keg we were talking about earlier? Well this is the point where it all went up in a big ball of flames. (Pun intended). But this isn’t where this story stops. This, it seems, is just the beginning.
Within the next few days after Aliu’s tweet and the allegations against Peters and Babcock spread, many others came forward, mostly former players, and spoke out against a number of coaches and people in positions of power accusing them of being not only abusive, but also racist and downright nasty.
Former NHL player Jiri Tlusty then came forward and said he witnessed Peters kick another player, Michal Jordan, in the back during his time as an assistant coach in Carolina among other allegations of physical abuse. When these incidents happened, it was dealt with at the time by then Hurricanes GM Ron Francis. Francis has been named GM for the brand new expansion Seattle NHL franchise and the fallout from his dealing with the incident may come back to bite him in Seattle.
Daniel Carcillo spent over 10 years in the NHL and has since earned a reputation as an outspoken advocate for player safety especially concerning head injuries, concussions, CTE and addiction issues. Carcillo had a tumultuous career filled with controversy and substance abuse. Carcillo recently tweeted that he experienced physical, mental and even sexual abuse along with underage drinking during a hazing ritual during his days spent playing for the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL (Western Hockey League) under head coach Brent Sutter. He then went on to allege that during his playing time in Los Angeles for the Kings, he witnessed then head coach Darryl Sutter (Brent’s brother) kick someone in the back on the bench, berate Matt Greene in front of the team because he had a concussion and told a female stewardess on a flight to “f*ck off” after he denied the team a dinner after a loss.
Physical, mental and sexual abuse is nothing new within the game of hockey. Graham James was convicted and served many years in jail for sexually abusing former NHL’ers Sheldon Kennedy and Theoren Fluery among others during his time as a head coach in the WHL.
And the abuse doesn’t escape the lower mainland either. Former Vancouver Canuck Brent Sopel said during an interview with the hockey podcast “spittin’ chiclets” last year that then Canucks head coach Marc Crawford hurled a multitude of verbal attacks at him in addition to physical attacks including kicking, choking and pulling of jerseys. Another former NHL player Patrick O’Sullivan also tweeted saying he experienced abuse at the hands of Crawford, although he didn’t explicitly use his name.
Now if you’re thinking to yourself… “Why would anyone want to put their kids into hockey if abuse is this prevalent?” I would say to you that’s a fair question. I can’t speak for anyone else’s experiences but my own. I grew up playing organized hockey from the age of four and I still play and referee the game today. I have never personally witnessed any physical, mental or sexual abuse in any of my 29 years involved with the game. I feel as if the game and those involved with it all getting painted with a particular type of brush is disheartening to the very core of the why kids love to play the game in the first place.
Because it’s fun. If it wasn’t fun, kids wouldn’t play.
The idea that “boys will be boys” and continuing the way things have always been done in hockey culture is at the end of its life in the game of hockey. New traditions and motivational techniques will surpass the outdated and outlandish things done in the past. A new dawn is coming upon the game of hockey.
Hockey BC along with Hockey Canada, Pacific Coast Hockey Association along with minor hockey leagues all across Canada have reformed the way they choose coaches for teams which include rigorous training sessions including the “respect in sport” program which is an educational program for volunteers and coaches and provides education in the coaching certification process.
Participation in minor hockey is down and the developments in this past month certainly won’t help that. Parents shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not their kids are going to face abuse just for playing a game they love. The systems in place set by Hockey BC and Hockey Canada in terms of certification and the vetting process for coaches and volunteers is among the highest in all sports and will continue to grow the game and illuminate the great game of hockey so parents and kids can go back to just loving the game for the game. Shining a light on some of the previous dark places in the game of hockey might just be the glow that is needed to bring this relic of ancient competitive sports into the 21st century the right way and attract a whole new generation of kids to fall in love with the game just like we did.
- Joel “Turtle” Gaudet