NHL is making changes after bullying, racism allegations pour in

Daniel Carcillo, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks, spent a year telling the world that hockey culture ignores widespread abuse. The National Hockey League now appears to be listening.

What started with the firing of the NHL’s highest-paid coach last month has snowballed into a sport-wide discussion about hockey’s darker side. Since then three more NHL coaches have resigned or been disciplined over allegations of racial slurs, verbal abuse, physical violence or undefined unprofessionalism. The reckoning has reached all levels of the game, with former players growing more comfortable speaking publicly about misconduct they’d previously chosen to keep private.

Hockey is having a #MeToo moment of sorts.

“There’s 750 guys in the NHL,” Carcillo said. Until he went public a year ago about hazing he experienced in youth hockey, he said, “not one of them came out with an abuse story.”

Carcillo said he has now received about 400 accounts of abuse or harassment privately: “A bunch of them are in my inbox, but they asked, ‘Please, please, please, please, whatever you do, keep this between us,’ because there’s fear of reprisal. There’s no avenues to talk to people about this unless you want your career to end.” Or at least, there were no avenues. Now, on social media, a growing number of other people have begun identifying abusive coaches at various levels of hockey and seeking action.

“The biggest thing that coaches tell us when we play this game is, you better be accountable. You better show up, right?” Carcillo said. “So where’s that accountability now from these coaches? That’s what I would like to know.”

Hockey’s audience is mostly white and mostly upper class. At the start of the 2018-19 season, there were no minority coaches, only one black on-ice official out of the 68 in the NHL, and around 30 players of color in the league, according to estimates by the Sports Business Journal.

That history of homogeneity has led to a culture in need of some change, according to Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president focused on social impact and growth. Davis called these last few weeks a “new context” for the sport, and accepted that while much of this reckoning is happening at lower levels of hockey, the NHL is seen as a North Star for the game globally.

“This context didn’t start last week or three weeks ago,” said Davis, who was hired in 2017 to expand diversity initiatives that go back decades. “This is a context that has been brewing and has been accelerating for the past couple of years.”

Following the NHL’s board of governors meeting last week in California, Commissioner Gary Bettman unveiled a new “zero-tolerance” plan to clean up the sport. It includes a mandate that teams notify the league office of any accusations of inappropriate or abusive conduct, and a mandatory annual program for coaches and executives on diversity and inclusion, particularly around anti-harassment, anti-hazing and anti-bullying.

The league is also creating a hotline for people to anonymously report improper conduct and is planning to add another for youth players. It will use data from the calls to identify broader patterns of behavior. In addition, she said, a new diversity council should be up and running as quick as possible next year to get more focus on the topic.

In the short term, these steps are likely to encourage more players to come forward, and the NHL is prepared to take action against patterns of bias or harassment, Davis said.

“We have to respond to a whole lot of changes that have converged —diversity of market, fan, sponsors, technology, talent,” she said. “All of those things are requiring us to see inclusion as a core competency around leadership. And that’s what this is about as far as I’m concerned.”

Joel Cormier, an associate professor who teaches sports management at Eastern Kentucky University and is a coach for a club hockey team, said he thinks the sport will be slower than others to reckon with its problems: “Hockey is a cultural group,” he said. “It’s almost like when you say anything that goes against its culture, there is a bit of fear.”

Hockey’s latest reckoning started last month, when the underperforming Toronto Maple Leafs fired Mike Babcock, the NHL’s highest-paid coach. His ouster led to a wave of public allegations about his toxic coaching style, a conversation that quickly spread across the sport.

A few days later, former prospect Akim Aliu accused Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters of repeatedly using a racial slur a decade ago when Peters was coaching in the minors. Peters stepped down a few days later. Then the Blackhawks suspended assistant coach Marc Crawford after he was accused of kicking a former player. A week later, the Dallas Stars fired head coach Jim Montgomery for what the team called a “material act of unprofessionalism.”

Peters apologized for his language in his resignation letter, calling it an isolated incident he immediately regretted; Crawford also apologized, saying his attempts to motivate his players went too far. Messages to Babcock and Montgomery sent through the NHL Coaches’ Association this week weren’t returned.

Noha Beshir, a fan from Ottawa, Canada, said she is still watching, but skeptical. “I think it’s changing a little,” Beshir said, despite problems like the xenophobia of commentators. “But I think that’s unlikely that a big cultural shift like that will all happen at once. I still think it’s promising, and it’s better than none of that accountability happening.”

If the NHL’s nightmare scenario is fans starting to turn away, it would be wise to listen to Beshir. She’s a lifelong fan —a Canadian with “hockey” in her Twitter handle —and this year as the Toronto Raptors approached a championship, she did the unthinkable: She started watching basketball.

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