Bill Peters

Boko Imama fought Brandon Manning in first AHL meeting since racist incident

Bokondji “Boko” Imama and Brandon Manning dropped the gloves during their first AHL meeting since Manning was suspended five games for uttering a racial slur at Imama. As you can see from the video above, Imama ended up winning that fight with Manning.

Imama wins fight with Manning, has quite the night

Imama didn’t just win that fight; his team also won the game. In fact, Imama’s Ontario Reign set a franchise record by beating Manning’s Bakersfield Condors 10-3.

Imama generated a “Gordie Howe hat trick” with a goal, assist, and that fight. With all of that in mind, it’s not too surprising to see Imama beaming (and distracted) in a postgame interview:

Imama didn’t directly address the Manning fight there, but perhaps he felt that his Jan. 22 statement was enough? Manning apologized via a statement on Jan. 21, noting that he had a chance to speak with Imama after the incident.

Of course, no win (in a fight or a game) erases what Manning said to Imama. It also won’t silence critics who believe that a five-game suspension wasn’t enough. Racism remains a problem in hockey, at the AHL and NHL levels, and beyond.

How NHL, AHL has handled past incidents, and potential future approaches

After all, we are only a few months removed from Bill Peters resigning as Calgary Flames head coach after Akim Aliu shared details about Peters’ racist remarks from their AHL past.

There have been several incidents that became public at the NHL level, too. Chris Simon was suspended three games for using a racial slur toward Mike Grier in 1997. The league suspended Krys Barch for an alleged comment toward P.K. Subban (one Barch denied). Players have also faced plenty of ugly racist incidents involving fans.

Back in December, the NHL detailed how it may handle future moments that “cross the line.” Time will tell if those changes end up being meaningful — Aliu seemed optimistic after a talk — but hopefully Friday gave Imama a measure of closure.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Akim Aliu, who spoke out about racism, signs with Czech team

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Akim Aliu, the player who helped prompt a new discussion about racism and coaching behavior in hockey, is heading back to the ice.

Aliu signed Tuesday in the Czech Extraliga for the remainder of the season. He joins HC Litvinov with 14 games left in the season, giving him a chance to display his game to any NHL teams interested in signing him.

The 30-year-old said he thought about this move for a long time before deciding to play overseas.

”It was a tough decision,” Aliu said in a text message to The Associated Press. ”We are doing good work here on shining light on the issues in the game. My hesitation was on not losing this momentum.”

The Czech league season runs until March, and HC Litvinov is in the playoff hunt.

A second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007, Aliu played in seven NHL games with the Calgary Flames. The right winger/defenseman has since bounced around to various leagues and spent last season with the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears.

The Nigeria-born Aliu, who was raised in Ukraine and Canada, said last fall that veteran coach Bill Peters directed racial slurs toward him while with the American Hockey League’s Rockford IceHogs. Aliu said Peters ”dropped the N bomb several times” because he didn’t like the player’s choice of music.

Peters resigned as Calgary coach after comments from Aliu and another player who said Peters kicked him and punched another player while with the Carolina Hurricanes. Aliu has since met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and other league officials about racism in hockey.

”My message on top of the racial (slurs) and abuse of coaches to players is not giving up,” Aliu said. ”And I want to be an example that no matter what happens, you continue to strive for your dreams.”

NHL season marked by coaching carousel, changes

Firing coaches during the season has been relatively common in the NHL for decades. The volume is nonetheless jaw-dropping in 2019-20 – and there is still half a season to go.

Seven coaches have been either fired or forced out. Gerard Gallant of the Golden Knights became the latest casualty Wednesday when he was fired less than two years after leading Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final and being named the NHL coach of the year.

Peter DeBeor, who was dismissed earlier this season by San Jose, was hired to replace him.

Five of the firings were related to team performance. Bill Peters resigned in Calgary after it was disclosed he directed racist slurs at a Nigerian-born player in the minors a decade ago and kicked and punched players behind the bench in Carolina. Jim Montgomery was fired in Dallas for unprofessional conduct and has since said he is undergoing alcohol rehabilitation.

While underachieving teams and poor records are the leading factors for the changes, owner impatience isn’t far behind. Brian Burke, a veteran former executive for several NHL teams and a current Sportsnet analyst, thinks most are far too impatient these days.

“It is a lot easier to turn around a business in some other area than it is in hockey and pro sports, and the Berube factor does not help,” Burke said.

Indeed, Craig Berube’s remarkable coaching job a year ago raised the expectation for fast results. He took over the St. Louis Blues in November 2018 and led them from dead last in the standings in January to their first Stanley Cup title.

Mike Sullivan led the Pittsburgh Penguins to consecutive Cup titles after taking over in December 2015. A few years before that, Darryl Sutter took over the Los Angeles Kings in December 2011 and led them to their first Cup that season. There was another parade in 2014 season.

Instant success in all cases. Like Gallant, who took an expansion team all the way to the Cup Final in its first year of existence.

It has all put more hockey coaches on notice in a field that already had very little security.

Of the 31 NHL current coaches, only three have been with the same team since the start of the 2015-16 season. Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning has the longest tenure (March 2013). Paul Maurice was hired by Winnipeg the following January and Jeff Blashill joined the Detroit Red Wings in June 2015.

Including the seven firings this season (Gallant, DeBoer, Montgomery, Peters, Mike Babcock in Toronto, John Hynes in New Jersey and Peter Laviolette in Nashville), there are 14 coaches in their first season with their team this year. Berube, title in hand, has been on the job less than 14 months.

Many owners are tired of waiting for success, said Pierre McGuire, an NBC Sports NHL analyst.

“I think people look at history in the league and ownership in particular, and say: ‘What about us?’” McGuire said. “’You’ve told us about this five-year plan or four-year plan, and these guys are doing it in one year, and in some instances six months.’ That’s what leads to itchy trigger fingers.”

Change does bring some positives.

Through Tuesday, the Maple Leafs are 16-6-2 under Sheldon Keefe. The Flames are 13-6-1 under Geoff Ward. The Stars are 10-4-1 with Rick Bowness, and the Devils, Sharks and Predators are showing signs of improvement under Alain Nasreddine, Bob Boughner and Hynes, who only needed a month to find a job.

Still, only three are currently in playoff spots.

“I think (Hynes) got a rough shake with our start,” Devils defense Connor Carrick said. “Bad starts are hard enough to deal with in the NHL. I think bad starts with expectations are worse, and that’s what we were dealing with.”

In 1987, there were 21 NHL teams and 16 made the postseason. When Seattle begins play in 2021-22, there will be 32 teams – and still just 16 will make the playoffs. A postseason berth will be even more precious and frustration levels will likely grow.

“The industry has never been patient enough with coaches and it’s at an all-time low right now,” Burke said. “Casualty rates are at an all-time high, and we’re not done yet this year.”

Berube aside, history shows midseason changes rarely end with a championship.

Major League Baseball has had just two managers take over a team during the course of a season and win a World Series. Bob Lemon did it with the New York Yankees in 1978. Jack McKeon matched that in 2003 with the Florida Marlins.

The NBA has seen a midseason coaching change result in three titles. Paul Westhead replaced an injured Jack McKinney (bicycle accident) in 1980 and took the Lakers to a title. Pat Riley replaced Westhead in ‘81-82 and got LA another crown. Tyronn Lue replaced David Blatt in Cleveland in 2015-16 and led the Cavs to the championship.

Since 2000, no NFL interim coach has taken over a team in midseason and led it to the playoffs.

New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz was Predators coach for 15 seasons. He worked the entire time with general manager David Poile and the two had a plan they followed. They counted on each other.

“What happens when you’re winning, you’re the smartest guy on the planet,” said Trotz, who won a Cup with Washington in 2018. “When you’re losing, you don’t know a thing. You need people when things aren’t going well. In this business, when it’s not going well, you have the fan base on you, you have the media on you. You need someone that trusts what you’re doing and can say, ‘Hey, I believe in you and I don’t see that there’s a change needed.'”

‘This is for real:’ Journeyman Aliu sparks hockey reckoning

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VAUGHAN, Ontario — There was no breaking point or seminal moment that prompted Akim Aliu to post two tweets less than a minute apart that would rock the NHL in a matter of hours.

Aliu was scrolling through the timeline on his phone when he saw a report of how just-fired Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock had mistreated Mitch Marner, his prized rookie forward.

”It was a spur of the moment kind of thing,” Aliu explained during an interview this past week at a gym near Toronto. A few highway exits from his home, this is where the 30-year-old works out to stay in shape in case some team gives him one more shot at playing.

”I sent it out and didn’t even think anything of it, and just went into the steam room for 20 minutes,” he said. ”I did a couple of hot-cold rounds in the shower and when I came out it was crazy.”

The tweets went viral, and missed calls and text messages were piling up when Aliu returned.

”I was like, ‘Woah, like this is for real,”’ he said.

The posts sent Nov. 25 were thunder claps heard around hockey, alleging coach Bill Peters had directed racist slurs at him when the two were in the minors a decade ago and then tried to make sure he’d be demoted.

Racism is of course not unheard of in hockey, but Aliu was taking aim at a veteran coach. And it was an extraordinary public accusation in perhaps the most private of professional sports in North America, where the idea that dirty laundry is always best kept behind closed doors is sacrosanct.

Almost overnight, Aliu’s allegations proved true and prompted Peters’ resignation as coach of the Calgary Flames. Over the past month, other claims have cropped up and the NHL has swiftly moved to strengthen its personal conduct policies regarding racism and bullying; it put every team official – from president to equipment manager – on notice that any similar incident must immediately be reported to league headquarters.

Suddenly, Aliu was no longer just a long-forgotten defenseman who’s played for 21 teams in seven leagues and six countries over the past 10 years. He was an agent of change coming hard on the heels of two incidents that hover, still, over the first half of the NHL season.

Long-time Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry was let go last month after calling immigrants ”you people” during his Hockey Night in Canada segment. Then came Babcock’s firing and word he had embarrassed Marner by revealing a list he asked the player to write that ranked Leafs players by work ethic.

With hockey already buzzing, Aliu kicked things up a notch by accusing Peters, a Babcock protoge, of openly using the ‘N word’ in questioning Aliu’s choice of music in a locker room all those years ago. It was later revealed Peters had kicked and punched his own players during his four years as coach in Carolina.

Aliu’s allegations also led to Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Marc Crawford being suspended for physically and verbally abusing his players at past stops as a head coach. Crawford will return Jan. 2 after an investigation found he sought counseling in 2010 and continues to undergo therapy.

Aliu’s timing turned out to be perfect in sparking a much-needed discussion about issues long suppressed amid lingering nostalgia for the sport’s rough and tumble, and sometimes hateful, past.

”My parents have always told me that things happen at the time they’re supposed to happen, not when you hope they would happen,” Aliu said. ”I kind of dealt with both of those things. So I kind of combined them. And I feel like I have a voice because of that.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has used the uproar to call for change in a sport long made up of mostly white players and one always eager to diversify and grow. .

”The world is changing for the better,” Bettman said following a recent board of governors meeting in California. ”This is an opportunity and a moment for positive change, and this evolution should be expedited for the benefit of everyone associated with the game we love.”

But is it truly a reckoning in a sport that has fewer than three dozen black players and banned a handful of fans for racist taunts less than two years ago?

”It seems different,” said Anson Carter, a former player and broadcaster. ”It really does because it has the NHL’s attention.”

”Is it going to change overnight? No,” added Carter, who is black. ”Are we going to totally, completely eliminate it 100%? No. It exists in society. We would be ignorant to think that there wouldn’t be some instances that might pop up.”

The discussion has prompted varying degrees of reflection among coaches.

”I don’t think I’m going to sit here and worry about every little word I say and things like that,” St. Louis Blue coach Craig Berube said. ”I treat my players with respect. That’s how I view it, just like they treat me.”

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said he’s on board.

”We’re tough at times, but we’re fair. We want to hold them accountable, but not in the manner of what guys have gotten let go for,” Cassidy said. ”I think coaches have to be a little more respectful with the stories coming out. Hopefully, that’s what happens.”

It took until now for Aliu to find the courage to speak out about racism. Born in Nigeria, raised in Ukraine and a Canadian resident since he was 7, he had learned to stay quiet amid the slurs, slights and demotions for fear of being branded a dissenter – as he believes he was in 2005.

That was during Aliu’s rookie season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires and he spoke out after a hazing incident in which he and three other rookies were stripped naked and jammed in a team bus bathroom following a preseason game.

Aliu’s complaints led to the team being fined $35,000, coach and GM Moe Mantha being suspended and a teammate he had brawled with, Steve Downie, eventually being traded, along with Aliu.

Aliu felt he was the one who was punished the most for speaking out. His Team Canada invites dried up and a player with first-round hopes fell to the second round of the 2007 draft, where he was picked by Chicago.

”I defended myself for it and I was the villain,” Aliu said. ”And the guy that was the head of it, Steve Downie, goes on to play in the world juniors, Team Canada, plays in the NHL.”

If it sounds like sour grapes, Aliu noted, he compiled 167 points in 205 career OHL games as a defenseman. And he continued to produce at the minor-league level only to constantly be demoted.

Aliu acknowledged he rebelled against Peters, but he believes the N-word incident led to one of those demotions and further tarnished his reputation.

Aliu thought he had finally caught a break when the Blackhawks traded him to Atlanta during the 2010-11 season. He said then-GM Rick Dudley had promised to give him an NHL shot, but those plans changed when the team was sold and relocated to Winnipeg and Kevin Cheveldayoff was named Jets general manager.

Aliu noted Cheveldayoff was a former Blackhawks assistant GM and oversaw the Rockford team when the Peters’ confrontation occurred. Aliu said he hoped to clear the air with Cheveldayoff as the Jets opened their first training camp.

”We go in his office and talk, and I go: ‘Chevy, whatever happened in Chicago happened. What can I do to prove to you that I can help your organization,”’ Aliu said. ”And he said, ‘Nothing. We don’t have any plans for you whatsoever.”’

Aliu was eventually demoted to ECHL Colorado, where a minor league equipment manager wore blackface at a Halloween party in 2011. Aliu demanded a trade, though he has since accepted the manager’s apology and requested he not be fired.

Aliu said he never told Cheveldayoff the blackface incident was the reason he wanted a trade. In a statement, the Jets said: ”We were disturbed to learn about the reprehensible situations Mr. Aliu described with the Rockford IceHogs and Colorado Eagles.”

The Jets added: ”We had no previous knowledge of these incidents prior to their public disclosure and, as such, they had no effect on any player personnel decisions involving Mr. Aliu.”

Aliu hasn’t given up on playing, even though he’s been out of hockey since scoring four goals and adding seven assists in 14 games for ECHL Orlando last season.

”I don’t think I’ve ever felt any better,” Aliu said. ”Every day I go to bed thinking, ‘Hey, I might get an opportunity here, you never know.’ Are those chances likely? I mean, I don’t know.”

His NHL career was limited to scoring two goals and an assist in seven games with the Flames, the last in the 2012-13 season. Aliu isn’t sure what happened to his dream of playing with the best players in the world.

”I’d maybe call it a nightmare in a lot of cases. There were a lot of sleepless nights. A lot of soul-searching,” he said.

”If I knew this was going to happen, I probably would have hung them up a long time ago,” Aliu said. ”But at the end of the day, I think you’re put in situations that you’re uncomfortable with. I think God only gives fights to the people that can handle the fight.

”If I can be a help to the next generation, I think it would all be worth it, to be honest.”

Marc Crawford will return to Blackhawks’ bench after suspension

Marc Crawford Suspension
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Assistant coach Marc Crawford has been away from the Chicago Blackhawks since Dec. 2 as the team investigated incidents of player abuse during his previous NHL coaching stops.

The team announced on Monday evening that Crawford will remain suspended through Jan. 2 following the investigation, and will then return to the team’s bench.

Crawford and the team both released statements. Those statements address the incidents, the investigation, the suspension, and the steps Crawford has taken.

The Blackhawks said they do not condone his previous behavior, and during their review confirmed that Crawford proactively sought counseling in an effort to improve.

He began the counseling in 2010 and has continued to go through on a regular basis.

Crawford’s statement

Crawford issued a few more in-depth statement. Here is an excerpt.

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.

I got into coaching to help people, and to think that my actions in any way caused harm to even one player fills me with tremendous regret and disappointment in myself. I used unacceptable language and conduct toward players in hopes of motivating them, and, sometimes went too far. As I deeply regret this behavior, I have worked hard over the last decade to improve both myself and my coaching style.

I have made sincere efforts to address my inappropriate conduct with the individuals involved as well as the team at large. I have regularly engaged in counseling over the last decade where I have faced how traumatic my behavior was towards others. I learned new ways of expressing and managing my emotions. I take full responsibility for my actions.

You can read the full statements via the Blackhawks’ website.

The incidents

Just before Crawford stepped away from the Blackhawks, former NHL player Sean Avery told the New York Post that Crawford had kicked him back in 2006 when they were with the Los Angeles Kings. Several other players that played under Crawford also came forward with stories, including Harold Druken, Patrick O’Sullivan, and Brent Sopel.

Druken called Crawford “hands down the worst human being I’ve ever met” for his verbal and physical abuse that included derogatory comments about Druken’s background.

O’Sullivan had also shared similar stories about Crawford’s coaching tactics.

Other incidents around the league

• The stories regarding Crawford started to resurface following Bill Peters’ exit from the Calgary Flames.

Peters resigned from the Flames after it was revealed he used a racial slur against former player Akim Aliu when he was head coach of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. That was followed by defenseman Michal Jordan detailing how Peters had punched and kicked players on the Hurricanes’ bench, a claim that was backed up by then-assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour.

•  Shortly after Mike Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, a story surfaced detailing how he made then-rookie Mitch Marner rank his teammates from hardest working to least hardest working, and then informed the players at the bottom of the list of Marner’s ranking.

• Former Red Wings forward Johan Franzen also shared his own personal experiences with Babcock, calling him the worst person he had ever met.

More: Crawford on leave from Blackhawks

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.