Inside the NHL
This column was going to be about NHL Seattle being awarded a franchise one year ago Monday.
Getting through this extra year on top of the two already expected for demolishing and rebuilding KeyArena had caused the new team some worries about losing momentum. NHL Seattle tried to maintain interest by hinting throughout the year about a team name and uniform colors, releasing preliminary ticket and sponsor information, hiring scouts, analytics specialists and unveiling how KeyArena’s 44-million-pound roof was being suspended atop temporary posts to replace what’s beneath.
But the biggest highlight of this first franchise year was the July hiring of Hall of Fame player Ron Francis as general manager. And right now, there’s a cloud over that as Francis gets scrutinized for his handling of coach Bill Peters when they were with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Peters was accused of kicking former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan in the back and punching a second player in the head during a game. But although players and staffers went to Francis about it, he gave Peters a contract extension soon after in July 2016.
Francis, after several days of silence, issued a statement Saturday that he dealt with Peters internally and the abuse never recurred. He also said he’d “briefed ownership” about it, contradicting former Carolina owner Peter Karmanos telling The Seattle Times last week he had not been made aware and would have fired Peters “in a nanosecond.”
Adding to the confusion, the NHL appears to have stepped into the mix, given the Francis statement was released by the league on its letterhead. Asked by text about the discrepancy between his interview comments and Francis saying ownership was briefed about the alleged abuse, Karmanos responded Sunday with what reads like an NHL press release. He applauded the “spectacular job” Francis did with the Hurricanes adding he’ll do the same as NHL Seattle’s GM.
But Karmanos sidestepped answering whether Francis had indeed briefed him, adding instead: “His communication skills might be lacking but he and his team took immediate and effective action to address Coach Peters.”
We can debate whether Karmanos was or wasn’t told and whether should have been more aware. But that doesn’t change Francis giving Peters a tacit endorsement of his coaching style by extending his contract.
Media reports out of North Carolina have not been kind.
Sara Civian, the Hurricanes’ beat writer for The Athletic, tweeted midweek that “close relationships spanning decades were ruined because of Francis’ decision not to fire Peters.”
In Saturday’s Charlotte Observer, columnist Luke DeCock wrote that the “kid glove handling” of Peters by Francis empowered “an abusive coach now exposed as an embarrassing disgrace.”
DeCock lambasted Francis for also refusing to overrule the coach’s subsequent decision not to name newly returned veteran Justin Williams as captain. Instead, Peters named Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk unwitting co-captains to “strengthen the coach’s hold over the dressing room.”
“The mystery is why Francis didn’t stop him,” DeCock added. “Why on earth did Francis go along with Peters’ sabotage of the dressing room, neutralizing the impact of Francis’ own marquee free agent in the process?”
Good questions, none answered by Francis’ brief statement Saturday.
This raises an issue surrounding these sweeping calls for change throughout the hockey world since last week’s Peters scandal and the firing of Mike Babcock two weeks ago as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Namely, how to deal with culpability and second chances for those who conducted or enabled player abuse?
Scores of local hockey fans tweeted that Babcock should never coach again when it came out that he’d once had then-rookie Mitch Marner rank work habits of teammates and then shared that list with those at the bottom. But many of those fan voices went silent just 24 hours later when Francis became ensnared in controversy over Peters committing arguably worse offenses.
A former NHL player who is black, Akim Aliu, accused Peters last Monday of uttering a racist epithet toward him in the minors in 2008-09. One day later, Jordan’s physical-abuse allegations surfaced.
Physical assault and overt racism by coaches and sports executives haven’t been tolerated for decades – see Woody Hayes and Al Campanis – and yet Babcock was still being included with Peters last week as part of what’s being called the NHL’s “me too” movement.
We’re learning daily that mental abuse can exact a serious toll on athletes, but the sports world has often accepted it as a coaching technique. Babcock wasn’t fired by the Maple Leafs after the Marner incident, or his team’s three playoff eliminations since; he was canned once Toronto stopped winning for a few weeks.
The point is, lumping everybody together “me too” style doesn’t bode well for Francis. If Babcock can’t get a job after this because of fan pressure, what would happen to a GM that extended the contract of an arguably worse transgressor in Peters?
Sure, Francis had nothing to do with the racism part, only handling the physical abuse by Peters. But such distinctions have gotten lost this past week as the push against player abuse intensified.
You can argue Francis probably learned from his experiences as a first-time GM in Carolina and, if there’s a next time, might not revert to the long-ingrained protocol of teams keeping things “in house.” And you can argue that he’s working to build an inclusive team in Seattle.
But Babcock could also argue he learned something from his first time being fired and would be less cruel with his motivational tactics.
Peters almost certainly won’t get another chance, having engaged in two long-unacceptable behaviors. Whether Babcock gets hired again largely will depend on fans being willing to differentiate him from someone like Peters.
As for Francis, it would take a pretty serious fan backlash for NHL Seattle to jettison him.
But we’ve seen overnight backlashes the past week in which folks weren’t much interested in second chances. And as long as what happened in Carolina isn’t better explained, there remains the possibility of things snowballing on Francis the way they did with Peters and Babcock.
Francis must hope otherwise, that fans continue to take a less absolutist view of him. Only by avoiding that full-on toxicity engulfing Peters and Babcock can Francis be assured of sticking around for NHL Seattle’s second anniversary.