This column is an opinion by sports freelance writer Vicki Hall. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
In 2018, the Calgary Flames hired old-school head coach Bill Peters, in part, to demand accountability from the team’s star players.
On Friday, the Flames announced Peters had resigned in the aftermath of allegations of racism and physical abuse.
His departure spells the dawning of a new era in hockey — one in which the coaches themselves are forced to be accountable.
Some are calling it hockey’s #metoo moment. Others see it as a reckoning — a call to collectively look in the mirror.
Regardless, the “what happens in the dressing room, stays in the dressing room” era is over.
And it’s about time.
“The subject matter that we’ve been dealing with over the last few days is difficult, it’s hard and it does not in any way reflect the core values of the Calgary Flames,” general manager Brad Treliving told reporters gathered at the Scotiabank Saddledome. “It’s been a difficult time, but we are going to move forward.”
WATCH | CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux breaks down Flames’ decision on The National:
The hockey world will indeed move forward, but nothing will ever be the same — not after Akim Aliu tweeted about his experience playing for Peters in 2009-10 with the American Hockey League’s Rockford IceHogs.
The Nigerian-born Aliu wrote that Peters: “Dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music.”
Soon after, Aliu was demoted to the East Coast Hockey League, further cementing his reputation as a troublemaker — a label slapped on him for refusing to take part in a hazing ritual with the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires.
I met Aliu in 2011 when he played for the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat. At 22, he feared his opportunity to make the NHL might already have passed. He wanted desperately to fit in.
No wonder Aliu waited 10 years to speak out given what was on the line.
“This isn’t me being bitter. I sat on this a really, really long time. It broke my heart, I think it made my career go downhill before it started,” Aliu told TSN. “If you play the race card, it’s most likely the end of your career.”
The day after Aliu tweeted out his allegations, former Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Michal Jordan accused Peters of punching him and kicking another player during a game.
WATCH | Hurricanes coach Brind’Amour confirms Jordan incident:
Racist comments are clearly horrifying and reprehensible, as is physical abuse. That’s why Peters is no longer with the Flames.
Aliu will meet with the NHL next week to discuss the racial and cultural problems in the sport. Peters is also expected to meet at some point with the league as part of the wider investigation of the incident(s).
In the meantime, the floodgates have opened, with players speaking out about their own experiences.
“Abuse of power has no place in hockey or in anything else,” former NHLer Patrick O’Sullivan wrote on Twitter. “As someone who went through awful things with my first NHL coach who knew my abuse back ground as a child I hope they all get what’s coming to them and I hope it happens fast.”
O’Sullivan’s first NHL coach was Marc Crawford, who won the Jack Adams Trophy in 1995 as the coach judged to have contributed the most to the team’s success.
In Red Deer, Alta., Brent Sutter issued a statement Thursday in response to tweets by former NHLer Daniel Carcillo. The tweets included screengrabs of messages Carcillo says came from players alleging abuse by Sutter.
“We understand not every player leaves our program happy and that not every player was a fan of my coaching or style,” wrote Sutter, the head coach, general manager and owner of the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels. “I am a direct and honest coach, at times I can be demanding, but I treat these players like they are my own kids, and I want them to succeed.
“I am not perfect, and have worked tirelessly to surround our organization with people who want to grow, change, and provide an even better experience for our players.”
In the coming days and weeks, the NHL must grapple with the rules of engagement for coaches in the modern age. Society will no longer tolerate one set of rules for hockey and another for the rest of life.
Professional hockey players deserve to feel safe and respected at work.
Where is the line?
Tough questions await: are bag skates — essentially wind sprints on ice — acceptable as punishment for poor play? Where is the line between firm, disciplined coaching and verbal abuse? Is it fair to judge coaches through the lens of today’s societal standards for actions that potentially happened long ago?
What about the tactics of departed Toronto head coach Mike Babcock, who asked then-rookie Mitch Marner to rate his teammates’ work ethic, then shared the results with some of the veterans on the wrong side of the ratings? Is that bullying? Emotional abuse?
Where is the line? Where can players go if the line is crossed? How can we protect players and what exactly do we need to protect them from?
These questions need to be answered.
None of this promises to be easy. Hockey is an insular culture and conformity is king.
But the NHL needs to catch up with the rest of society, and that means coaches — the ones paid to demand accountability — must be held to account.