Dec 12, 2019 - Sports

Hockey's moment of reckoning

Kendall Baker, author of Sports

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The last month of the NHL season has brought changes behind the bench and in the broadcast booth that represent a cultural reckoning poised to change the sport of hockey forever.

Driving the news: Don Cherry, a longtime fixture on "Hockey Night in Canada," was fired by Rogers Sportsnet on Nov. 12 for on-air comments that many believed disparaged Canadian immigrants.

  • Nov. 20: The Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock because his team was underperforming, then things took an unexpected turn when former players accused him of abusive coaching tactics.
  • Nov. 29: Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters resigned after admitting to using a racial slur toward former NHL player Akim Aliu when they were in the AHL.
  • Dec. 3: The Chicago Blackhawks placed assistant coach Marc Crawford on administrative leave pending an investigation into allegations he kicked and choked former players.

The response: On Monday, the NHL released a four-point plan to address abuse that includes severe punishments for offenders, mandatory diversity and inclusion training for coaches/staff and a hotline to anonymously report incidents.

"The world is changing for the better. This is an opportunity, and a moment, for positive change and this evolution should be expedited — for the benefit of everyone associated with the game we love."
Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner

Reality check: If a true reckoning is coming to the rink, the NHL is not going to be the driving force behind it. That burden falls on the players, who must be brave enough to speak up, as well as the media, which will be called upon to provide more oversight.

  • "It's kind of like the #MeToo movement," Georges Laraque, a Haitian-Canadian who played 12 seasons in the NHL, told NYT.
  • "Akim had the courage to speak up about what happened to him because it's like, 'Maybe this is the time where players can express themselves and there's going to be justice.'"

The big picture: While all sports leagues — and all of society, for that matter — must navigate these same cultural shifts as the world evolves and younger generations enter the workforce, hockey's insular nature and selfless creed does present a unique challenge.

  • "[M]ost of the coaches are good people. [But] it's not a player-empowered league. It is very authoritative, dominant. Even the star players in hockey don't really have a voice," former NHL forward Sheldon Kennedy told SI.
  • On top of that, the best youth players often leave home as early as 12 years old to live with teammates and "surrogate families," according to the Chicago Tribune. It's not just a culture; it's a system. And it's a relatively small one, too, making it less likely that individuals stray from the pack.

Strong words:

"Hockey culture values teamwork, family, humility. But these ideals are warped. Teamwork; by valuing groupthink over individuality. ... Family; in insularity and othering anyone who's not in the group ... Humility; by players opting for saying nothing as opposed to saying the right thing."
Jashvina Shah, The Globe and Mail

The bottom line: Athletes known for silence are suddenly speaking up, and a sport known for domineering coaches is coming to terms with the fact that decades-old tactics are no longer acceptable.

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