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Breaking the Ice: After Revelations of Abuse by Coaches, Hockey Is Facing a Reckoning

A sport with silence and conformity deeply rooted in its culture, hockey has seen a major shift in recent weeks. And these revelations are only the start.

The stories came to Daniel Carcillo in droves. Emails and texts, Instagram and Twitter direct messages, more than 300 total in less than a week. Some came from teenagers in faraway corners of the hockey world, others from NHL veterans with blue-check mark accounts. All recounted instances of physical, sexual and emotional trauma suffered, as Carcillo once did, while playing hockey.

Almost exactly one year ago, Carcillo spoke out against the brutish hazing rituals he suffered through at the hands of teammates as a 17-year-old rookie in the OHL. Since then he has provided a safe space of sorts for others to share their own stories. “I want to be a conduit for healing,” says Carcillo, 34, a career enforcer who won the Stanley Cup twice with Chicago before retiring in 2015. “I want these kids to understand that it’s not their fault, that what happened to them was abuse.” Until late last month, though, such messages were sparse. Now? As Carcillo says, “A dam broke. It’s like a tidal wave.”

The initial spark came on Nov. 25, when a journeyman blueliner named Akim Aliu posted details of a racist tirade directed at him by then-coach Bill Peters in the minors in 2009–10: “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.” The following afternoon, former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan recounted how Peters had kicked him and punched another player in the head during the ’15–16 season.

Peters, who apologized in a letter addressed to Flames general manager Brad Treliving—an apology that Aliu, who was not named in the letter, later blasted as “misleading, insincere and concerning”— resigned from his position behind the Flames’ bench on Nov. 29. But as Carcillo’s inbox indicates, these revelations cannot be dismissed simply as a matter of one rotten fruit falling from the Don Cherry tree. After all, improper behavior can take many forms, from Mike Babcock—the NHL’s highest-paid coach until the Leafs dismissed him amid a six-game losing streak last month—facing allegations that he once verbally abused former Red Wings forward Johan Franzen into having a “nervous breakdown” to overzealous parents hollering behind peewee benches.

“Far too many people in sports think that you have to be tough and abusive in order to get the best out of athletes,” says Gretchen Kerr, a University of Toronto professor who researches athlete maltreatment. “All of that stuff around mental toughness runs against everything that we know about how people learn, what motivates people, under what conditions do people perform their best, and yet we continue to perpetuate these misconceptions. It’s just been normalized.”

Last April Kerr and her colleagues published a report based on a survey of 1,001 current and former Canadian national team athletes across more than five dozen sports. The results were sobering: Roughly 60% of the athletes reported experiencing “psychologically harmful behavior” while competing for their country, 20% had experienced “sexually harmful behavior,” and 14% had endured “physically harmful behavior.” For every category of maltreatment, the most commonly cited perpetrators were coaches.

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But the standard for what is acceptable is clearly shifting. Decades ago, who would’ve cared about a coach forcing a teenage rookie to rank his teammates according to work ethic before reading aloud said list to the entire locker room, as Babcock did with Leafs winger Mitch Marner in 2016–17? For that matter, how many would’ve praised these methods by heralding the wisdom of old-school, hard-ass leadership? “In modern society, I can think of no other job that gives somebody so much power, especially over rather young people, than coaching,” says Brian Gearity, director of the Sport Coaching master’s program at the University of Denver. “Now the players are saying, I’ve put up with this abuse and bad behavior for too long.”

Indeed, in the week after the initial Peters allegations emerged, the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos fired their athletic trainer “following revelations of a recent pattern of demeaning and derogatory comments, threatening behaviour and unprofessional conduct,” according to a team statement; Blackhawks assistant Marc Crawford was placed on leave after allegations surfaced that he kicked a player in 2006–07; and Carcillo tweeted about having “personally witnessed the abuse first hand” under ex-Kings bench boss Darryl Sutter.

If a true reckoning is coming at the rink, then these revelations are only the start. “It’s one thing to get rid of a couple of people who were problems,” says Courtney Szto, a professor at Queens University whose doctoral research focused on racism in hockey. “But this is really about being proactive and making sure these people never make it into the system to begin with.”

Accountability in the form of actual punishment—not just through internal talking-tos or mealy public statements of condemnation—is a solid first step. So was the Dec. 3 meeting in Toronto between Aliu, commissioner Gary Bettman and other NHL officials, where the 30-year-old Nigerian-Ukrainian-Canadian addressed, among other issues, the racism he has faced in the predominantly white sport. A week later, Bettman announced plans for the league to implement a “mandatory annual program on counseling, consciousness-raising, education

and training on diversity and inclusion” for head coaches and general managers, as well as a crisis hotline for team employees to report incidents without fear of repercussions.

There are myriad reasons to be skeptical, of course. History has swept all manner of bad behavior under the rug because championships were at stake. Silence and conformity are also deeply entrenched in hockey culture, albeit masqueraded as positive ideals like modesty and teamwork. “The desire to not stick out and be the troublemaker in the locker room is stronger than in other sports,” Szto says. “Even our superstars don’t want attention.”

Still, Carcillo is hopeful. After going public with his abuse last year, Carcillo says his inboxes were flooded with predominantly hateful messages. “Telling me to kill myself, saying that I had brain damage,” he says. The trolls still lurk, but 300 (and counting) testimonials from fellow players is proof enough that meaningful, systematic change isn’t far behind. “Now the victims have the power,” Carcillo says. “That’s the shift we needed to happen.”