Over the past week, two incidents in the NHL have come to light that may be part of a larger issue in the sport.
In any sport, coaches are looked upon as motivators, leaders, and role models. They hold in their hands the fates of men, many of which will do anything to ensure they are successful in their sports.
Although many coaches thrive in their respective roles, few handle that responsibility the wrong way and abuse the power assigned to them. In extreme cases, some coaches enjoy intimidating the players, either physically or mentally. Usually, there is little players can do to defend themselves without alienating themselves from the team or sacrificing their role.
During the 2016-17 season, Mike Babcock, who was the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, sat down with 19-year old rookie Mitch Marner to discuss work ethic. Babcock felt that Marner needed to work harder and asked the rookie to make a list of the hardest working Maple Leafs on the team that year.
In an attempt to placate his coach’s request, Marner went along with the exercise and placed himself on the bottom of the list. Babcock then had Marner place more players at the bottom, including veterans Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri. Reportedly, the rookie was brought to tears because of the pressure he was feeling towards the list.
Marner was under the impression that the list would stay confidential. Babcock had other ideas. He told Bozak, Kadri, and the other players towards the bottom of the list about their ratings in Marner’s eyes. The coach was using the rookie as a motivational tactic against the veterans.
Babcock has 700 wins in the NHL and is known to enjoy playing mind games with his players to get them to play better. He clearly took advantage of Marner’s willingness to do whatever is necessary to remain in the NHL, and managed to embarrass a handful of veterans in the process.
The incident could’ve easily alienated Marner from his teammates and end his career before it even started. Fortunately, Marner had a solid group of veterans around him. When asked about the list, Marner said, “I was lucky enough the guys that were there with me, none of them took it to heart and they knew it wasn’t up to me.”
The reason the other Maple Leaves did not blame Marner for embarrassing them was because many already knew this is how Babcock operated. He enjoyed being in control and loved using his power to manipulate his players.
As bad as the Babcock story was, it paled in comparison to Calgary Flames’ coach Bill Peters that came out later in the week.
Minor league hockey player Akim Aliu sent out a tweet that said how Peters had directed multiple racial slurs towards him while Peters was the head coach of the Rockford IceHogs in 2009-10.
According to Aliu, Peters came into the locker room and used multiple racial slurs in regards to the hip-hop music Aliu enjoyed listening to. After the tweet was released, two former teammates as well as Peters confirmed Aliu’s accusations.
Following a thorough investigation by the Flames, Peters resigned as coach of the team.
This story reflects a wider problem that is growing in the NHL. The sport continues to be dominated by white players, coaches, and executives. The barrier for non-white players to enter is becoming more apparent by the day, especially when racist incidents like this create a toxic environment.
After Aliu came forward, Peters was also alleged to have punched and kicked players during his time with the Carolina Hurricanes. Rod Brind’Amour, current Carolina head coach and former assistant under Peters, confirmed the accusations by saying it “for sure happened.”
Even more concerning, Peters was able to continue moving up the coaching ranks after both incidents. He coached the Hurricanes from 2014-18 before taking over coaching duties in Calgary and leading the Flames to the best regular season record in the Western Conference last year.
Many wondered why Aliu took so long to break the story. His response was devastating, “This isn’t me being bitter. I sat on this a really, really long time. It broke my heart, I think it made my career go downhill before it started. This isn’t to the degree of [Colin] Kaepernick by any means, but if you play the race card, it’s most likely the end of your career.”
Aliu felt that “playing the race card” would effectively end his career in hockey and, as a result he kept the Peters story under wraps. Aliu’s career never panned out in the NHL due to his mislabel as a troublemaker, despite not leaking the Peters story.
The NHL has created a culture of fear mongering among players towards their coaches. History has shown that coaches can be abusive and even racist with little resistance from the league. The players remain scared to divulge their secrets and live in fear of their career ending prematurely.
The Babcock and Peters’ news are likely the first of many such stories to come out about both current and former NHL coaches. The NHL must correct this intolerable conduct from their coaches immediately. It has no place in any sport and coaches should not be rewarded if they continue to behave in such a disgusting manner. If the NHL continues to sweep these incidents under the rug, and cause their players to feel helpless, then the league could render itself completely stagnant and behind the times very soon.