Mitch Marner stood in his hoodie and said he had repaired his relationship with Mike Babcock, sure. He texted his former coach after he was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yeah, Babcock had played a weird, power-trip humiliation game with him when Marner was a rookie. But Marner wanted to put it all behind him.
“I think (if) people want to share their stories, do it,” said Marner. “I mean, if they don’t want to hold it in, it’s your story to tell. But for my case, I you know, I kind of forgot about it right away. I didn’t really care too much about it later on.”
By that time, the hockey world was already cracking open. Former NHL player Akim Aliu tweeted Monday night that Babcock’s longtime friend and former assistant coach, Bill Peters, now the head coach of the Calgary Flames, had directed racial slurs toward Aliu when Peters was coaching the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs in 2009-10. He detailed the allegations to TSN’s Frank Seravalli.
“He walked in before a morning pre-game skate and said ‘Hey Akim, I’m sick of you playing that n—– s—. He said ‘I’m sick of hearing this n—–s f—— other n—–s in the ass stuff. He then walked out like nothing ever happened. You could hear a pin drop in the room, everything went dead silent. I just sat down in my stall, didn’t say a word.”
Peters was referring to the hip-hop music Aliu was listening to. The Flames pulled Peters from post-game interviews in Pittsburgh Monday night, and he was not on the ice at their Tuesday practice in Buffalo. Flames GM Brad Treliving announced he was investigating, and was taking the matter seriously. Treliving said Peters would not be behind the bench for the Flames game against Buffalo on Thursday. Two former Ice Hogs had already independently corroborated the allegations to TSN.
Testimony begets testimony. Czech player Michal Jordan, who played 74 games for Peters over parts of two seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes from 2014 to 2016, tweeted that Peters had kicked Jordan while on the bench, and punched another Hurricanes player. That, too, was independently corroborated.
What are the odds those are the only times Peters acted like that? What are the odds he is the only coach or authority figure who has done something objectionable, but it has never come out? What does it say that the players involved, or who witnessed the events, didn’t feel comfortable saying anything publicly at the time? As former player Daniel Carcillo says, “We’re told, what happens in this dressing room, stays in this dressing room. What’s said in this dressing room, stays in this dressing room. We’re told that from four years old. That’s what we were taught.”
Add a punitive culture for individuality, much less personality; add a culture where coaches often employ fear and humiliation, and have often been venerated when they do; add a changing culture in Canada and elsewhere, and hockey may be having a moment of truth. Don Cherry was fired after 38 years on “Hockey Night In Canada” after making remarks critical of immigrants, and not for the first time. Peters appears to be a dead man walking as Flames coach.
And Babcock’s treatment of Marner — asking the then-rookie to make a list of teammates by work ethic, and then telling the players who finished last — didn’t lead to his firing, but some former players have begun to talk about how Babcock used, or misused, his power. As we have seen in the #MeToo movement, speaking out gives others permission to speak out.
And make no mistake, while there are so many good people in the game, there are also so many stories in the wider world of hockey that span the rotted rainbow from racism, to coaches abusing their power, to hazing, to worse. And because the game is so powerful, and there’s money to be made, things considered heresy are often kept quiet, or shouted down.
So maybe this is a moment. Aliu spoke of refusing to take part in a hazing exercise with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, involving naked players together in a bus washroom. Carcillo, the former NHL player who has spoken out strongly against the dark sides of hockey’s culture, already knew the story, because he lived the same exact hazing ritual, among more violent ones, with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting.
Aliu, meanwhile was branded a difficult player, and an OHL GM told Gare Joyce in his book “Future Greats and Heartbreaks” that they were reluctant to take on Aliu because “I was worried that if it didn’t go right, he’d turn around and accuse us of being racist.” Ask Black people about life in hockey, and you will find stories of racism that range from casual to institutional to explicit. As Devante Smith-Pelly said when he was with the Washington Capitals, it’s lonely because almost nobody else in this white-dominant sport can ever understand.
“I will say, there’s probably more than a few executives, GMs and coaches pretty nervous about some of their stories coming out,” said Smith-Pelly, who is playing for the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star in Beijing.
Sheldon Kennedy was with the Calgary Flames when he broke his silence and helped put his former Swift Current Broncos junior hockey coach, Graham James, in prison for sexual abuse. Kennedy spent the next 23 years hearing stories that sounded like his, and trying to help people.
“It doesn’t shock me at all,” he says. “It’s about culture: what kind of culture are we trying to create? It’s about fear of losing your job, fear of being the outcast. When things aren’t addressed, that sends the message, that sends the code. Now there’s cracks in the code.”
It’s gotten better in the minor and junior ranks, in no small part thanks to Kennedy. But racism, hazing, abuse of power, more: those stories exist, and often the hockey world doesn’t want to hear them, or doesn’t want to tell. TSN’s Darren Dreger reported Tuesday that the NHL Players’ Association wants players to go through internal union channels, but the fact so much has been kept behind closed doors seems part of the problem. Carcillo said Tuesday he was already hearing stories of various forms of abuse from various former players and their families. And others were speaking out.
“Everybody thinks that this s—’s religion, and we have to change that mindset, because it’s not,” Carcillo says. “And if kids think this is religion, they’ll do anything and take any kind of s—, the way I did, the way Akim did, and the way so many other kids did, just to achieve a dream that they’re being sold. And it has to end.
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“It’s like the Catholic Church. Because they’ve been able to keep a pretty good lid on it, but some people are going to lay down their heads on their pillows tonight and wonder what’s coming. Because it is. It’s not just me. There’s a lot. These people have a huge reckoning coming.”
It does feel like that, doesn’t it? Maybe this is a good thing; maybe it will become a chance for hockey to finally reckon with some of the shadows it has so long ignored. Maybe, finally, it’s time.