The Power Play

Since hockey has become a widely popularized sport, it’s been best known for the “tough” element involved, with high levels of contact and, perhaps the most iconic element of hockey, the fighting. These associations tied to hockey have created a culture surrounding the sport characterized by overt and acute displays of masculinity, a constant vie for toughness, and yes, even direct violence. But with that comes the consequence- having a culture so heavily dependent on its stereotype of having “grit” that it loses all understanding of what people should have to willingly endure. Recently, for hockey, this consequence has been an outpouring of players coming forward to denounce abusive coaches, the unfortunate values surrounding enforcers, concussion rates holding steady, and a headstrong perpetuation of these issues by fans, players, and coaches alike, who refuse to let go of their preconceived notions of what hockey should be. 

The concept of “old school” professionals are present in every subculture of American life, whether it be old school teachers, musicians, or coaches. The association with these people is often tied to a harsh demeanor, outdated ideas surrounding the given subculture, and a general lack of self-awareness. These professionals are often heralded as the best of the best in their career path and seen as “worth” the hardship of trying to work with them. This idea is prevalent in hockey, with many “old school” coaches seen as brilliant at their jobs- but upon investigating closer, anyone can see that being coached under them isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. One of the most salable stories in hockey right now is that of Bill Peters, the ex-coach for the Calgary Flames, as well as the Canadian National Team. Peters has been accused of misconduct with team members, the most prominent being Akim Aliu, who accused him of using racial slurs and being physically abusive to his team members. Aliu claimed on Twitter that Peters “dropped the N-bomb several times towards [him] in the dressing room in [his] rookie year because he didn’t like [his] taste in music,” and further claimed that when he tried to say something against Peters, he drafted a letter to have Aliu sent back down to the minor leagues. This behavior is indicative of a clear lack of respect between the two parties, but especially on the coach’s part. The NHL is the least diverse American sport, with only 5% of all players being of non-white descent according to Business Insider. Due to this these issues could often be overlooked or willfully suppressed due to the lack of diversity within the sport, and the idea that it’s a non-issue. In addition to this, due to the association of toughness and grit attributed to hockey players, they could often feel unable to bring these issues to light in fear of being seen as though they “can’t handle what it takes” to be a hockey player in the NHL. Bill Peters is far from the only coach in the NHL who’s been accused of abusing their players in the league, and the pressure to stay quiet in an attempt to keep their own sense of pride isn’t the only thing keeping these players from speaking out.

Coaches who routinely abuse their players are also known to blackmail their players into staying quiet, threatening their future careers as well as their positions on the teams they’re already a part of. Former head coach Michael Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs was notorious for this behavior, being accused of physical and mental abuse, and manipulation of his players when he was coaching for them. The most prominent examples in the news recently come from NHL players Mitch Marner and Johan Franzen, who both have expressed issues with Mike Babcock as their coach in the past on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings respectively. Mitch Marner was a 19-year-old rookie on the Leafs when Babcock left an impression on him as a coach. Babcock asked him to rank all of his new teammates, from highest work ethic to lowest. He then betrayed Marner’s trust by sharing the list with his teammates he put at the bottom of the list (he put himself at the bottom). Though no other Maple Leaf came forward with issues regarding Mike Babcock’s coaching style, they’ve been very clear that their new head coach, Sheldon Keefe, has been a much better fit in a variety of ways. Tyson Barrie, one of their best defensemen, was even cited saying the difference was “night and day.” Barrie scored his first goal as a Leaf only after Babcock was fired as their head coach. Though what Babcock did on the Leafs doesn’t seem as bad on the surface as Bill Peters’ actions, Babcock also coached for the Detroit Red Wings, and allegedly verbally abused winger Johan Franzen to the point of a mental breakdown, on the bench during a game. Franzen said in an interview with Expressen that Michael Babcock was the “worst person [he] had ever met,” stating he would “lay into people for no reason,” and that the incident he and former teammates disclosed were only the “tip of the iceberg-” one of the seemingly hundreds of occasions where Babcock was verbally abusive to Franzen and his teammates. 

An assistant coach by the name of Marc Crawford has also come under fire for his treatment of players on the bench and during practice and games when he was the head coach for the Los Angeles Kings. Multiple players have come forward talking about the things that Crawford has done to them. Sean Avery was a forward for the LA Kings in the 2006-07 season when Crawford allegedly kicked him on the bench in the middle of the game hard enough to leave a mark. This was all in the wake of a “too many men” call during a shutout game against the Predators, showing the aggression often came from misplaced anger, taken out on the players under him. Crawford’s history with abusing players dates back as far as the 1999 season, as Brent Sopel recently came forward about his time with Crawford when he was on the Vancouver Canucks. Sopel stated in an interview with Spittin’ Chiclets in 2018 that Crawford routinely verbally abused Sopel, essentially calling him a worthless player and stating that he had no hope of being a player in the big leagues and was being sent back down to the minors. In addition to this, Sopel claimed that Crawford would kick him, choke him, and pull him back by his jersey on the bench- as well as personally attack him and his teammates throughout their time under Crawford.

These issues don’t just emerge at the national level, though- coaches abusing their players and getting away with it for a number of reasons is also prevalent in the minor leagues, which is even more egregious given the demographic of minor league players- people as young as 16 can play in minor and junior hockey leagues. Despite this, these adults still deem it appropriate and even mandatory for growth that these players are exposed to this kind of treatment. Jamie Leblanc was recently released from his position as an equipment manager and trainer for the WHL (Western Hockey League)’s Swift Current Broncos following “revelations of a recent pattern of demeaning and derogatory comments, threatening behavior, and unprofessional conduct” according to a media release by the Swift Current Broncos. The issue of coaches using their power over their players to keep them quiet was present even in minor and junior league hockey for at least the past 40 years. Graham James was a junior hockey coach, infamous for the sexual abuse of multiple teenage professional hockey prospects. James used the promise of improvement and even eventually going pro in hockey as bait for these kids, and also as a gag order to prevent them from speaking out against him in all that he had done to the people that he coached. The coaches in hockey have complete control over their athletes, who simply want to play the game and be the best that they can be. Coaches like Peters, Babcock, Crawford***, Leblanc, and James are all fully aware of this fact, and use their position of power over their athletes to manipulate, abuse, and threaten them with little to no ramifications. They can easily threaten to ruin a player’s career by lowering their amount of time on the ice, destroying their chemistry with their teammates, threatening to send them back down to the minor leagues, and threatening to remove themselves from the equation- a junior player’s one connection to the NHL and achieving their wildest dreams. Even if these factors weren’t a part of the deal, hockey players would still have to deal with their own internalized idea of what it is to be a hockey player, as well as the external pressure to create a certain image, which could often prevent them from speaking out.

The most iconic position played in hockey isn’t really a position at all. It’s not on any official stat sheets, cards, or lineups, but it’s still the epitome of what many people envision when they think of hockey. This position is known as the “enforcer-” a player in hockey who stands up for their team members when someone on the ice is being too aggressive, by fighting them back. In the audience, this is usually met with thundering applause, cheering, and overall excitement. Once someone is established as an enforcer, it’s hard for them to not feel the looming pressure to be masculine, tough, and aggressive on and off of the ice. The concept of an enforcer is still present but has been a dying force in recent years as hockey starts moving away from fighting and people continue to do advocacy work for people with concussions, post-concussion syndrome, and CTE or Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy, a condition that affects behavior and cognition. In spite of the evidence linking head trauma to CTE and professional contact sports to increased risk of concussions, many are still upset about the dwindling allowance of fighting in hockey, stating that the sport may be getting too “soft” or otherwise less masculine due to the recent curb in active game fighting. Enforcers of years past, though, have died of statistically younger ages than the average North American life expectancy. In 2015, Todd Ewen, or “The Animal,” passed away due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 49. Three years before, Derek Boogaard, or “The Boogeyman,” passed away from an accidental overdose at the age of 28. Both of these players struggled with their mental health, and both of them struggled with traumatic head injury as a result of how they played the game. These players are just a few of the ever-growing list of players who suffer from drug abuse and depression, often connected to the adverse effects of head trauma. This is also likely in part, though, to the massive pressure that these players felt to play the game like they did, and the emotional toll it takes on someone to constantly be in that state on the ice. They have so much support while they’re fighting, but when they struggle off the ice no one tends to hear about it. They’re considered invincible when they’re being an aggressive force on the team, with no one considering what the continued violence they face can do to them.

While these issues in hockey are problems, the greater problem arises from the public’s perception of them. People don’t always see these things as problems, but rather just part of the game and the risk that one must take to play it. In the comments of a recent Fox Sports article written on the abuse that Johan Frazen faced with Mike Babcock, the comments were overwhelmingly filled with disgust- but not for Babcock. Almost every comment posted on this article is about how hockey is a “man’s sport,” was “better when it was more violent,” and that “if players can’t handle it they shouldn’t be on the ice,” excusing Babcock’s actions as simply those of an “old school” coach. The comments excuse these actions as something that has always happened, is completely normal and should continue to happen to preserve the tradition that this game holds. But tradition purely for tradition’s sake at the cost of everyone on the ice is not a tradition worth excusing, let alone contributing to. These comments pointing fingers at Franzen for being a member of the new generation of hockey, objectively weaker and less “manly” than past generations, simultaneously point fingers at themselves. 

The continuing culture-wide mentality dictating what it is to be a man- aggressive, gritty, mean, dissociated- makes it impossible for men to come forward with their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and nothing ever changes. This is reflected in how the players play their game. After Mitch Marner was forced to write Babcock’s list, Marner said that he had moved past the incident-but one must wonder if the issues the Maple Leafs faced with Babcock as their head coach (a six-game losing streak and multiple losses before that) stem from a lack of trust in their coach and each other due to Babcock’s actions against Marner- and anyone else on the team who have feared coming forward. All of this culminates in an overall sense of forced and exaggerated masculinity in the coaches and players in the NHL and hockey as a whole. This, in turn, contributes to the dangerous actions of the people within the sport, as well as the insistence of fans and spectators to keep things the way they’ve always been, despite putting the players they claim to appreciate in jeopardy. As more and more reports come out of players being abused by their coaches, developing CTE’s and succumbing to the pressures of the culture they worked so hard to be a part of, one has wonder- what has to give before the fans see that this phenomenon has gone on for too long? 


Addendum: Though Marc Crawford has been away from the Blackhawks since the beginning of December due to the recent allegations against him, he has recently made a public apology for his actions against the members of his past teams. Crawford’s statement reads: “Recently, allegations have resurfaced about my conduct earlier in my coaching career. Players like Sean Avery, Harold Druken, Patrick O’Sullivan and Brent Sopel have had the strength to publicly come forward and I am deeply sorry for hurting them. I offer my sincere apologies for my past behavior,” further stating that his conduct and language was unacceptable, and came from a place of attempting to motivate. He went on to explain that he’s been in counseling and therapy for the past decade in an attempt to better himself as a coach and a person moving forward. Crawford will return to the Blackhawks bench in early January.