Hindsight being 20/20, Cherry's firing was the first domino to fall in a series of earthquakes shaking the very foundations of what hockey has been for generations. When Mike Babcock was fired from the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, stories began to trickle about his tenure and what happened behind the scenes, and some of those stories were not pretty.
Babcock asked then rookie Mitch Marner what players had the best and worst work ethic on the team, which was then publicly shared. Babcock did apologize, but the damage was already done. Babcock has a reputation for "mind games" like this that precede him, but there can be no doubt other past and current coaches have done something similar, but have not made it past the dressing room walls.I heard about this Babcock story when it happened, but I didn’t want to bring it up until I could confirm it was true.— Ian Tulloch📊 (@IanGraph) November 25, 2019
The rookie he did this to was Mitch Marner. https://t.co/d6TcayagcS
By late Monday night, the avalanche was getting bigger and bigger. Akim Aliu, a former NHLer, said that a Babcock protege, Bill Peters, targeted racial slurs at him when they were both in the AHL in Rockford. Next, a former player of his in Carolina, Michal Jordan, said that Peters physically attacked him:
When current Hurricanes coach and then assistant Rod Brind'Amour confirmed multiple incidents like Jordan's occurred, the avalanche grew larger still.1) Never wish anything bad to the person but you get what you deserve Bill.After years making it to the NHL had experience with the worst coach ever by far.Kicking me and punching other player to the head during the game...— Michal Jordan (@TheBigCzech23) November 26, 2019
Many of these stories stayed behind dressing room walls for so long because of the culture that enabled this conduct in the first place. People in hockey have looked the same, talked the same and acted the same for generations. When these people stop playing, they become coaches, administrators, managers and in many cases their children, who grow up knowing nothing different, come into the sport in the same way. What is created is an insular, territorial culture of deference to power, fear of speaking up and out and a siege mentality that forever prevented the outside world from being let inside hockey's ivory towers, and this culture festered without anyone able on the outside or inside to stop it.
Hockey is now being forced to reckon with itself over its own past, its own mythologized ethos and existence and its place in a world that is changing while it steadfastly refuses to.
If you're looking for reasons a player might keep racial slurs to himself for 10 years rather than sharing the story publicly as it happened, this quote from Gare Joyce's book Future Greats and Heartbreaks offers a good one.— Jonathan Willis (@JonathanWillis) November 26, 2019
The player being discussed is Akim Aliu. pic.twitter.com/jYp8UjzI5c
Stories like those are far too common, and far too commonly stay behind closed doors, thanks to some of the most common tropes in hockey culture: players don't want to say anything for fear of being "a distraction", for fear of taking away from the team, and for fear of what happen when you do stand up to authority figures who aren't used to being crossed and aren't prepared to be.I have permission to share this message with you all— Daniel Carcillo (@CarBombBoom13) November 27, 2019
Reading this makes my blood boil
This brave young man wants to share his story about the abuse he endured in hockey, in hopes of showing others to not be afraid
Thank you 🙏🏻 #hockey #abuse pic.twitter.com/OeyInek0dW
In the case of the Marner-Babcock episode, one player did try to stand up and protect the player, and he paid the price by being scratched and ostracized:
Because hockey is such an insular world, with such little new blood being accepted into its inner circle, people who grew up used to this power dynamic end up going from players to coaches and managers, therefore continuing the cycle. In this cycle, players are then "programmed" to accept the culture they're in and play a role in it knowing the only way they can achieve their goals is by playing the game they're entered into at whatever cost.Matt Martin is a hero #Isles pic.twitter.com/74CQeBQUAg— Matt O'Leary (@MattOLearyNY) November 26, 2019
That isn't how this sport has to be, but it is certainly what the culture around hockey has developed into. With these stories now becoming public, the fallout from them growing by the minute, and with certainly more to come, hockey and the people in charge of the game now have to address not just how it got to this point, but why, and how the ball of yarn can be unraveled.
Last spring, in the same plot of concrete outside Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, fans gathered to watch the Leafs and Raptors play in the playoffs, but the groups of fans doing so looked entirely different. For the first time in generations, hockey as a sport had to ask questions about why things looked so different, and why its position as a dominant cultural pillar in Canada was now under some doubt. The culture surrounding the game, and the people in charge of pushing that culture, now had to answer existential questions about themselves and their actions for the first time, and they're going to be under the microscope more and more as these stories multiply.
How can hockey begin to change, and how can the people in this sport begin to find the solutions to problems they never knew existed before? An important first step is to bring more people under the tent; people from outside hockey's small ecosystem. People with different backgrounds, experiences and ideas need to be not just on the ice, but in positions of power in hockey associations to change policies, to embrace new ideas and create channels for more people to brought in. Those people in power will have to cede some to others, because it's clear that many are not equipped to deal with the issues that lead to chronic abuses of power.
There is a line between tough love and abuse, and in hockey, that line has been blurred to the point where it is unrecognizable. With a new generation of players emerging having been empowered through social media, and seeing what their peers in other sports, particularly basketball, are capable of, they don't willingly subscribe to the hockey power dynamic without asking questions first. Those questions create tension, tension creates friction, and friction creates heat. In that heat, there is pressure, and the pressure might now finally cause changes in a sport where they are long overdue.The biggest fallacy about coaching #hockey is the idea that u need to break down minors & then build them back up in order 4 athletes to b productive— Daniel Carcillo (@CarBombBoom13) November 27, 2019
Learning from failure is a key ingredient in becoming an exceptional athlete, not having to endure unnecessary suffering#abuse
If new voices can be brought into places like Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, the NHL and the like, they can bring perspectives to a world that has had so few new ones, and those players who don't fit the typical hockey stereotype can now see that they belong just as much as their stereotypical peers. That means more women, minorities and people who came into hockey from different angles have to be given the chance to lead and the chance to influence people in the sport who otherwise haven't know any different. Some of that is happening because modern players are so different than previous generations, but they cannot do this own their own.
More friction is to come, because people who have power don't give it up willingly, or easily. More prominent people in the sport might not come through the other side with their reputations clean anymore. But if this is the first step in hockey reckoning with itself, its past and its present, then perhaps finally its future will not be what it has so desperately clung to for so long.
When Robin Lehner told the world of his mental health struggles, the sport wrapped its arms around him in support. During the Humboldt bus crash, the hockey world cared for its own and showed why so many people come to this game again and again in spite of its costs. There is plenty of good in this sport and it needs to be amplified, and now is the best chance yet to celebrate that and push it forward.
Hockey own's mythology is being shattered. There is a chance to build something new in its place, and there's no better time than the present to build something new for this sport which desperately needs it.