I had so very much hoped we were going to close the book on the Mike Babcock era and that we would move forward, hand in hand, into a new and wholesome era of victory and expected goals. Ah, but:
This “tactic” of Babcock’s is very much to his discredit. It’s manipulative and nasty. It demeans a rookie in the eyes of his teammates. It exerts power over a teenager by embarrassing him. It is a lousy way to treat people and a lousy way to coach a hockey team. Babcock seems to have recognized it; he apologized subsequently, as apparently did then-GM Lou Lamoriello.
This anecdote has been the high point of a wave of criticism of Babcock since he was fired. Babcock has apparently treated quite a few of his players poorly. Some of the complaints about his style stretch back to his Detroit days. It is a long-standing issue.
For a long time, Mike Babcock was untouchable, or close to it. He was one of the consensus top coaches of the world, having led dominant teams to the Stanley Cup and Olympic Gold. There were complaints about his personal style and his some of his public decisions—like healthy scratching Mike Modano and Jason Spezza—but for quite some time the more pronounced criticism was almost exclusively from one player: ex-Detroit Red Wings defenceman Mike Commodore. Commodore’s loud, emphatic voice, when he was more or less alone on the topic publicly, was easy to ignore in the dazzling light of Babcock’s trophy case. It was for me.
The endlessly public struggles of the Leafs eventually ran out Babcock’s professional string, and then, finally, it was time for everything to come out. You couldn’t swing a stick in Toronto without hitting a media outlet that had a Babcock story in the past week. It became clear that this sort of thing had been circling in the league, among media, for a very long time.
And a few people wondered: why did this take so long to come out?
As the hockey world mulled that one over, another ex-player, Akim Aliu, was inspired to speak about Babcock’s former protege: Calgary head coach Bill Peters.
Bill Peters and Akim Aliu
What Bill Peters is alleged to have said is much worse than what Mike Babcock did.
Former NHL player Akim Aliu said on Monday that current Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters repeatedly hurled racial epithets in his presence in a minor league locker room a decade ago.
Speaking publicly for the first time since he made the allegation on Twitter, the Nigerian-born Aliu said Peters made the remarks in the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs dressing room before a morning skate during the 2009-10 season while the 20-year-old Aliu controlled the team’s music.
“He walked in before a morning pre-game skate and said ‘Hey Akim, I’m sick of you playing that n----- s---,’ ” Aliu told TSN, with Peters, who was then the Ice Hogs head coach, referring to Aliu’s selection of hip-hop music. “He said ‘I’m sick of hearing this n-----s f------ other n-----s in the ass stuff.’
“He then walked out like nothing ever happened. You could hear a pin drop in the room, everything went dead silent. I just sat down in my stall, didn’t say a word.”
Two of Aliu’s teammates have independently corroborated his account. (Aside: credit to Frank Seravalli for professional reporting at a time when the hockey world needed it.)
The Calgary Flames have indicated Peters isn’t coaching their next game. I would be very, very surprised if the Flames don’t fire him in short order. My guess is that they are working out whether they can do so without having to pay the remainder of his contract.
Akim Aliu had, by this age, already been through one painful and public incident where he was clearly justified and was awfully treated. While a teenager in junior, he refused to be “hazed”, which is a gentle euphemism for abused, by being put naked into an overheated bus bathroom with other rookies on his junior team. So one of his teammates, Steve Downie, cross-checked his face at practice and knocked a couple of his teeth out. The two of them subsequently fought. Gare Joyce’s book Future Greats and Heartbreaks tells us how Aliu was viewed after that.
“[Ontario league executive] We looked at him after [the Windsor incident.] I spoke to his father and he had a chip on his shoulder. I was worried that if it didn’t go right, he’d turn around and accuse us of being racist. I cooled off after that, but ours wasn’t the right situation. When you have a problem like him, you have to play your problem to fix it—the way our roster was, we couldn’t afford to play him the way you’d have to.”
Downie, if you’re wondering, was lionized like this.
If anyone were inclined to question why Aliu didn’t discuss this incident publicly sooner, his previous experiences ought to prove exactly how Canadian hockey culture treats people who are perceived as “problems.” His subsequent issues with Peters ended with him being demoted to the ECHL, and Aliu wound up with little more than a token NHL career, seven games, despite talent many people expected would get him more than that. Aliu had already suffered professionally, and would again, for what other people said and did to him.
Steve Downie and Don Cherry
Steve Downie is easily cast as a villain in the hazing story, and not without reason. He behaved badly and ought to own it. But you don’t have to think too long to notice he was an eighteen-year-old upholding a system of humiliating rookies and that he didn’t start the culture where that took place. Downie, unlike Aliu, got to go on and have a lengthy NHL career, one where he gave and received devastating hits. And on the other side of that career, he wound up with a Twitter thread, in which he said:
But again, I did what don cherry said to do every Saturday night. Just fucking disgusted when I look back. Wish I never played.— Steve Downie (@stevedownie23) December 24, 2016
Don Cherry finally got fired a couple of weeks ago, after his racism got too overt in his thirty-fifth year sharing it publicly. He had many defenders, and I don’t think anyone’s holding their breath for him to apologize over the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em video series where he valorized hits that caused severe injuries. It’s an achievement that he got taken off the air at all. His legacy will endure long after his departure.
The Rot In The Game
I love hockey, I played hockey, I watch it, I write about it. Sometimes, when the Leafs are winning and Auston Matthews has fired off one of those time-stopping snapshots and the goaltending hasn’t sold us out, I even enjoy it.
Professional hockey is a hierarchy. At every level it picks winners and losers because very many people want very much to get to the top and we have to get rid of the losers somehow. Like every hierarchy, when you start, there are an awful lot of people who have power over you, and you need them to pass you up to the next level. They can be unfair, capricious, racist, and still you need them more than they need you. They can sort out the winners and losers based on the game on the ice, or based on whatever else they want, and still you need them. So you swallow it, or else. Akim Aliu pushed back against the culture and the culture knocked his teeth out. I doubt he forgot that afterwards.
By the time you get to the top of the game, you have almost certainly gone along to get along more times than you can remember or count. You’ve probably taken in some of the cultural practices As The Way Things Are Done. Maybe, if you’re very, very talented, independent, and decent, you can make a thing or two better so the next generation has it easier than you did. But that’s for the blessed few. The system grinds on. And we will never see the vast majority of the players who left after some awful hazing incident, or who got so sick of being slurred they didn’t want to play another game in an arena full of mostly white faces and echoing white voices. The system doesn’t admit most of that to the outside.
So what do we do?
If You See Something...
We’re all mostly outside hockey. We’re fans and if we played it wasn’t very high up and it was usually a while ago, excepting beer league. These last two weeks have been a rare, ugly, but valuable chance for the people who care about this game to say something about the powers that run it. I don’t know how much longer it’ll go on. Maybe another wave of revelations is coming. Maybe this one will fade out and business as usual will pick back up.
But this is a chance to call bullshit. To shout in print and on the Internet that hey, you don’t treat rookies like that, you don’t shout slurs like that, you don’t get a platform to endlessly glamorize violence and slag Europeans. These glimpses into how deep the rot runs aren’t a time to turn away, as pleasant as that might be, as much as it would have helped me towards that peaceful hope I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. They’re a reminder as to what gets empowered at all those levels of the pyramid where there’s no public and not much of anything to hold power to account.
It’s worth doing. We’ll turn back to the game on the ice and the Leafs’ Corsi and whether Tyson Barrie ought to be on PP1. But it’s worth doing.