Former NHL coach and current Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Marc Crawford is not with the team while they investigate abuse allegations. What separates the charges from recent allegations against coaches Mike Babcock and Bill Peters is they were not made with anger, malice or despair. Former player Sean Avery who has been colorful in his own ways told the New York Post Crawford once kicked him for taking a too many men on the ice penalty.
Avery was neither distraught or negatively affected by the incident, and posted a Twitter video Monday to praise Crawford as his second favorite coach.
Yet, here we are.
The changes to hockey, or more specifically, the undoing of part of the hockey landscape began with the swift removal of Canadian icon Don Cherry, who often spoke with the gruff of what is sometimes condescendingly called the working class. Cherry himself often said he spoke for the guys who drink the beer, and he felt he was doing so when he chastised Canadian immigrants who didn’t wear a poppy flower to honor Canadian veterans. Days later, Cherry was gone and a national conversation about inclusion began.
A week later, ex-Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock’s harsh coaching tactics were in the crosshairs of a national media, until a former player under now-ex Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters exposed that Peters used the N-word on one or more occasions in the locker room.
The progression has been swift and the wildfire is spreading. Before this over, we’re probably going to hear a few more things about established and successful coaches. Call it hockey’s Me Too moment.
Allegations of abusive behavior by Babcock, Peters and the allegations of physical contact by Crawford present a much different conversation. Babcock intentionally made his players uncomfortable. He was also a winner, at least until the Detroit Red Wings began to rebuild and he went to Toronto. Peters apparently smacked a couple of his players in Carolina and veterans on the team marched into his office to let him know they wouldn’t tolerate it.
Peters should have been toast the moment he used those words. It was 2009. More questions should be asked, too. Why wasn’t he fired or disciplined and who chose to ignore it?
Racial slurs are the easy part. There’s no gray area. They’re easy to condemn and easy to remove. Or at least they should be.
The flashpoint of the Toronto story is Babcock had Mitch Marner make a list of who he thought were the hardest workers and those who weren’t. Then Babcock spilled Marner’s answers to the rest of the locker room, thus embarrassing Marner and alienating the veterans. Not the best coaching move, but was it criminal, offensive or even wrong?
The story deepened Monday when long-time Detroit Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios figuratively buried Babcock on the Spittin’ Chiclets Podcast with Ryan Whitney and Paul Bissonette. Chelios said Babcock tore into Johan Franzen so intensely during a playoff series against Nashville that Franzen suffered a breakdown.
Franzen confirmed the story and told Swedish media, “(Babcock) is the worst person I’ve ever met.”
And now we come to the gray area. Then Detroit GM Ken Holland was well aware of the situation. Chelios said Holland had a prepared speech which gave players the choice of being quiet or being traded. And it was delivered multiple times in multiple venues.
Skipping past the “Millenials ruin everything,” and “Ok, boomer,” bumper sticker retorts, Babcock is the tipping point for a conversation not about coaching tactics, but about how we treat people. However, professional sports isn’t a place for niceties and coddling.
Sports is an emotional, physical environment of mostly type-A personalities. It is unlike any other environment. So, where is the line and how much do we want to know?
Babcock and Peters could have been the end of the conversation and a warning to others to lighten up. But now Crawford has been removed from the team pending an investigation and the bet here is it will not be the last time a coach is “under thorough investigation.”
Do players have the right to demand how they coached? There aren’t many head coaches in the NHL who haven’t verbally undressed a player from time to time. Across professional sports, yelling is commonplace. Pittsburgh Penguins fans delighted when head coach Mike Sullivan barked at Evgeni Malkin on the bench in 2016. Sullivan was seen on camera forcefully commanding Malkin to “Shut the f— up!”
Memes were made. Fans quickly sided with the head coach. But where is the line and should fans and media get to draw it? Is torching a player in the locker room in front of everyone over the line? If so, a lot of coaches are going to be in trouble.
Former player Brent Sopel also had unflattering things to say about Crawford’s behavior, including kicking, chocking, and yanking on jerseys.
You can see where this is going. People outside the sphere, without experience inside it, are getting involved in decisions through public pressure and scrutiny. Crawford is a generally well respected and well-thought-of coach but definitely demanding. He has been hired as a head coach by four NHL organizations and coached in Switzerland.
Babcock had long since apologized to Marner and they earned each other’s respect.
Is this the death of a generational way of thinking and coaching, forced by new players or is this going to become an avenue for former players to carve up coaches they didn’t like? And what role or say should we have.
I don’t know the answers but I do know there are a lot of players who are unhappy with their past and present coaches. I also know media reporting and fan reaction will play a role in what comes next.
I just don’t know if fans are ready or media are worthy of that responsibility. Just like fighting, I tend to side with the game, and those in it, to police themselves and take care of it. Of course, if Chicago had fired Peters for using the slurs when they occurred a decade ago, the second log on this coming fire wouldn’t have ignited more.