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‘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.

Bettman explains how NHL will handle abuse, other actions that ‘cross the line’

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The NHL’s Board of Governors meetings are taking place this week, so this served as an opportunity for the league to address issues of abuse, including Bill Peters’ racists remarks made toward Akim Aliu, which factored in the Calgary Flames parting ways with Peters.

” … The world is changing for the better,” Gary Bettman’s statement read. ” … Our message is unequivocal: We will not tolerate abusive behavior of any kind.”

You can read the entire (lengthy) statement at the bottom of this post, but here are some of the key points.

  • Bettman claims that the Peters situation took the NHL by “complete surprise.”

“There will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us and in the event of such failure, the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline,” Bettman said in the statement.

  • Bettman laid out the early details on “a mandatory annual program on counseling, consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion” that would involve all head coaches and minor league coaches under contracts with NHL teams, along with other front office members (GMs, assistant GMs, and assistant coaches). Bettman said that the program will be created by “outside professionals” and that the NHLPA and the coaches’ association would likely have input.
  • Bettman explained that the league hopes to create a platform (“perhaps a hotline”) for “a teammate, trainer, or even the player himself” to report incidents, “either anonymously or for attribution.”

When asked, Bettman clarified that there would be anonymity for “whistleblowers.”

Bettman also told reporters that investigations regarding Marc Crawford continue to be ongoing.

Considering that the “outside professionals” involved in a hotline weren’t named, and other details were outlined broadly, it sounds like quite a bit of these initiatives could be considered a work in progress.

Here’s the full statement from Bettman:

As one of the preeminent professional sports leagues in the world and the preeminent hockey league in the world, we recognize and embrace our role in setting an example.

We are now obviously aware of conduct that was and is unacceptable. Whether it happened 10 years ago or last week, the answer must be the same – it is unacceptable.

While we may not have known, the fact is that we as a League – on behalf of ourselves, our teams, and our players, coaches, organizations and fans – must respond in a clear, meaningful and appropriate manner. Professionalism and respect have always been important to the League, but it is now a particularly important time to discuss it because everyone is entitled to a respectful workplace.

The world is changing for the better. 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. And even while change is taking effect, we still must acknowledge things that were wrong in the past. That acknowledgment allows those who were wronged to be heard, and it gives all of us an opportunity to prevent these things from happening again.

Inclusion and diversity are not simply buzzwords, they are foundational principles for the NHL. It’s why we initiated the Declaration of Principles and why we invest so much time and effort, along with so many resources into our Learn to Play and Hockey is For Everyone programs. Our message is unequivocal: We will not tolerate abusive behavior of any kind.

So, let me now address how we move forward.

I’d like to convey to you exactly what was said to the Board of Governors during our meeting.

1. We don’t like surprises – the Bill Peters situation was a complete surprise.

Going forward, our clubs are on notice that if they become aware of an incident of conduct involving NHL personnel on or off the ice that is clearly inappropriate, unlawful or demonstrably abusive, or that may violate the League’s policies, involving NHL Club personnel, on or off the ice, we at the League office – Bill Daly or me – must be immediately advised. There will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us and in the event of such failure, the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline.

As it relates to incidents involving Bill Peters in Carolina – there seems to be some confusion between statements by Peter Karmanos and Ron Francis, which I still need to sort out. However, I am fairly clear that none of this has anything to do with Carolina under Tom Dundon, who was among the first to call me when Peters’ conduct came to light and he first learned about the Peters physical abuse allegations in Carolina.

2. While I do not believe most NHL coaches conduct themselves in an inappropriate manner – in fact, I believe most NHL coaches are professional and respectful in the way they coach and the profession is not deserving of blanket condemnation because of the conduct of some individuals – however in order to expedite a change in culture and make clear the expectations we have for the conduct of coaches and other personnel, we will formulate a mandatory annual program on counseling, consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion.

This program will be required for all Head Coaches, Minor League Coaches under contract with NHL teams, Assistant Coaches, General Managers and Assistant General Managers. We will focus the programming on training and other exercises and initiatives to ensure respectful locker rooms, training facilities, games, and all other hockey-related activities; and teach to ensure bystander intervention techniques, anti-harassment, anti-hazing, non-retaliation and anti-bullying best practices.

The exact structure of the program will be created by outside professionals in the field and we will consult with the Players’ Association and the Coaches’ Association in the program’s creation. We will also discuss with the Players’ Association the extent to which this program or another customized program should be presented to the players. Also, under the direction of NHL Executive Vice President Kim Davis, we will form a multidisciplinary council to suggest initiatives, monitor progress and coordinate efforts with all levels of hockey. The council will also make resources available to help any organization that might reach out for assistance.

3. Inappropriate conduct engaged in by club personnel will be disciplined, either by the team, the League or both. While discipline as always must be on a case-by-case basis – it is my intention that it must be severe and appropriate and designed to remedy the situation and ensure that the conduct does not occur again.

4. In that light, the passage of time is not the most effective way to address these situations. Accordingly, we will create a platform – perhaps a hotline – where instances of inappropriate conduct connected to the NHL can be reported either anonymously or for attribution for us to follow up. It can be any team personnel such as a teammate, trainer, or even the player himself. In this regard, we understand the critical importance of ensuring that no one is retaliated against for raising a concern or participating in an investigation – again either anonymously or for attribution – and I guarantee we will take all reports seriously and follow up. My expectation is that this hotline can function like our SABH hotline, which has been credible and effective.

A couple of closing points:

Not everyone will approve of every coach’s methods. However, there are lines that cannot be crossed – clearly physical abuse and racial and homophobic language cross the line. And while we acknowledge that there may be other actions that could cross the line or fall in a gray area, we hope the program we create, and its attendant consciousness-raising will help better define what is and what is not acceptable conduct and will make for a better playing and coaching environment. Over time, we have been able to change the culture of our game as it relates to substance abuse and player safety. And while we have taken many important steps forward on diversity and inclusiveness, as well as respect and professionalism in hockey, we intend to do more and faster.

Calgary’s response initially to Akim Aliu’s allegations and then the Carolina issue, was timely, professional and appropriate. While none of Bill Peters’ inappropriate conduct occurred on the Flames’ watch, they undertook the important effort to try to understand what happened 10 years ago and thereafter. Once Calgary could satisfy itself as to what transpired, they achieved an appropriate result and I commend the Calgary organization and in particular, Brad Treliving, for their efforts and cooperation. I think it is pretty fair to say that from now on when a Club is hiring a coach, the due diligence a team conducts will go to levels never seen before. And, that is a good thing.

Finally, Bill Daly and I had a constructive meeting last week with Akim Aliu and his lawyers. We heard what they had to say, have initiated our own review and will ultimately determine how we believe most appropriate to proceed.

Marc Crawford on leave from Blackhawks following Sean Avery’s allegations

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The Chicago Blackhawks announced that assistant coach Marc Crawford “will be away from the team” while they investigate “recent allegations that have been made regarding his conduct with another organization.”

To cut through the legalese that’s becoming common as stories of abuse have surfaced (or resurfaced) over the past few weeks, the Blackhawks are referring to Sean Avery’s claims that Crawford kicked him during a Dec. 23, 2006 game stemming from their time with the Los Angeles Kings.

Avery’s details were pretty vivid to the New York Post’s Larry Brooks.

Avery explained that he messed up a drill during a practice, and his errant puck caught Crawford on the head, forcing Crawford to get stitches. Brooks asked Avery if Crawford then kicked Avery because of the mistake during the drill, but Avery said that it was because of a penalty:

“No, he kicked me after a too-many-men-on-the-ice call I took,” Avery said. “He didn’t have me serve it, we got scored on, and he let me have it.”

“You know how I stand at the end of the bench? He came down and gave me an ass kick that left a mark.”

If you’re familiar with Avery’s career as a profound pest, you’d probably not be too surprised that he believes that the rump-kicking wasn’t what got Avery traded out of town. Instead, Avery stated that he nearly got in a scuffle with an assistant named Mark Hardy.

(The candidness is really worth a read.)

Anyway, Avery’s claims surfaced from Brooks on Nov. 30, and the Blackhawks made this move on Monday (Dec. 2).

Here are the two tweets, again heavy on careful wording:

Allegations surfacing from around the NHL, and hockey world in general

To recap, reports of Mike Babcock asking Mitch Marner to put together a list of the Maple Leafs’ most and least hard-working young players inspired others to share their own experiences.

Akim Aliu spoke up about racist remarks made by Bill Peters about a decade ago, when the two were part of a Blackhawks affiliate team, the Rockford IceHogs. Following Aliu’s tweets, Michal Jordan also accused Peters of being physically abusive during their time with the Carolina Hurricanes (claims that were backed up by others, including Rod Brind’Amour). The Flames eventually parted ways with Peters after he offered a carefully worded statement, a statement that was criticized by many, Aliu included.

There’s been a back-and-forth between former Hurricanes owner Peter Karamanos and former Hurricanes GM Ron Francis stemming from how allegations of Peters’ abuse was handled.

Additional details regarding Babcock’s treatment of players have also come about, including troubling details about how Babcock allegedly treated Johan Franzen, both from Franzen and from Chris Chelios.

Former NHL player Daniel Carcillo has also gone into (sometimes graphic) detail about allegations of abuse in the hockey world.

Crawford, then, is another person in a position of power who is being accused of abusive behavior.

***

Will this series of accusations (which isn’t comprehensive, and may just be the beginning) result in big changes for the culture around the sport, overall?

Some, such as The Athletic’s Eric Duhatschek, believe that this is the start of a “reckoning.” Others, including Jashvina Shah for The Globe & Mail, believe that hockey culture will never change.

Whatever the larger impact might or might not be, we know that Peters is out as Flames head coach, and Crawford is at least on temporary leave from the Blackhawks.

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.

NHL coaching news: Blackhawks add Crawford; Quenneville finalizes Panthers’ staff

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The Florida Panthers and Chicago Blackhawks made some noteworthy additions to their coaching staffs on Tuesday, finalizing both of their staffs for the 2019-20 season.

Let’s take a quick look at the hirings.

Blackhawks add Marc Crawford

Let’s start with the Blackhawks where the team announced that Marc Crawford was added as an assistant to serve under coach Jeremy Colliton, joining a staff that already had Sheldon Brookbank, Tomas Mitell (assistants) and Jimmy Waite (goaltending coach).

Before joining the Blackhawks, Crawford had been a part of the Ottawa Senators’ coaching staff since the 2016 season when he was hired as an associated head coach under Guy Boucher. When the Senators fired Boucher late in the 2018-19 season they made Crawford the interim coach to finish the season where he compiled a 7-10-1 record.

Marc’s son, Dylan Crawford, is an assistant video coach with the Blackhawks.

“Jeremy has an extremely bright and innovative mind and I am totally impressed by his presence and enthusiasm,” Crawford said in a statement released by the team.

“I know we will have a terrific relationship and my experience should benefit the entire coaching staff.”

Crawford definitely has plenty of experience having been a head coach for parts of 16 seasons in the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles, Dallas Stars, and Senators. He has compiled a 556-431-182 record in the league and won a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche during the 1995-96 season. Despite that strong record and championship his teams missed the playoffs in each of the past five full seasons he was a head coach (with Los Angeles and Dallas).

The Blackhawks hired Colliton as their head coach early in the 2018-19 season after firing Joel Quenneville. They went 30-28-9 after the change.

Speaking of Quenneville…

Panthers finalize Quenneville’s coaching staff

After making Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach, one of the highlights of their offseason the Panthers finalized his coaching staff on Tuesday with the hiring of Mike Kitchen, Andrew Brunnette, and Derek MacKenzie as assistants.

Robb Tallas will also return as the team’s goaltending coach.

Kitchen is a long-time NHL assistant, while Brunnette spent several years working for the Minnesota Wild organization following the conclusion of his playing career.

MacKenzie spent the past five seasons as a player for the Panthers (he was limited to just one game this past season) and served as the team’s captain during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.

“We have assembled a talented coaching staff with unique perspectives and a wealth of hockey experience,” said Quenneville in a team statement.

“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with a proven coach and a quality person like Mike Kitchen again, as well as Andrew Brunette who is a bright, young, hockey mind who I coached as a player. It’s exciting to welcome former Panthers captain Derek MacKenzieto our staff as he enters the NHL coaching ranks following a great playing career. Together with longtime goaltending coach Robb Tallas, we are motivated by the task ahead of us. Our staff is eager to begin working towards our goal of bringing playoff hockey back to South Florida.”

The Panthers have a strong core of talent in place and are looking to rebound from a disappointing season and snap their current three-year playoff drought.

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.