Inside the NHL
There’s an expression I’ve quickly gotten used to while newly covering the Kraken that sounds like a greeting but is dripping with sarcasm.
“Welcome to the NHL.”
It’s a de facto answer by those who have long covered or worked within the league and universally applied to numerous head-scratching situations of varying severity.
After covering Major League Baseball for 16 seasons, a couple Super Bowls and writing a book about the Sounders, I figured to have a grasp on what the NHL experience might entail. The reality has been somewhat eye-opening when you consider the NHL has long been only No. 4 among major professional North American men’s sports leagues.
You’d think the NHL would be eager to evolve beyond that, even if it never happens.
Instead, there’s a “take-it or leave-it” attitude permeating much of the league’s operations. About five or six years ago, commissioner Gary Bettman, during a select meeting in New York with various newspaper sports editors I happened to take part in, described the attitude as being “comfortable in our own skin.”
Meaning, the NHL knows it has a cool product and won’t beg for acceptance from people dismissing it for not being the NFL, MLB or NBA. As a transplanted Canadian who grew up on hockey, I admired the approach.
But it has limits. Especially with the league starting a new national television deal with ESPN and TNT, seeking broader appeal.
The time is fast approaching when the NHL must decide whether it’s prepared to evolve into a true major pro sport. Or stubbornly cling to ideals of a bygone era in which it can’t get out of its own way.
During a time of increased openness by leagues and teams scrambling for market share, NHL clubs maintain an obsessive, almost paranoid desire for insularity and secrecy. And this attitude of keeping everything “in house” has often come back to harm it.
Case in point: The ongoing Chicago Blackhawks scandal involving former video coach Brad Aldrich being accused of sexually assaulting player Kyle Beach in 2010. Much of what the NHL has put itself through this past week was largely avoidable.
Details of a Blackhawks-commissioned investigation released Tuesday of last week found that Chicago’s top management and coach Joel Quenneville were advised of Beach’s allegations against Aldrich during a six-person meeting right after the team qualified for the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. But they put off addressing the matter until after the championship round — not wanting to distract the team.
Aldrich remained with the Blackhawks three more weeks through its championship and ensuing celebrations. During one celebratory event, according to the report, Aldrich put his hands on a 22-year-old team intern in an unwanted sexual advance.
Then, after the Blackhawks allowed Aldrich to quietly resign in June 2010, he pleaded guilty in 2013 to fourth-degree sexual misconduct with a minor at a high school where he had been a volunteer coach.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and senior vice president Al MacIssac, who had attended the 2010 meeting, immediately resigned after the report’s release. That left two others from the meeting still employed within the NHL, former Chicago coach Quenneville and assistant general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
Quenneville, the second-winningest coach in NHL history, had moved on to the Florida Panthers. And Cheveldayoff had become GM of the Winnipeg Jets.
Bettman announced he would seek explanations from both, starting with Quenneville last Thursday. But inexplicably, he allowed Quenneville to coach Florida’s game the night before his scheduled meeting.
That decision blew up when Beach — a former Everett Silvertips player who had remained anonymous throughout — came forward an hour before Florida’s game in an explosive televised interview on TSN in Canada. Beach tearfully described having been raped by Aldrich — who disputes this, claiming consensual sexual activity between them — and said Quenneville knew about it.
The interview was gut-wrenching. But an hour later, with the interview trending online, there was Quenneville behind Florida’s bench.
Anyone watching Beach’s interview knew this would be Quenneville’s final game, so the surreal specter of a “dead man walking” coach was again a made-in-the-NHL moment. Indeed, Quenneville did resign after meeting with Bettman.
In a conference call with media members Monday, Bettman tried to explain letting Quenneville coach that game, saying: “I wanted to make sure that no one, including coach Quenneville, could say that I had prejudged him.”
Of course, NHL players are routinely held out of games before league hearings. Quenneville also apparently lied in a public statement in July about lacking knowledge of the allegations against Aldrich.
Cheveldayoff made much the same claims about not knowing anything back in 2010. Yet Bettman, confronted with the reality that Cheveldayoff attended the 2010 meeting and knew full well about the allegations, nevertheless allowed him to keep his Jets job.
Bettman’s reasoning: Cheveldayoff as a then-assistant GM was only a “minor player” with “limited responsibilities” to follow up. Which begs the question, of course, of why he was included in the meeting to begin with.
Understandably, this isn’t playing well in the court of public opinion, to which those familiar with the league will shrug and go: “Welcome to the NHL.”
Sure, other leagues have scandals. It’s just the NHL seems to self-inflict more needless damage on itself than most.
It took decades for the NHL to do away with literal street brawling on skates during games. Even longer for Europeans and players of color to gain broader acceptance within the league’s ranks.
In August 2020, with the league already dealing with fallout of alleged racist comments made by Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters toward a Black player, Akim Aliu, when both were in the minor leagues a decade prior, another “Welcome to the NHL” moment arose. The police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, prompted NBA, WNBA, MLS and some MLB teams to postpone games as athletes refused to play.
The NHL was widely criticized for continuing games at the time. It wasn’t until the following day, sparked by a group of players approaching the league, that hockey also ceased.
And now, as then, it may be up to NHL players to demand more. They can start with their own players association after chief Donald Fehr ordered an investigation into why his union apparently also ignored tips about Aldrich abusing Beach.
There are also reports swirling that the entire Blackhawks team knew for years that Aldrich had done something wrong, but kept silent and even ridiculed Beach.
For all the claims the NHL has evolved on social issues and attitudes since 2010, those whose inactions perpetrated this Blackhawks cover-up were still keeping their secrets until very recently. That shouldn’t be a “comfortable in our own skin” moment for Bettman, management or players.
If anything, their skin should be itching for additional change. To bring a league too often shrouded in secretive, sometimes abusive, behavior more into alignment with the values of the modern fan base it supposedly wants to grow.
Only then will “Welcome to the NHL” have meaning beyond a snarky retort.