BUFFALO — The word that Brad Treliving used was “repulsive.”
As he said it, the general manager of the Calgary Flames made a sour face, as though he were swallowing back bile. That’s how disgusted he was with the allegations of racial abuse that a former player made towards Flames head coach Bill Peters.
That’s how shocked he was to be talking about the use of the ‘N’ word in 2019.
On Monday, while the Flames were playing the Pittsburgh Penguins, minor-league defenceman Akim Aliu tweeted that Peters had repeatedly hurled racial slurs towards him while coaching the Rockford IceHogs.
This allegedly occurred 10 years ago. It also went unchecked for a full decade.
During that time, Peters has climbed the coaching ranks, spending time in Detroit, Carolina and Calgary, as well as with Hockey Canada.
Aliu, meanwhile, has watched his career go in the toilet.
The second-round pick has played for 21 different teams in eight different leagues. He argues that Peters played a role in sending him down to the ECHL, a move that he said was racially motivated, and one that ultimately kept him out of the NHL.
It could be sour grapes from a player who never realized his potential. But credit the Flames for not dismissing it.
On Tuesday, Peters was kept away from the team as it investigated the alleged incident.
“Allegations of this nature we take very, very seriously,” Treliving said as the Flames were practicing at KeyBank Center on Tuesday. “This is a subject matter that has no place in our organization. And so the magnitude and the serious nature that we take this allegation is very high.”
Well, consider that Aliu’s allegations occurred in 2009-10. Peters wasn’t coaching in Calgary at the time. He wasn’t even coaching in the NHL. Not that it should matter.
If what Aliu said was true — and according to TSN’s Frank Seravelli, two former teammates who were in the dressing room at the time have corroborated Aliu’s side of the story — then Peters has no place in the NHL. He certainly has no place with the Flames, who have to be concerned whether this level of verbal abuse has also gone unchecked since he was hired by the team a year ago.
After all, the reason why Aliu waited so long to come forward was because he was scared of how it might affect his career.
“What am I going to say? I was 20 years old, a first-year pro,” he told TSN.
It wasn’t until a story appeared in the Toronto Sun outlining how ousted head coach Mike Babcock had used intimidation and bullying tactics to motivate the Maple Leafs that Aliu decided he couldn’t keep silent anymore.
What if there were other players who have been abused? What if there were more who are suffering in silence? What if Babcock, who groomed Peters, San Jose’s Todd McLellan and Ottawa’s D.J. Smith as NHL head coaches, has infected others with his poisonous playbook?
As Aliu tweeted, “Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, same sort of deal with his protege in (Calgary).”
The Flames, who immediately began an investigation, spoke to Peters and Aliu about the alleged incident. Peters, who was kept away from the team on Tuesday as assistant coach Geoff Ward ran practice, was unavailable for comment. It’s doubtful he will be behind the bench for Wednesday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres.
Then again, he might not have been there anyway.
It’s no secret that Treliving has been debating whether to make a coaching change after the Flames stumbled out of the gate. The same team that had overachieved and finished in first place in the Western Conference a year ago has so far been one of the league’s biggest underachievers, with Calgary losing seven of its past eight games.
After 27 games, the Flames have the third-worst record in the Pacific Division and are on pace for the same amount of points as the Leafs were when they made their coaching change last week.
These latest allegations make the decision to cut ties with Peters, if that’s how it goes, much easier.
It’s now a chance for the Flames to send a message. Bullying and intimidation — like the kind that Babcock inflicted on Mitch Marner and other players — have no place in today’s NHL. Neither does racism. That doesn’t necessarily mean Peters is a racist or (if the allegations are true) that he hasn’t learned from his past mistakes.
According to Calgary players who spoke on Tuesday, Peters hadn’t used racial slurs since taking over the Flames.
“Never,” said Swedish-born defenceman Oliver Kylington, whose mother emigrated from the northeast African country of Eritrea “I’ve been treated fairly. I’ve been treated respected. This has never happened to me before. It’s tough news.”
Frankly, it’s repulsive.
But as disgusting as it might be, at least the Flames are swallowing hard and doing the right thing.