Inside the NHL
One-time Seattle Thunderbirds junior standout Turner Stevenson ran the coaching gamut over a decade-plus NHL career, from hard cases to nice guys and everything between.
He played in three cities for Jacques Demers, Mario Tremblay, Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, Larry Robinson, Kevin Constantine, Pat Burns and Ken Hitchcock. But while occasionally being “verbally undressed,” Stevenson says he was never physically abused or humiliated like in some recent coaching horror stories.
Now in his fourth season as coach with the Everett Jr. Silvertips — running 18U and 16U squads — he avoids conjuring his playing days and focuses on personal details during exchanges with players.
“The biggest thing was getting to know the kids,” said Stevenson, previously a Thunderbirds and Wenatchee Wild assistant. “Not trying to go, ‘Hey, you need to do this.’ This game isn’t for everybody, and so few make it.
“So you can get all worked up saying, ‘You need to go run 3,000 stairs and work your ass off because that’s how I did it.’ That’s not how it works. I do my best to try to be an educational teacher, and if somebody gets this and wants to do it I can provide them tools.’’
Stevenson is somewhat conflicted over what should happen next with former NHL coaches Bill Peters, Mike Babcock and current Chicago Blackhawks assistant Marc Crawford after accusations of physical and verbal abuse.
On the one hand, he says, abuse of any kind has no place.
“You can say or do what you want, but there are going to be consequences,” Stevenson said. “(Recently fired hockey broadcaster) Don Cherry can get on TV and say what he wants and have freedom of expression, but there’s no freedom from consequences in life.”
But pushback against the movement for NHL coaching reforms likens it to a “cancel culture” seeking de facto lifetime bans for years-old actions now deemed inappropriate, regardless of whether teams once tolerated them. There’s debate about the culpability of assistant coaches, general managers, presidents and owners potentially aware of abuses and whether ostracizing all offenders would achieve desired change.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters Monday at the league’s board of governors meetings in California that physical abuse and racial or homophobic language “cross the line” and won’t be tolerated. The NHL plans a telephone hotline for players to report all types of abuse and expects teams to immediately notify the league office of issues.
Stevenson isn’t exactly sweating whether coaches get second chances, saying a team someplace must believe they can still win and be willing to endure initial PR backlash. But if that happens, he feels those coaches would “one million percent” try to change and shouldn’t be denied.
He witnessed Hockey Hall of Fame coach Burns adapt from the iron-fisted former police officer he first met attending Montreal Canadiens training camps.
“I had Pat when I started in Montreal, and you want to talk about loud and a cop … ” Stevenson said. “And then I had him a second time, and he had changed. He admitted that. He was out of the game for a while, and he admitted that you have to find out what players you have and how to interact with them.”
Stevenson was 30 when reunited in New Jersey with Burns, who immediately sought out his former player. They sat in his office and discussed family and life away from hockey — something Stevenson could never have imagined previously.
“He changed as far as the ‘his way or the highway’ approach, or that strong mentality of doing things,” Stevenson said. “He still did things his way, but he was just a lot more personable.”
The Devils in 2003 won the Stanley Cup under Burns — who died of cancer in 2010 at age 58 — defeating an Anaheim Mighty Ducks team coached by none other than Babcock.
“He changed for the better,” Stevenson said of Burns. “But he didn’t change his coaching. The philosophies and everything were the same. The way we played was the same.”
For Peters, a second chance could prove tough given his racist language a decade ago toward minor-leaguer Akim Aliu was never something modern teams tolerated. Then again, former NHL netminder John Vanbiesbrouck, fired in 2003 as a junior hockey coach for racial slurs, landed a top USA Hockey executive position last year.
And Peters in 2016 received a contract extension in Carolina from current NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis even after striking two Hurricanes players. Also, Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette wasn’t punished in 2011 after appearing to punch forward Ville Leino while with the Flyers.
It’s trickier dealing with varying degrees of verbal and psychological abuse, which most pro sports have largely ignored.
Babcock got away with years of disrespecting players in Detroit and kept his Toronto job even after humiliating rookie Mitch Marner three seasons ago with an admittedly misguided motivational attempt.
Here in Seattle, similar abuse allegations were publicly made in 2013 against Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik by named and unnamed former team staffers. Front-office assistant Tony Blengino accused Zduriencik of “intimidating, manipulating and pitting people against one another. Berating them for no particular reason.”
Zduriencik remained on nearly two more seasons.
Bettman said the NHL plans annual training sessions for coaches and staffers, run by an outside company, that could address such gray areas.
Stevenson feels hockey isn’t grappling with a “culture problem” but an issue of what certain teams tolerated in pursuit of winning.
“Some coaches coach a certain way, and that organization likes or allows those coaches to coach that way,” he said. “That’s that organization’s problem and coach’s problem. I don’t think it’s a hockey problem.”
He’s grateful for his junior mentoring without belittlement from the Thunderbirds under coach and current ESPN analyst Barry Melrose and GM Russ Farwell. Stevenson strives for patience dealing with his players, keeping in mind what motivates one might devastate another.
“To me, being a former player — nobody should feel that way,” Stevenson said. “And if that stuff happens you need to reassess. I’m not against these guys getting another chance, but they need to reassess what they’re doing.”