The Coach's Corner of Controversy

December 5, 2019

Hockey throughout its history has developed the reputation of being an exciting sport with boring personalities. While the action is often entertaining, responses by players, coaches, and executives alike leaves much to be desired. A large part of that is due to the role of tradition in hockey and the amount of emphasis placed on it. People like safe and there’s a lot of safety in tradition, even if it means re-hiring failed managers or giving boring cliche responses like “get pucks deep” and “play a full sixty minutes” to questions. That is exactly why the Carolina Hurricanes’ Storm Surge has been praised as much as it has. It provides a unique source of ’fun’ in a sport with a lot of bland and boring. Due to those traditional aspects, the last thing that anyone would expect would be a month filled with controversy, which is exactly what November has been. 


The month of November can be described by these two words: coaches, controversy.


It began with Don Cherry’s divisive comments on immigrants and poppies at the beginning of the month. Cherry, an incredibly well known sports personality, was a former coach resulting in his television segment being dubbed “Coach’s Corner”. For Cherry, divisive comments were the norm. Just a mere week before these comments, he was adamant that Ottawa Senators forward Scott Sabourin was fine after a scary hit that knocked him unconscious. This is just one of the many examples of Cherry upsetting national viewers. Just last year he went on a rant about the aforementioned Storm Surge queuing the “Bunch of Jerks” slogan and shirts. He has also developed a reputation for xenophobic and abrasive tendencies. Simply put, those comments were merely the straw the broke the camel's back. His firing hit national media and everyone was talking about it, even those who don’t follow hockey. Certainly not good publicity. This was the first of many incidents this month.


The hockey universe remained quiet for a few weeks before coaches ran rampant once again.


The Toronto Maple Leafs amid struggles were ready to make a change and they did just that on November 20th by firing Mike Babcock. Babcock had been the Leafs head coach since 2015-16 and was a part of their impressive turnaround but for whatever reason, the players struggled and seemingly tuned him out. The days following the firing made some of those reasons clear.


Turns out, Babcock’s intimidating method of coaching was disliked by the young Leafs. When news came out of an incident in which Babcock requested a list from then rookie Mitch Marner, people were upset. The list was a ranking of those that were hardest-working. Babcock proceeded to inform those near the bottom of their ranking, much to the displeasure of Marner. After the news came out, many started to take a better look at Babcock’s career. His treatment of Mike Modano and how he prevented him from reaching 1500 career games is just cruel and it turns out that even some players in Detroit didn’t enjoy playing under him either. Johan Franzen can certainly attest to that.


Most of Babcock’s issues stem from arrogance developed throughout his career. His method of motivation is to bully the player into proving him wrong. While I vehemently disagree with the approach, I can somewhat envision how it works with experienced players. Rookies however? Terrible idea.


Anyways, it seems as if the floodgates had opened as players began to speak out about mistreatment by coaches. Akim Aliu took to Twitter recall an incident that had occurred nearly a decade ago in which Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters used a derogatory racial slur that many are too familiar with towards Aliu. This obviously spawned an investigation on the situation and rightfully so. Then, Michal Jordan revealed that once in Carolina, a frustrated Peters kicked Jordan in the back. This was confirmed by many including current head coach Rod Brind'Amour. Once again, not a good situation. After an investigation, Peters himself decided to resign. The investigation is still ongoing and the National Hockey League intends on questioning Aliu themselves but the mere fact that this was a suppressed issue is concerning.


Alongside the boring and bland, it turns out that hockey also has a toxic and dangerous facet. The culture of the sport has led to some concern in the past but nothing to the magnitude of this. Players were seemingly uncomfortable with discussing such topics out of concern for their career and future employment opportunities. An ugly thought. 


Daniel Carcillo who has taken great pride in exposing these types of coaches has also highlighted the Sutter’s (specifically Brent and Darryl) along with Marc Crawford. Once again, unfortunate but not too unexpected.


As a Canucks fan, I have always known that Crawford was a tough and not so endearing coach. His dedication and passion for winning is undeniable but his treatment of players leave a lot to be desired. Former Canuck Brent Sopel said on the Spittin' Chiclets podcast that he too had a tough relationship with Crawford. Sopel stated that "[Crawford] kicked me, he choked me, he grabbed the back of my jersey and pulled me back. He attacked guys personally."


Sean Avery also spoke out recently about physical abuse experienced by Crawford. The Chicago Blackhawks, the team that currently employs Marc Crawford as an assistant coach, are now conducting an investigation.


These are multiple instances in which coaches have made players feel uncomfortable. Moments like this have absolutely no place in the sport, especially towards younger players. In a sport driven by tradition, maybe it's time for some evolution. It is however refreshing to see players call out those who have treated them unfairly. Intimidation and abuse does nothing but demotivate players. Just look at how much the Leafs struggled before firing Babcock and now look at the success that they have found afterwards under new head coach Sheldon Keefe. Heck, look at what the Carolina Hurricanes did after replacing Bill Peters with Rod Brind’Amour. It’s even more impressive.


No player wants to perform in an environment in which they feel uncomfortable in. Sports are supposed to be enjoyable and aspects such as bad coaching do not only toxify the league as it is but also negatively impact the future of the game. The NHL emphasizes and encourages diversity and the behaviour by prominent figures like this are just plain unacceptable. 


Now what remains to be seen is remainder of the Bill Peters saga. Is there was more to this than originally thought?


Besides that, I am also interested in seeing how the dominoes remain to fall. Which coach is next? Is anyone safe?!? That we will find out eventually.

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