Man, this is rich. And it’s strange because “rich” and “Arizona Coyotes” are not words we’re accustomed to seeing in the same sentence very often. The same organization that has declared bankruptcy once and has teetered on the financial precipice for the better part of two decades is now dealing with its own internal moral bankruptcy.
As you’ve likely already learned, the Coyotes Thursday “renounced” their choice of defenseman Mitchell Miller in the 2020 draft. The Coyotes, who had been stripped of a pick because of recruiting violations and traded two away, took Miller with their first pick, at 111th overall. They made the pick despite knowing that Miller had bullied, abused and assaulted a Black, developmentally challenged classmate named Isaiah Meyers-Crothers in 2016, when Miller was 14 years old. After the Arizona Republic made public the details of the bullying, racist taunts and assault that resulted in Miller’s conviction, the Coyotes then doubled down by standing by their choice and saying they were hoping to use this as an opportunity to raise awareness and, “to guide Mitchell into becoming a leader for this cause and preventing bullying and racism now and in the future.”
It’s amazing, utterly amazing, that in all of this ugliness, the people that end up looking the worst are the Arizona Coyotes. There is no possible way they could have handled this worse and it shows just how much work everyone there from owner Alex Meruelo to GM Bill Armstrong have in trying to somehow rehabilitate this franchise on and off the ice. This was a team that lost two draft picks because it tried to cheat its way to a better draft and still ended up totally botching the first pick it had. And let’s be clear here. They knew Miller’s story. Other teams did and removed him from their draft lists because of it. The Coyotes could have done the same. When the story broke Monday, the Coyotes said when they learned of Miller’s transgressions, the easiest thing would have been for them to dismiss him. And three days later, under an avalanche of criticism, they did the easy thing.
Then came the whopper. In their statement Thursday, team president Xavier Gutierrez said the following: “We have learned more about the entire matter, and more importantly, the impact it has had on Isaiah and the Meyer-Crothers family.” Really? What kind of impact did you think forcing a developmentally disabled boy to suck on a urine-soaked candy was going to have on his family? If they had bothered to ask before they drafted Miller, they would have found out. It’s never too late to do the right thing, but an organization that has taken dysfunction and drama to new heights over the years managed to outdo even itself.
The worst part of this is there are no winners here. Perhaps the Meyer-Crothers family and young Isaiah have received a small measure of justice, but the scars that came from his treatment will be with him forever. And please don’t bombard with me abuse for saying this, but I feel sorry for Mitchell Miller. I really do. I lament the fact that his moral compass was so askew as a 14-year-old that he didn’t realize what he was doing was so wrong. And that, if it’s indeed true that he has not shown remorse, it still is. And I sympathize that he has had his dream of being drafted by an NHL taken away from him. Regardless of what you think of him, that’s sad. It would have been far, far better if he had gone through the draft without being taken and developed over the next four years at the University of North Dakota. That way when he graduated as an undrafted free agent at the age of 22, the NHL would have had a much better idea whether he was truly remorseful for what he did and had changed. I hope that can still happen, although I’ve got to think North Dakota is rethinking its decision right now. Brad Miller (no relation), who played at North Dakota from 2005 to 2009 and now plays pro hockey in Germany, has already called for the program to move on from Miller and there will undoubtedly be others. Lots of others.
The quality of an NHL franchise is always determined by the quality of ownership and upper management. And in that respect, the Coyotes have had a long history of failing their fan base and the NHL. And while Meruelo and Gutierrez have inherited almost all their headaches from previous regimes, they’re not off to a good start here. The same franchise that had its GM resign on the eve of the playoffs and has been late paying player bonuses and rent somehow managed to make all those blunders look like parking tickets with their fourth-round draft choice. The NHL has propped up the Coyotes financially, fought to keep them in the desert and tried to find them an owner who can stay out of his own way. And all it has received, and continues to receive, in return are migraines and bad teams.
Alex Meruelo was supposed to end all of that. There is no way he and Gutierrez could have possibly known the backstory of the team’s fourth-round pick. And the Coyotes were in a transition period with their scouting staff at the time of the Miller pick. Armstrong, who has as much character as anyone in the scouting industry, was not allowed to take part in the Coyotes’ draft after being hired away from the St. Louis Blues. Losing a fourth-round pick makes the job for him that much more difficult. But he’s not alone. This is an organization that has an enormous amount of work to do to even approach the level of respectability again.