Karnosky: We need to talk about this

The sport of hockey is at a crossroads much the same way the entertainment industry was about a year ago.

With the resignation last week of Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters, the NHL, and really hockey in general, has had to admit it has a problem. In case you have been living under a rock, Peters was accused by a former player of using a racial slur against him. Another player accused him of hitting or kicking a skater on the bench.

These are difficult, complicated times for hockey.

In mid-November, former NHL coach and long-time hockey commentator Don Cherry was fired from his post on “Coach’s Corner” for insensitive comments he made about immigrants in Canada.

Less than a week later, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was let go, not for what he said or did, but rather that the Leafs fell out of the playoff race and needed a boost. In the days that followed, however, it was revealed that Babcock had, during star forward Mitch Marner’s rookie season, asked the skater to rank the Maple Leafs forwards by level of effort. The youngster, thinking that this was going to be an anonymous thing, did it, only to have Babcock reveal his list to the team.

Peters was recently accused of using the N-word in reference to former NHL player Akim Aliu when the two were part of the Rockford Ice Hogs a decade ago. Aliu has since said that Peters used the word several times in reference to the young player over the course of their time together in the American Hockey League.

Peters was also accused by former Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Michael Jordan (no, not that Michael Jordan, although they both spent significant time in North Carolina), in a series of tweets, of physical abuse in the form of kicking and punching during a game.

As a hockey player myself, this has been a difficult stretch of time to deal with.

I have sat down and had several discussions with my mother over the past few days as I have worked to try to sort through all of what I understand of the situation. It has not been easy.

I assume that a lot of my former teammates look at what has gone on in November as much ado about nothing. After all, didn’t we all go through things like this? Don’t we all know a coach or two like this? We didn’t complain about this, why are these guys so soft?

Therein lies the problem.

Hockey players, like other athletes, are expected to be strong. They are expected to be silent, unless discussing why a game went awry. They are not expected to turn around and accuse a coach of being too hard on them.

As a player who played in the national tournament at the Midget AAA level (or the 18U tier 1 level now, if I understand today’s standards), I saw a lot in my career. I heard the horror stories of Houghton Gremlins coach Don Miller. I had the same coach my entire career in travel hockey, Leo Durocher.

I am also white, which may skew my opinions of how things went during my time as a player. I remember coaches screaming at us in practice and hitting the breaks during a drill to make us skate. I remember Miller making us have a “no-puck” practice my senior year because we lost three games in a row.

I never experienced anything like what Aliu and Jordan have accused Peters of. I think that is where my confusion with all of this lies.

Peters released a statement just days before resigning as Calgary’s head coach in which he apologized to the Flames organization for “offensive language I used in a professional setting a decade ago.” He went on to say that his comments were the source of both anger and disappointment and that he understood why.

He also called the incident “isolated and immediately regrettable.” According to Aliu, neither of those statements are honest.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been wrestling with all of this, trying to sort out how I feel about all of this. It has not been easy, to say the least.

What Cherry said was wrong. Was it worth firing him? I am not sure, however, given that it was just the latest in a long line of stupid comments by a man who should have known better, I am fine with him being let go.

What Babcock did was reprehensible. Asking a first-year player to rate his teammates is a dangerous way to ruin a young kid before he even gets started. To be fair, Marner came out of it all just fine, leading the Leafs in scoring the last two seasons, but it is still not fair to the kid.

What Peters did goes well beyond that. Hockey has no room for language such as he used. We have so few players of color in the game at any level. Almost every single one I have ever met has been a great kid who loves the game just as much as anyone else.

Hockey also no longer has room for coaches who act the way he did, if Jordan’s comments are honest, which it appears must be the case, since Seattle general manager Ron Francis has made a statement in recent days that he took Jordan’s accusations seriously when he was GM of the Hurricanes, they mark a much bigger problem.

For an example of how to change as a coach from a previous era to one of the current, look no further than John Tortorella, since he was let go by the Vancouver Canucks. I never thought I would ever write this, but Tortorella, who has done a great job with the Columbus Blue Jackets, has become a shining example of how to manage players in the current era.


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