The Puck Stops Here
Reckoning with hockey culture’s dark side.
This hockey season, for the first time since 1982, Canadian fans are cheering for their favourite hockey team to make the playoffs – without a running commentary from Don Cherry. He was fired last November after an on-air rant accusing immigrants of being disrespectful to veterans. For almost 40 years, Don Cherry’s voice was a regular feature in the soundtrack of Saturday night hockey. Now, although the swish of skates and the ricochet of pucks remain, Cherry is silent.
Don Cherry embodied both the positive and negative characteristics of hockey culture: its toughness and strong sense of community, but also its violence and exclusion. His dismissal was the beginning of what some have hailed as a reckoning for the hockey world.
Revelations of abuse perpetrated by coaches led to a wave of terminations, along with plans for positive change, at the end of 2019. Several weeks after Cherry was fired, Akim Aliu revealed that Bill Peters, then the coach of the Calgary Flames, directed racial slurs at him a decade earlier when Peters was the coach of Aliu’s American Hockey League team. Shortly after that, another former player alleged that, as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, Peters had kicked him and punched another player during a game. This allegation was confirmed by Rod Brind’Amour, the Hurricanes’ current head coach. Peters resigned several days after the allegations emerged.
Akim Aliu first made headlines in 2005 when he refused to be hazed as a rookie in the Ontario Hockey League. Another player on the team responded by cross-checking Aliu in the face during a practice. The incident drew critical attention to the practice of hazing rookies. Fourteen years later, Aliu is the driving force behind another look at abuse in the hockey world, this time abuse perpetrated by those in leadership positions. Do these calls for justice mark a turning point that will bring about lasting change in the hockey world?
The revelations and subsequent departures of Cherry and Peters have brought debates around political correctness to the NHL. Critics have suggested the players speaking out have an axe to grind, especially Aliu, who has not stuck in the NHL. Critics also claim that the terminations of Cherry and Peters were overreactions to one-time incidents that, in the case of Peters’ racial slurs, happened a decade ago.
However, despite these criticisms, the terminations of Cherry and Peters appear to be determined not only by past abuses but also by their subsequent actions. Cherry could have apologized after his xenophobic rant while still advocating for veterans. Instead, Cherry doubled down and told Sportsnet: “No problem. I know what I said and I meant it.” In another interview with CTV News, Cherry acknowledged his poor choice of words but still refused to apologize, even though he had been offered a way to return to his job. Cherry’s rationale for his refusal was to preserve his reputation as a straight-talker.
While Peters did issue an apology statement, his approach appeared litigious, at times sounding more like a defense attorney than a man with a contrite heart. Aliu called Peters’ apology statement “misleading, insincere and concerning.”
Change is coming
Not all those subject to allegations were forced from their positions. In December 2019, Marc Crawford, an assistant coach for the Chicago Blackhawks, was suspended after it was revealed that he had hit, choked and verbally abused players as an NHL coach more than a decade ago. Crawford returned to his position after the Blackhawks’ investigation revealed remorse and actions since 2010 to avoid future incidents. For his part, Crawford apologized directly to the players who brought the incidents to light and commended their strength.
Marc Crawford’s experience shows that forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. In another case, the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2011, a trainer for Aliu’s hockey team dressed in blackface as Aliu for a Halloween party. After the story emerged, the franchise and the trainer apologized to Aliu, who accepted the apology and requested that the trainer retain his job.
For Aliu, the revelations of abuse appear to be motivated by a desire for a more inclusive and diverse hockey world. After a meeting with NHL executives to discuss his revelations, Aliu told reporters, “I think there’s some big change coming and it’s long overdue. I’m excited to see it come to fruition.”
The NHL leadership appears to share Aliu’s goal. In a statement released several days after the meeting with Aliu, the NHL Board of Governors outlined how they will aim to prevent abuse going forward, adding that, “The world is changing for the better. This is an opportunity, and a moment, for positive change and this evolution should be expedited.”
The NHL’s plan includes a mechanism for reporting abuse and mandatory training for coaches on diversity and inclusion. This is a step in the right direction, but it depends on the NHL being able to police itself. Fans also have a role in holding the league and its broadcasters to account.
After Cherry’s rant, the National Post reported that the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council was overloaded with complaints. This sent a clear message that hockey fans will not tolerate racist remarks.
Today, three months after the allegations of abuse emerged, there is very little reporting on the issue. This does not mean that we have rid the game of abuse, it only betrays our short attention span. Building a safer and more inclusive sport will take longer than the normal news cycle. Lasting change needs more than new NHL policy or reactions in the news media; it requires buy-in at all levels of the sport. Christians should be prepared to help maintain the focus on the need for change and to campaign for it on the rinks and ponds across Canada.
Christians should also wade into the ongoing debates on abuse. Certain actions – such as coaches yelling at players – happen in a gray area and need constant evaluation for that moment when motivational tactics become harmful verbal abuse. The criteria for firing or forgiving a perpetrator of abuse must also be determined. We can join in these conversations with wisdom and compassion so that everyone can continue to enjoy Canada’s favourite game.