Inside the NHL

It’s been a bad month for the NHL when it comes to individual teams undermining the league’s “Hockey is for Everyone’’ inclusivity efforts.

Already dealing with an alleged Chicago Blackhawks cover-up of a sexual assault of players by a former team employee, the league saw the Montreal Canadiens draft a prospect criminally convicted in Sweden for secretly taking and sharing a photo of a woman engaged in a sexual act with him.

Then, the Carolina Hurricanes created an uproar by signing free-agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo, banished last season by the New York Rangers. He’d become a locker room pariah for, among other things, his Twitter activity supporting former President Donald Trump and questioning the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and legitimacy of the federal election outcome.

DeAngelo subsequently announced he was joining the Parler social media site before it was shut down for its far right wing content and use by insurrectionists in coordinating the Jan. 6 attacks on Capitol Hill. He’d also been suspended from his junior team in 2014 for a second violation of the Ontario Hockey League’s policy on “homophobic, racist, and sexist language” for a slur directed toward a teammate.

Lastly, there’s the Toronto Maple Leafs hiring goaltending coach Dusty Imoo this weekend for its American Hockey League affiliate. That generated instant backlash given Imoo’s social media history favoriting and retweeting posts containing transphobic hate speech, anti-vaccine sentiments and support for the Capitol Hill insurrection.

Leafs’ president Brendan Shanahan rescinded the hire Tuesday, stating his team failed to follow its own organizational protocols.

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Predictably, the DeAngelo and Imoo cases generated accusations of the pair being victimized by “cancel culture’’ for conservative political beliefs. But that claim conveniently omits how DeAngelo, Imoo and the hiring teams severely undermined values espoused by the NHL in its yearslong diversity push.

The NHL desperately wants to change its decades-old “whites-only’’ label — only 6% of players are Black, Indigenous or people of color — and expand its female audience. A league that didn’t have a Black player until Willie O’Ree in 1958, and its second one not until 1974, knows shifting sports fan demographics could shrink its future fanbase unless it diversifies.

The Kraken has led the way in carrying out ideals shaping the league’s “Hockey is for Everyone’’ initiative. 

It employed the NHL’s first full-time female professional scout with Cammi Granato. Alexandra Mandrycky was put in charge of hockey analytics. The Kraken was the first NHL team with a Black play-by-play announcer, hiring Everett Fitzhugh for radio. It added former NHL forward JT Brown, who also is Black, as a television analyst.

The team is among NHL leaders at hiring women and minorities as executives, including vice presidents Kendall Boyd-Tyson, Katie Townsend, Lamont Buford and Mari Horita. It has championed women’s hockey locally.

That wasn’t done to feel good. The Kraken deliberately expanded the candidates’ pool to attract the best corporate talent, hoping its organizational makeup also would lure as many new fans as possible.

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NHL executive vice-president Kim Davis, overseeing the “Hockey is for Everyone’’ campaign, told me two years ago, “We know from data that people are going to be more apt to be interested in being recruited into any organization where they see someone that looks like themselves and can envision and imagine and see a trajectory for themselves in that talent pool.’’

Same applies to attracting fans. The league feels an increasingly diverse fanbase will buy NHL tickets if the sport looks and feels inclusive to women and minorities.

And yet, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin apparently felt fine last month using a first-round draft pick on junior-level prospect Logan Mailloux — prosecuted and fined in Sweden last year for sharing the photo of a woman engaging in a sex act with him. Mailloux had sent a pre-draft memo to teams advising them not to pick him, wanting another year to prove he’d changed character-wise.

But Montreal’s hockey team somehow felt Mailloux had earned a second chance despite not yet suffering any career consequences for his first blown one. After the inevitable blowback, Montreal owner Geoff Molson apologized, barred Mailloux from training camp and said the Canadiens would monitor the player’s character progression this coming OHL season.

It didn’t help that Canadiens GM Bergevin also ran player development for the Blackhawks in 2010 when former video coach Bradley Aldrich was allegedly accused of sexually assaulting two players. Those revelations emerged in recent lawsuits alleging Aldrich was allowed to quietly leave the Blackhawks following a team meeting about the internal complaints — not reported to police — only to be convicted in 2013 for sexually assaulting a student at a Michigan high school where he subsequently coached. 

Bergevin said he hadn’t known of any alleged offenses by Aldrich, who denies wrongdoing with Chicago players. Blackhawks president and GM Stan Bowman also denied knowledge of any internal allegations but pledged to cooperate with a team-ordered investigation.

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Bowman, in making his team’s entry draft selection last month, did so in a posed TV setting surrounded by female Blackhawks employees. The Aldrich scandal, if true, suggests a team culture that downplayed the plight of sexual assault survivors — an issue that resonates heavily with women — and the draft-day shot appeared a PR attempt at damage control.

But the damage has already been done to NHL efforts to make certain groups feel less marginalized.

And until it reins in teams repeatedly undercutting its message of inclusivity, the NHL’s ability to broaden and assure future relevance will be threatened from within by those clinging to ideals from its sometimes-regrettable past.

Confidential support for survivors

If you have experienced sexual assault and need support, you can call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673). There is also an online chat option. Survivors in King County can call the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center’s 24-hour Resource Line at 888-99-VOICE (888-998-6423) or visit www.kcsarc.org/gethelp.