PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The NHL will create a platform for whistleblowers and an annual training program on diversity and inclusion in response to recent abuse scandals in its coaching community, commissioner Gary Bettman announced at the league’s board of governors meeting on Monday in Pebble Beach.
“Our message is unequivocal: We will not tolerate abusive behavior of any kind,” he said.
The resignation of Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters, after two former players came forward with abuse allegations, was the catalyst for these new efforts. Former NHL player Akim Aliu alleged that Peters used racist language toward him when they were with the AHL Rockford Ice Hogs in 2009-10, and his story was corroborated by multiple teammates. Former Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan said that when Peters coached in Carolina, he kicked him and punched another unnamed player in the head. Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, an assistant under Peters, corroborated that incident.
“We don’t like surprises. The Bill Peters situation was a complete surprise,” Bettman said. “Going forward, our clubs are on notice that if they become aware of an incident of conduct involving NHL personnel, on or off the ice, that is clearly inappropriate, unlawful or demonstrably abusive or that may violate league policies, either [deputy commissioner] Bill Daly or me must be immediately advised.”
Bettman said there will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify the league, “and in the event of such failure, the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline.”
Bettman said the NHL is still investigating the Peters incidents, including how the Hurricanes reacted at the time. General manager Ron Francis, now the GM of the Seattle expansion franchise, said he told ownership of the incident. Then-owner Peter Karmanos disputed that claim.
When it comes to reporting on and preventing abuse, the NHL announced two initiatives.
The first is a platform, expected to be a phone hotline, through which inappropriate conduct by team officials can be reported anonymously or with attribution. The hotline is open to current and former team personnel. The majority of accusations made against NHL coaches recently have been by former players.
When asked if the league would offer any protection to whistleblowers who call the hotline, Bettman said “anonymity will be protected,” much like it is for the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health hotline.
The NHL also announced that there will be a “mandatory, annual program on counseling, consciousness raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion. The program will be required for all NHL coaches, minor league coaches under NHL contracts, general managers and assistant general managers.”
The league will work with outside professionals to create the program and will work with both the NHLPA and the NHL Coaches Association on execution.
Also, NHL executive vice president Kim Davis, who focuses on diversity initiatives, will “form a multidisciplinary council to suggest initiatives, monitor progress and coordinate efforts with all levels of hockey,” Bettman said.
Along with the Peters incidents, there have been other accusations against NHL coaches.
The Chicago Blackhawks placed assistant coach Marc Crawford on administrative leave pending an investigation into claims that he physically and verbally abused former players Sean Avery, Brent Sopel and Patrick O’Sullivan. Avery and Sopel later clarified their comments on Crawford, praising him as a coach. O’Sullivan has not, accusing Crawford of “verbal abuse [that] included homophobic slurs on a regular basis.”
Daly said the Blackhawks’ investigation is ongoing.
When coach Mike Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, stories started appearing about his alleged mental abuse of players, pitting teammates against one another in Toronto and verbally assailing forward Johan Franzen to the point that Franzen had a “nervous breakdown” on the bench when the two were with Detroit, according to former Red Wing Chris Chelios.
The Babcock incidents enter a gray area for the NHL when it comes to allegations of verbal and mental abuse.
Bettman said awareness of those gray areas can prevent future incidents.
“Even if there’s a line, why get too close to it? Let’s have a respectful workplace,” he said.
As the league continues to react to the Peters incident with Aliu, who met with the league last week in Toronto, Bettman was asked if the NHL has a racism problem.
“I think that we’ve been very proactive. Our levels of diversity and inclusiveness are the best they’ve ever been. Unfortunately, there are incidents. But overwhelmingly, our personnel conduct themselves in the appropriate way that they should,” he said. “One incident is too many. But our goal is to continue to educate, consciousness raise and continue to do the right things to keep incidents of inappropriate conduct to a minimum or eliminate them entirely and let people know that our game is open and inclusive.”
Aliu released a statement on social media, saying that he was pleased with the planned moves.
“I am encouraged the commissioner embraced many of the changes we proposed at the meeting,” Aliu said. “Now the hard work begins of focusing on specifics and implementing policy that will make this sport more diverse, safer and accountable. We have to ensure that future generations of hockey players do not face the barriers and racism that I have throughout my career. Together we can do something truly great and transformative for hockey.”