Facing perhaps a crossroads for his league and his sport, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman addressed for the first time publicly allegations of abusive behavior by coaches ranging from racist language to physical abuse.
In a statement that seemed to acknowledge the significance of the situation, Bettman called for accountability for past misdeeds and laid out a plan for the league to prevent and address abusive behavior going forward.
“The world is changing for the better,” Bettman said in a statement. “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 we love. And even while change is taking effect, we still must acknowledge things that were wrong in the past.”
Bettman’s statement arrived in the wake of allegations of abuse against several high-profile coaches over the past month. Bill Peters resigned as coach of the Calgary Flames following an investigation into former NHL player Akim Aliu’s assertions that Peters directed racial slurs at him while in the minor leagues a decade ago.
NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis is being scrutinized after Carolina Hurricanes players and staffers say they went to Francis about Peters’ conduct when the two were Hurricanes GM and coach, respectively, but Francis then gave Peters a contract extension soon after in July 2016.
Shortly after Mike Babcock, the league’s highest-paid coach, was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs for poor competitive showings, multiple reports surfaced accusing Babcock of mistreating players, using psychological intimidation as a motivating tactic. Chicago assistant coach Marc Crawford is also under investigation after allegations of physical abuse.
In his statement, Bettman conveyed what was discussed at Monday’s Board of Governors meeting in Pebble Beach California. He stressed (1) the importance of teams informing the league of any allegations immediately after becoming aware of them; (2) the need to implement a mandatory program for coaches on “on counseling, consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion;” (3) that discipline, from teams or the league or both, for inappropriate conduct be “severe and appropriate” and “ensure that the conduct does not occur again;” (4) the need to establish a channel, perhaps hotline, for players to report abusive behavior.
Jim Montgomery became the latest NHL coach to get caught in controversy Tuesday morning, when the Dallas Stars fired him for “unprofessional conduct.” In the league’s current climate, the firing set off alarms — particularly because competitive reasons weren’t a factor, as the Stars are 17-11-3 and made the playoffs last season — but general manager Jim Nill said in a news conference that Montgomery’s offense did not have anything to do with the recent points from the Board of Governors meeting, nor did it involve any current or former players or other team employees and was not of a criminal nature.
Players and coaches had been grappling with the news of the past month well before Bettman’s announcement, as a league that long has valued traditional hierarchies and power dynamics confronted modern realities involving individual rights and mental-health issues.
“I think coaching has changed and evolved just how the game has changed and evolved and what immediate impact that has and how people change, I can’t predict that,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “All I can worry about is doing what is best for the Washington Capitals and continue to be extremely honest with the players good or bad.”
Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said he is “on board” with the changes and recognizing the need to treat players fairly while demanding their best efforts. Cassidy lasted just 15 months in his first NHL head coaching job, with the Capitals, getting fired 28 games into the 2003-04 season. Stories of how he mishandled the dressing room with a lack of professionalism leaked in the days after his dismissal.
“We want to hold them accountable, but not in the manner of what” other coaches have done, Cassidy said of his coaching style. “We do not put our hands on the players; we aren’t using racial slurs in the locker room. We are just trying to make them better players and better people, and we feel like treating them as people first is the way to go.”
Torey Krug, a nine-year NHL veteran, said “it’s sad” seeing these allegations come out, but he believes players now know they have the platform to speak up because of those such as Aliu who have “had the courage” to talk first. Krug said it is easier from a player’s standpoint to speak out once you are retired because there are “no repercussions for speaking up,” but hopes any current player would feel comfortable enough with the new policies.
“I think the initial reaction is how sad it is that probably [it’s] a lot of people that you hold up to a higher light and find out things about what they’ve done and things of their past, it’s just sad to see how they can treat other people,” Krug said. “I think it’s probably been a long time coming to be honest.”
An undercurrent to the allegations of the past month has been the reluctance of players to report inappropriate conduct for fear of retaliation. In his statement, Bettman said the hotline reporting platform would allow for anonymous reporting, but he also stressed the league would take all reports seriously and ensure no one would face any negative consequences for raising concern or being involved in an investigation.
Bettman also said the mandatory program for coaches, general mangers and assistant general managers will focus on ensuring “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.”
“I think it’s the right thing for the league,” Reirden said. “It’s good to be transparent and honest about how things are done and I’m happy to see these are some of the steps that are being made by the Commissioner … it’s a partnership with the players and trying to improve them and treat them with respect and they will treat you the same way.”