The National Hockey League and the Calgary Flames face critical and time-sensitive choices in response to allegations from free agent defenseman Akim Aliu that Flames head coach Bill Peters directed the N-word towards him while coaching Aliu in 2009.
Back then, Peters served as head coach of the Rockford IceHogs, an American Hockey League affiliate team of the Chicago Blackhawks. Aliu, who was born in Nigeria, was a second-round pick of the Blackhawks in the 2007 NHL draft. Two years later, he was a 20-year-old prospect on the IceHogs.
Aliu, now 30, raised this damning accusation in a series of tweets published on Tuesday. Aliu’s tweets do not reference Peters by name, but they leave little doubt as to whom the 6’3", 217-pound defenseman refers.
To that end, Aliu asserts that Peters, “dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music.” In a subsequent interview with TSN, Aliu elaborates to contend that Peters “walked in before a morning pre-game skate and said ‘Hey Akim, I’m sick of you playing that n----- s--- . . . I’m sick of hearing this n-----s f------ other n-----s in the ass stuff.”
Two of Aliu’s teammates on the IceHogs have corroborated Aliu’s recollection. Defenseman Simon Pepin and left wing Peter MacArthur both told TSN that they were present when the alleged incident occurred, and they recall it happening as Aliu claims. TSN also reports that the 2009 IceHogs’ captain, center Jake Dowell, “confronted Peters” about what Peters allegedly said to Aliu. Dowell, according to TSN, “would cooperate in any investigation conducted by the NHL or the Flames.”
Peters, 53, has coached hockey for the last 30 years. The native of Alberta, Canada has served as the Flames head coach since 2018. He was previously head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes and an assistant coach on the Detroit Red Wings.
In the midst of the Aliu controversy, Peters is also accused by former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordán of inflicting physical abuse on him several years ago. In tweets published on Tuesday, Jordán claims that Peters kicked him and punched another player in the head during a game. On Wednesday, Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour, who served as an assistant coach to Peters, corroborated Jordán’s account.
Relevant methods of investigation for both the Flames and NHL
As of this writing, Peters remains employed by the Flames. However, Peters will not coach the team in Wednesday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres and it’s unknown when he will return to the bench. In addition, both the Flames and the NHL have issued statements indicating they are investigating the Aliu incident. Peters’s alleged physical abuse will also be probed. As explained below, the team and league could apply a variety of disciplinary measures against Peters.
An investigation into an incident from 10 years ago—and particularly one that occurred in a different league—presents a number of logistical challenges for both the Flames and NHL. Both are private entities, therefore lacking the power to issue subpoenas to compel witness interviews and accompanying statements. Also, witnesses who willingly speak with investigators will not do so while under oath. This means they will not be at risk of perjury if they knowingly lie or intentionally omit crucial information. Meanwhile, the Flames and NHL likely cannot contractually compel the IceHogs to turn over relevant evidence, such as Peters’s employment file with the IceHogs. The IceHogs are reportedly owned by the City of Rockford.
Despite the potential challenges, expect team and league investigators to pursue the following steps:
- Conduct witness interviews. As noted above, at least two players who were present in the IceHogs locker room appear willing to confirm the gist of Aliu’s claim. Investigators will seek to speak with them and other eyewitnesses. While investigators will try to gain insight on the specific incident at question, they will also assess whether Peters engaged in a pattern of racially insensitive misconduct. One potentially crucial witness is Ted Dent, who was the IceHogs’ assistant coach in 2009. He later became the team’s head coach. Dent could shed light on how Peters spoke about players and interacted with them. Other employees, including front office staff, might have pertinent information, as well as Aliu’s agent at the time. Further, NHL coaches who later worked with Peters would be able to share their impressions. Coaches who are currently employed by NHL teams would have a duty to cooperate in a league investigation.
- Try to determine why the incident remained a secret for so long. If Peters is guilty of directing the N-word at Aliu, it would speak volumes about the culture of the team and the sport that there were no consequences. Eyewitnesses, it seems, heard Peters make the comment. Did they worry that there would be adverse professional repercussions if they informed management or went public? Did they report what happened and management then adopted a “hear no evil, so no evil” mentality? There are many possibilities that will be important for investigators to untangle.
- Attempt to obtain electronic evidence. Investigators will likely try to assess if any emails, texts, social media postings or other correspondences shed light on the incident. It is shocking, upsetting and memorable to hear someone direct the N-word at another person. It seems plausible, if not likely, that Aliu and eyewitnesses exchanged communications about the incident as a way of processing what happened. To the extent those records still exist 10 years later, they would help investigators understand what exactly took place and its surrounding context.
- Retrieve Peters’s personnel files: The IceHogs likely kept a personnel file on Peters, which would indicate whether complaints were raised with human resources or management. Whether such a file still exists and whether the IceHogs would share it are unknown. Investigators would have more success asking the three NHL teams that have employed Peters—the Flames, Hurricanes and Red Wings—as to their knowledge of complaints. Those teams have a duty to cooperate in a league investigation.
The high stakes for the Flames and NHL investigations—and why timing presents a potential complication
The Flames are likely in the best initial position to evaluate what, if anything, should happen to Peters.
Peters is an employee of the Flames. In that capacity, he is governed by an employment contract as well as workplace policies adopted and implemented by the team’s human resources department. While Peters’s contract is not publicly available, it almost certainly contains language that addresses situations where Peters might have run afoul of the law or broken team or league policies. Coaching contracts normally provide significant discretion to a team when a coach has attracted controversy. This type of language is sometimes part of a “morals clause," which usually centers on how the employee caused controversy for unlawful or inappropriate conduct.
If the Flames fire Peters, they could argue the firing is “for cause” or “with cause.” This would mean that Peters is fired for conduct that betrays core provisions of the employment contract. That classification of firing usually relieves the employer of the obligation to pay the fired worker going forward, or at least reduces that obligation.
Therefore, if you are wondering why the Flames have not yet fired Peters, one possibility is they are building a case to not pay him the remainder of his deal.
The situation is not so simple, however. Remember, the alleged incident happened a decade ago. Peters and his attorneys can insist that neither the Flames nor the NHL should take action against him for a possible event that occurred while Peters was employed in a different professional league. Stated differently, Peters was neither an employee of the Flames nor directly governed by NHL policies back in 2009. Also, the player at issue was not an NHL player—Aliu did not make his NHL debut until a few seasons later (coincidentally, his debut was with the Flames).
Depending on the language in Peters’s contract and how it contemplates alleged misdeeds prior to Peters’s employment, the Flames may lack the ability to suspend him without pay. It is also not clear if they can place him on administrative leave, where he would be removed from the team but continue to be paid pending the investigation.
The NHL also has a vested stake in the situation. The league recently launched the Hockey is for Everyone initiative, a campaign rooted in making the sport more inclusive. It features web pages for Black Hockey History, Pride and Girls and Women in Hockey. The NHL is likely also sensitive to the controversy over influential broadcaster Don Cherry’s firing for comments about immigrants.
Under the NHL constitution—a legal document that specifies the contours of the relationship between teams and the league—commissioner Gary Bettman has substantial power to punish Peters in the event Bettman concludes Peters is guilty. Under Article VI, Bettman can determine, based on information and reports he deems sufficient, that “any person connected with the League or a Member Club” violated a league policy or is otherwise “guilty of conduct (whether during or outside the playing season) detrimental to the League or the game of hockey.” This language is clearly sweeping, though it does not explicitly cover incidents that took place before an NHL team employed the person in question.
After rendering a finding of guilt, Bettman has the authority to “expel or suspend the person for a definite or indefinite period.” Bettman, who was the NBA’s top attorney before becoming NHL commissioner in 1993, can also fine the person up to $1 million and terminate his or her employment contract with the corresponding team. These punishments are final and, in most cases, unappealable. Penalties that include a lifetime ban or a suspension exceeding two years can be appealed to the Board of Governors. The appellant can only win an appeal by a vote of at least three-fourths of the Governors.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and the Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.