Hockey Is Moving in the Right Direction, but What Does It Mean for the Old-School Style of Coaching?
When I was a senior in high school I decided that I wanted to do a post-graduate year to play hockey and increase my chances of playing in college. The coach that had recruited me to go to prep school had moved on over the summer and a new coach had been hired. Over the course of that summer, multiple junior coaches approached me looking to change my mind about going to prep school. I hadn’t met my new coach yet, but one coach told me, “You won’t like playing for him, he’s the kind of guy who will grab you by the jersey and call you out.” I had never had a coach like that before, but I was excited for a new challenge and experience of being coached by a so-called “old-school guy.”
Over time, hockey’s old-school coaches have begun to diminish as parents get more protective of their children and social media provides a place for people to voice their opinions. However, in late November, instead of being the spotlight for a soft complaint, social media provided a platform for a call to action against these old-school coaches who have gone too far. Five days after Mike Babcock was fired by the Maple Leafs in late November, former player Akim Aliu voiced his opinion on the matter by sharing a story about another NHL coach who had used racial slurs against him when he was in the minor leagues. That coach would turn out to be Bill Peters, who has since resigned as head coach of the Calgary Flames (Karimi, 2019).
It was well known in the hockey world that there were former players that despised Mike Babcock. That’s why when Babcock was fired it came of no surprise that former players came out of the woodwork to voice their displeasure’s with the coach. In his New York Times article, Andrew Knoll reported, “Mike Commodore and Johan Franzen, used the occasion of his firing to criticize him on Twitter and in news media interviews, calling him “a terrible human being” and a “bully.” This came after a Canadian news outlet leaked a story about Babcock assigning then-rookie, Mitch Marner, to rank the players on the Leafs in order form hardest-working to most lackadaisical. Afterward, Babcock revealed Marner’s answers to those members of the team that had fallen to the bottom of the list (Knoll, 2019).
As the hockey world took to Twitter to bash Babcock, it was Akim Aliu who used the opportunity to address the issue that he had with Peters. As Mike McIntyre of the Winnipeg Free Press pointed out, we’ve entered into the era of hockey’s #MeToo movement. McIntyre commented on the fact that players are finally speaking out after years of staying quiet because of fear over how it would affect their careers. He said, “All of this involves the power dynamic between coach and player, something that is sadly all-too-common in the sporting world but rarely only heard in whispers and [rumors], with victims of this kind of treatment afraid to speak out for fear of how it might impact their career.” McIntyre expects that the stories about Babcock and Peters are only the tip of the iceberg, believing that more stories are bound to come out about other coaches as players become more aware.
But what’s next for the game of hockey? The NHL has already met with Akim Aliu, who said the discussions with league officials, including the commissioner, Gary Bettman, went well (Wyshynski, 2019). Aliu said that the NHL “couldn't have been kinder or more receptive to the message that we're trying to bring." This is a step in the right direction of hockey, a game that has always been known for its hard-nosed style coaching. As happy as I am to see that guys like Babcock and Peters are behind the benches, for the time being, I’m concerned that the old-school coaching style will become a lost art in the game of hockey. I believe a happy medium exists out there for coaches to be hard on their players and still care about their well-being.
Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice was asked about the Bill Peters situation and he himself admitted that there have been a couple of moments where he has regretted his own actions behind the bench. He talked about how Jets captain, Blake Wheeler approached him about how tough he was being on a younger guy (McIntyre, 2019). Maurice was taken aback at first but realized that the times are changing and he was willing to adapt. "I think there is a real awareness over the last year, certainly on our staff. If I’m going to give anybody credit, I’m going to give the assistant coaches credit for kind of pushing me to evolve, to be more understanding, maybe, of young players. More caring, possibly." I agree with Maurice that more coaches should move with the times, as the players get younger, and the game becomes faster it is necessary for the coaches to change with the times. But like I said, we can’t let the benches become filled with all sunshine and rainbows.
That coach I had in prep school, the one that I was told would grab me by the jersey and call me out if he needed to? He never did. And he never did to any of my teammates. He’s been coaching hockey for a long time and has certainly adapted with the times. That being said he was still an old-school guy at heart. He held us to the highest standard and when we failed to reach that standard he let us know, and he wasn’t always kind about letting us know. But what people often miss is that he never took it personally. As a hockey coach with a team filled with young men he felt it was duty to not only pass on hockey wisdom but life wisdom. No matter our performance on the ice he always respected us and would go to battle for us any day of the year. I’m excited for hockey to move away from the coaches who instilled power struggles and hatred within the relationships between them and their players, but I hope it doesn’t come at the cost of those old-school guys who are doing it the right way.
Broome, Gary. Bill Peters Behind the Bench. 2019, Associated Press, New York Times
Denette, Nathan. Mike Babcock Yelling. 2018, Canadian Press, Sportsnet
@Dreamer_Aliu78. “admit I rebelled against him. Wouldn’t you? And instead of remedying the situation, he wrote a letter to John McDonough and Stan Bowman to have me sent down to the ECHL. 20 year old on pace for 20 goals in his first pro year with zero PP/PK time was off to a great start in his.” Twitter, 25 Nov. 2019, 7:15 p.m., https://twitter.com/Dreamer_Aliu78/status/1199119524513165312
@Dreamer_Aliu78. “Not very surprising the things we’re hearing about Babcock. Apple doesn’t fall far from the Tree, same sort of deal with his protege in YYC. 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. First one to.” Twitter, 25 Nov. 2019, 7:15 p.m., https://twitter.com/Dreamer_Aliu78/status/1199119380774359045
Karimi, Faith. “NHL Coach Bill Peters Steps down after Admitting to Using Racial Slur against Former Player.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 Nov. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/11/29/sport/bill-peters-nhl-coach-resigns/index.html.
Knoll, Andrew. “N.H.L. Takeaways: 3 Moves That Reflect a Cultural Shift in the Sport.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Dec. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/sports/hockey/nhl-takeaways-cherry-babcock-peters.html.
McIntyre, Mike. “Hockey's Long-Overdue #MeToo Movement.” Winnipegfreepress.com, Winnipeg Free Press, 29 Nov. 2019, www.winnipegfreepress.com/sports/hockey/jets/hockey-is-for-everyone-a-major-work-in-progress-565589001.html.
SPORTSNET. (2019, November, 25). Mike Babcock Is Under Fire For Mitch Marner Incident | Instant Analysis [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVujmY41-oY
TSN. (2019, November, 26). Does the NHL's culture of 'stays in the room' need to change? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nPhr7eamzg
Woods, John. Paul Maurice Coaching. 2017, Canadian Press, Sportsnet
Wyshynski, Greg. “Akim Aliu Enthused after 'Great Discussion' with Gary Bettman.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 4 Dec. 2019, www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/28220988/akim-aliu-enthused-great-discussion-gary-bettman