Over the past couple weeks, the NHL endured a long overdue catharsis of horrible coaching practices apparent throughout hockey. In today’s world, where even what an athlete eats for lunch makes its way to the public, it is almost shocking such actions could continue for so long without notice.
The coaching exorcist began with the Toronto Maple Leafs firing head coach, Mike Babcock, after a disappointing start to a season with lofty expectations. It became clear Babcock had lost the locker room, one loaded with talent, but barely able to hold down a playoff spot early on.
But it was not until after Babcock was relieved of his duties that the depth of his wretchedness was revealed. The dismissal opened the door for a report that said that the coach asked Mitch Marner which of the veterans on the team had the worst work ethic. Marner, only a rookie at the time, obliged with his coaches’ request, not wanting to upset the long time bench boss.
Babcock took the results and unexpectedly told the players what Marner said about them. The notion that he may have believed that this could be beneficial for the team shows just how awful of a coach Babcock was. Naturally, this occurrence must have soured the locker room, and maybe even created a divide between the new NHL star and the veterans he was supposed to look up to. Of course, the nasty doings of Babcock likely caused him to lose his players’ respect as well.
Realizing this happened a couple of years ago, one might wonder what other awful things happen behind closed doors without anyone finding out. Players are often trapped in terrible situations where revealing the horrors of a locker room can cost them their career. Babcock is just one example of the many bullies throughout hockey and sports, using their authority to demonize young players and destroy the livelihood of a team.
Chris Chellios further alluded to Babcock’s methods, speaking about some of the coach’s practices during his time with the Detroit Red Wings. He said he saw Babcock verbally assault forward Johan Franzen on the bench, leading to a nervous breakdown in the locker room. If this occurrence was not disgusting enough, the team’s front office backed Babcock, saying any player that had a problem with him could come and request a trade. These practices exhibit an ongoing issue in the league and a culture where players do not feel safe to express concern. The problem is rooted in the lack of player power like they have in the NBA and MLB. Speaking out is more likely to harm their career than invoke any real change.
While the news of Babcok’s actions were horrifying, it did ignite some change, and a cleansing throughout hockey. For starters, it likely means Babcock, despite being a renowned Stanley Cup winning coach, will never get an NHL coaching job again. Secondly, it inspired others to speak out about unacceptable coaching methods still alive in the modern game.
Former player, Akim Aliu, via Twitter, expressed Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters used racial slurs against him multiple times because he did not like the rap music he was playing. At the time, about 10 years ago, Peters was Aliu’s coach for the Chicago Blackhawks AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. Aliu, who was born in Nigeria, could not speak out about his coach, especially as a minor leaguer who could jeopardize his career by publicizing the event. Aliu was eventually traded out of the Blackhawks organization after multiple heated incidents with Peters, and was never able to gain much traction in the NHL. Although it will never be known if Aliu could have made it to hockey’s big stage, the troubles he had playing for the IceHogs certainly hindered his chances.
Peters was removed from the Flames bench after the report, and resigned later that week. Since then, multiple players have confirmed Aliu’s account, and others have told their own stories about Peters physically assaulting players during games when he was coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Aliu’s story provided players with a pathway to continue to tell stories about coaching abuse prevalent in hockey. With it has come a riddance of at least some of the despicable practices evident in the hockey world.
Yet fans of the game must realize that, even in 2019 when everything makes its way into the social media world, there is still plenty happening behind closed doors the public will never see. Although it would be comforting to think all of the horrible coaching actions in hockey eventually will come to light, many have not and never will. Players, especially ones on the fringe of the NHL and the minors, have no choice but to remain quiet about what goes on beyond the public eye. When front offices support coaches acting terribly, the locker room becomes a dangerous place for players.
Luckily, the reports of the past couple of weeks help remove the stench existent in the league. While times like these may make it seem like all coaches are horrible, it is important not to forget that for every bad leader there are multiple tremendous ones.