This article is the first in a series examining the culture of hockey, how deep its problems may be and what some are proposing to change it.
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In a span of two weeks, the hockey world has transitioned from rocked to reeling to absolutely dazed. What began as one major news story has snowballed into another. And another. It’s a lot to digest. And it’s very early. What we know right now may pale in comparison to what we’ve learned a week from today.
So let’s take a breath and start with what we do know.
We do know Akim Aliu has stated that Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters did and said heinous things when Peters was his coach at AHL Rockford in 2009-10. According to Aliu, who is black, Peters made racist comments toward him about his use of dressing-room music. As Aliu described it to TSN:
“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.’
After Aliu stood up to Peters, Aliu wound up demoted to the ECHL reportedly hours later. Aliu feels the incident altered his career trajectory. We also know multiple players from that Rockford team have corroborated Aliu’s story.
Another black player, Sean McMorrow, who played under Peters in Rockford in 2008-09, came forward this week about Peters, calling him the “worst human being to ever coach me.”
Backing up the multiple accounts of Peters saying and doing horrible things was former Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan, who took to Twitter yesterday alleging more appalling behavior from Peters during his tenure with the team, including punching and kicking players from the bench. Current Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour confirmed it Wednesday.
The Flames are in the midst of a thorough investigation on all the allegations against Peters and haven’t yet made a decision on his job status at this time, but the walls appear to be are closing in on Peters when this many players speak up. He won’t coach the Flames in Buffalo against the Sabres Wednesday night.
The reports of Peters’ behavior are part of an avalanche of other people coming forward with other stories about coaches and people of power in the hockey world from the minor level to the NHL level. A week prior, of course, Mike Babcock was fired as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and multiple stories have since surfaced about his psychological manipulation of his players, most famously Mitch Marner, an incident Babcock himself confirmed this week. Former NHLer Daniel Carcillo, who speaks out against the hockey establishment on anything from the effects of concussions to homophobia to hazing, tweeted Tuesday that he has received hundreds of messages from former players describing more wrongdoing from coaches.
Factoring in the firing of Don Cherry from Coach’s Corner two weeks earlier, it’s becoming rapidly clear that hockey is approaching a paradigm-shift moment. One story snowballs onto another, more and more voices gain the strength to come forward, and it’s possible we’re only scratching the surface of the allegations to emerge in the coming days, weeks and months. Carcillo likens the explosion of information to what we’ve seen happen with the Catholic church.
“You’ve got to stay on these people, and you’ve got to continue to name names and hold them accountable,” Carcillo said Tuesday night over the phone. “And with enough public pressure, something will be done. Through more awareness, you can pressure organizations into taking action. But I don’t think that’s going to come from the players. I still think the players are too programmed, and it’s a big reason why I do what I do. And I talk very honestly, and I’m trying to build their confidence up so that one day, hopefully enough of them say, ‘No! We don’t f—in’ agree with this anymore, this isn’t how we should be learning, this isn’t how you should be motivating, it shouldn’t be a fear-based, walk-on-eggshells type of deal.”
Val James stopped playing in the 1980s. He came out with a book in 2015. That’s the first time he talked about anything that he went through.
– Kwame Brown
It’s not surprising that a young black player doesn’t speak up about something that happened to him nine years ago. Val James stopped playing in the 1980s. He came out with a book in 2015. That’s the first time he talked about anything that he went through.
But just because coaches are about to be held more accountable doesn’t mean any instances of mental abuse, racism and homophobia will be washed out of the game overnight. The issue is far more complicated than that. Filmmaker Kwame Mason is the director of the documentary Soul On Ice, which tells an exhaustive history of black players in hockey and includes interviews with dozens of black NHLers. He says that, for black people in hockey, there’s a baked-in pressure to not stand out for fear of being labelled or singled out.
“There are so many times in my life that I have been in situations where I was labelled ‘the angry black guy,’ or ‘Here we go, he’s going to pull the race card,’ ” Mason said. “So at some point, you get tired and don’t say anything. In the industry of hockey, you play from as young as four years old, and that mindset of, ‘Keep your mouth shut, do what you’re told, work hard, and you’ll be rewarded,’ has been ingrained in them since they were children. So it’s not surprising that a young black player doesn’t speak up about something that happened to him nine years ago. Val James stopped playing in the 1980s. He came out with a book in 2015. That’s the first time he talked about anything that he went through.”
Brock McGillis can relate to the idea of internalizing one’s struggles under the pressure to conform in hockey culture. He’s the first pro hockey player to come out as gay. He has devoted his life to speaking out against the established old-guard, suck-it-up hockey mentality. He feels that, if we really want to see change, we have to start at the beginning, right down to the minor-hockey level.
“It’s even worse at the minor-hockey and junior levels, because kids are so worried about having careers, and if they come forward or their parents come forward, they get blackballed, the same way I feared coming out as gay,” McGillis said. “So I know incidents in minor midget where kids were verbally abused, like, abused, and people didn’t come forward, because they feared that their kid wouldn’t get drafted. And then they moved on, and those coaches are still coaching.”
Not only do players fear having their careers manipulated by coaches, but they understand that coaches become references for scouts, too, McGillis explains. That means a coach you’ve “crossed” can maintain an influence on your career for years afterward. So how do we eliminate power brokers who have this much control over their pupils? Well, as McGillis points out, every coach came from somewhere. So many coaches started out as players who were controlled and intimidated by their coaches and thus learned those values. It’s a vicious cycle, perpetuated by a system in which kids spend all their time with other kids living under the same values, shepherded by the same mentors.
“Hockey players are isolated at a very young age, they’re segregated into arenas away from their peers, away from people who are different from themselves at a very young age, five or six nights a week for their entire lives,” McGillis said. “They start to move away at 15, 16 years old, and they move to these new communities where their friends become the other players on their team who moved away. So they conform, and they act like one another, because that’s all they know.”
To change the next generation of hockey influencers, we have to identify and understand what creates the values that make players desperate to conform, desperate to earn their coaches’ approval and too afraid to stand out, to be different, to speak out on any wrongdoing puts targets on their backs.
The way to do that, McGillis says, is to start humanizing hockey people in each other’s eyes, allowing them to establish themselves as a diverse group of personalities. If it’s OK to be different, that’s a crucial step toward acceptance. When McGillis tours dressing rooms, he conducts an exercise in which teammates reveal things about themselves that they wouldn’t typically tell teammates.
“I had a tough guy on a team say, ‘I like writing poetry,’ ” McGillis said. “Another kid said, ‘If I don’t make it in hockey, I want to be a zoologist.’ Another kid in the room literally jumped out of his stall and said, ‘I love animal documentaries.’ They just bonded on a deeper level. You’re breaking the barriers of conformity…and they’re going to be happier people, but it’s also going to enable people of different races who may have different traditions and values come forward and be like, ‘Hey, I can be a part of this,’ and not feel like they’re the ostracized one within this segregated world. It’ll also allow…when you go around that room…eventually, someone goes, ‘I like men.’ And because we recognize we’re all different, we’re all a bunch of weirdos…it enables that person to be able to exist within that culture. It’ll shift the language component of everything. And it’ll shift coaches. The coach of that team (in the exercise) said, ‘I love Broadway musicals.’ How cool is that?”
Eliminating the pressure to conform will help. Another way to bring about change, Carcillo suggests, is to learn a new way to motivate players – or get rid of those unwilling to learn.
Through more awareness, you can pressure organizations into taking action. But I don’t think that’s going to come from the players.
– Daniel Carcillo
“It’s pretty simple: hire coaches that are willing to learn new ways to motivate and not use words like the homophobic slurs or the racist slurs or the fear-based teaching,” Carcillo said. “And if you could find those people – I know those people exist – I know that there’s currently people like that in hockey. I just think that the ratio’s probably like 95 to five. And I don’t think I’m far off with that.”
A proper vetting system for coaches at the minor-league level that goes beyond mere police-record checks would help weed out the bad-seed coaches as well, McGillis suggests. So those are examples of the bottom-up method of changing hockey culture. But the top-down method also matters. The NHL itself is what young people aspire to, and it still has the ability to influence how they think. Both McGillis and Carcillo, who represent sects of hockey counter culture, are scathing in their descriptions of the Hockey is for Everyone program. McGillis considers it a box-ticking effort to make it look like the NHL cares. By selling merchandise, he says, the league is monetizing the LGBTQ+ community and representing progress on a macro level without trying to make changes day to day on a micro level. In his mind, the league is better off scrapping the idea altogether and starting over with programs that bring about actual change.
“There’s a select few men, right now, a couple handfuls of men that have a stranglehold on both the NHLPA and the NHL, and they run it like Big Tobacco,” Carcillo said. “And they’ve done a really good job convincing everybody that this is religion and that we’re so holy, and we participate in the Gay Pride parades, and ‘Hockey is for Everyone,’ but then you really dive in and you look at it…it’s a very homophobic dressing room. Hockey registration across Canada is $10,000. Same with Illinois. So, really, is hockey for everyone? And is this a façade?”
Hockey is For Everyone has a long way to go. As Mason points out, however, it’s still only just a couple years old. He feels the league has made huge strides today compared to 10 years ago. He sees the progression as slow-moving but moving nonetheless. He lists the NHL’s commitment to promoting Black History Month as an example of the increased devotion to the Hockey is For Everyone campaign, including hosting a roundtable with Willie O’Ree, Angela James, Anson Carter and Grant Fuhr.
“When people say it’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing…can more be done? Yes. But give it some time,” Mason said. “Give it a chance to get there. Because it’s going to get there. The National Hockey League has never had a bus dedicated to the history of black athletes in hockey that toured around North America. It has that now for the second year coming up.”
Maybe all the people coming forward will accelerate not just the NHL’s commitment to change, but the entire hockey world’s. Nothing about the stories emerging in the past few weeks suggests they are mere blips. They feel like the early seeds of something much bigger. Some of the revelations that might come out will be sad and painful to hear, but the hope is that the knowledge gleaned from them will bring about long-needed change.
“Once we knock these abusers off their pedestals, names need to be named, and they need to be held accountable,” Carcillo said. “Once that happens, they can either go get rehabilitation and come back or they can just leave forever. But there are options for them, right? This isn’t about ruining somebody’s life. We just want you to change.”
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