NHL coach abuse reckoning: Where things stand and what happens next

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Bill Peters resigned as coach of the Calgary Flames on Friday after it was revealed he used racial slurs toward one of his minor league players a decade ago. The resignation was the culmination of a tense week for the NHL, although things haven't exactly eased up. Peters isn't the only name implicated in a wide-reaching scandal that questions the prevalence of abuse from hockey coaches -- both psychological and physical.

Here is a primer on one of the biggest topics in hockey right now.

This happened 10 years ago. Why is this all coming to light now?

Kaplan: Hockey has long struggled with diversity; of the NHL's 700-plus players, only about 30 are black. The NHL has launched several sweeping initiatives to grow the game, but there have always been questions about inclusivity in the sport.

That conversation came to the forefront in early November when 85-year-old Don Cherry -- an institution in Canadian broadcasting -- was fired for calling immigrants "you people" in a television rant in which he said new immigrants are not honoring the country's fallen soldiers. Later in the month, Mike Babcock, the NHL's highest-paid coach, was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although Babcock was not alleged to have done anything racist, after his firing, stories began leaking about his treatment of players -- specifically how he used intimidation as a motivation tactic. That all led to Akim Aliu sending this tweet on Nov. 25.

It didn't take long for people to realize Aliu was talking about Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters. And that's when things really ramped up.

Who is Akim Aliu, and what has he alleged?

Kaplan: Aliu, 30, is a free agent. A second-round draft pick of the Blackhawks in 2007, Aliu played seven NHL games with the Flames in 2012-13, but has mostly played in the AHL and overseas during his career. Aliu last suited up for the ECHL's Orlando Solar Bears in 2018-19.

Aliu was born in Nigeria but raised in Ukraine and Canada. In 2009, while still a Blackhawks prospect, he was playing for the Rockford IceHogs -- Chicago's top minor league affiliate -- while Peters was the coach. Aliu was in charge of the music in the dressing room for morning skate, when Peters walked in. According to Aliu's account to TSN, Peters walked in and said: "I'm sick of hearing this n-----s f---ing other n-----s in the ass stuff."

"He then walked out like nothing ever happened," Aliu told TSN. "You could hear a pin drop in the room; everything went dead silent. I just sat down in my stall, didn't say a word."

When asked why he waited to come forward, Aliu told TSN: "This isn't me being bitter. I sat on this a really, really long time. It broke my heart, I think it made my career go downhill before it started. This isn't to the degree of [Colin] Kaepernick by any means, but if you play the race card, it's most likely the end of your career."

Peters acknowledged the incident in a letter of apology to Calgary GM Brad Treliving. Peters said the comments were made in a "moment of frustration."

"Although it was an isolated and immediately regrettable incident, I take responsibility for what I said,'' Peters wrote.

Aliu again went to Twitter to say he thought Peters' apology was "misleading, insincere and concerning."

The Flames launched an internal investigation into Peters, and he resigned four days later. Aliu met with the NHL and has hired the same law firm that represents Kaepernick.

Are Aliu's allegations the only ones against Bill Peters? What about against other NHL coaches?

Wyshynski: After Aliu's accusation, former Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan tweeted on Nov. 26 that Peters was his "worst coach ever by far" and alleged that Peters had kicked him and punched another player in the head while coaching the Hurricanes. Current Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour, an assistant under Peters, confirmed the incident happened. "Management handled it directly. We never heard of it again. Never saw anything else after that," he said.

This week, the Chicago Blackhawks put assistant coach Marc Crawford on administrative leave while the team conducts a "thorough review" of "recent allegations that have been made regarding his conduct with another organization."

Former NHL player Sean Avery told the New York Post that Crawford had kicked him during a game in the 2006-07 season, when Crawford was coaching Avery on the Los Angeles Kings. Two days later, in a Twitter video, Avery defended Crawford. "Marc Crawford had every right in the world to kick me in the ass. He should have spanked my ass a little bit more. I deserved it," Avery said. "I loved Crow. He was my second-favorite NHL coach. Fact."

Crawford was also accused of mental abuse by former NHL player Patrick O'Sullivan, who said on Twitter last week that Crawford "knew my abuse background as a child" and used that against him when both were with the Kings. Accusations made against Crawford last year by Brent Sopel, another former NHL player, resurfaced as well. "He kicked me, he choked me, he grabbed the back of my jersey and pulled me back," Sopel told Barstool Sports' "Spittin' Chiclets" podcast, though he walked those comments back a bit in a statement on Dec. 5.

Peters and Crawford have been investigated by their teams. Babcock was already out of a job when allegations surfaced regarding his mental abuse of players. The Toronto Sun reported that Babcock had then-rookie Mitch Marner rank his teammates based on work ethic, and Babcock then shared the list with the players Marner ranked lowest. Leafs management eventually compelled Babcock to apologize to Marner, and Babcock told Sportsnet, "I was trying to focus on work ethic with Mitch -- focusing on role models -- ended up not being a good idea. I apologized at [the] time."

Another story of abuse was shared by Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios, who alleged that Babcock had given former Red Wings forward Johan Franzen "a nervous breakdown" on the bench because of his verbal abuse. Franzen would tell a Swedish newspaper that he feared coming to the arena. "He attacked other players first. The nice players. Those who do not say much. When they disappeared, his energy went over to me and I got my run. It was verbal attacks. He said horrible things," Franzen said.

Babcock has yet to comment on these allegations.

Bill Peters resigned. Is that the end of the story with him?

Wyshynski: There are still a few loose threads. Treliving said after Peters' resignation that "our review, for the most part now, is done. The information will be turned over to the league. But we consider the matter closed." The NHL said on Sunday that its "review of this serious matter is ongoing" and commissioner Gary Bettman had a sit-down with Aliu and his representatives on Tuesday in Toronto.

Then there's the Ron Francis matter. Francis -- now the GM of the expansion team in Seattle -- was the general manager of the Hurricanes when Peters allegedly assaulted two players. He released a statement, through the NHL, confirming that a group of players and staffers made him aware of the "physical incidents" and adding that he took "immediate action to address the matter and briefed ownership."

That statement stands in direct contrast with what former Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos told the Seattle Times. Karmanos claimed that he first heard of the incident through Jordan's tweets, and that Peters "wouldn't have lasted five minutes with me or most of our organization" had he known about it at the time.

Francis said in his statement that he would not comment further on the matter. It's hard to believe this will be the last word on it, given that Francis will need to hire a coaching staff in Seattle.

The NHL has said that it places a high priority on diversity and inclusion. How is the league responding to this?

Wyshynski: The meeting with Aliu is the first step in what should be a more comprehensive response from the league after the board of governors meetings take place in Pebble Beach, California, on Monday and Tuesday. "We are pleased to have met with Akim Aliu and had a productive and candid conversation," Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a league statement. "[This] discussion is part of a broader, thorough review and process that the league is undertaking. We share a mutual objective: ensuring that hockey is an open and inclusive sport at all levels."

Aliu might speak at that meeting, where formal policies regarding protection for players who speak out about abusive coaches, as well as revised harassment and discrimination standards, are expected to be presented. But the primary question facing the NHL is whether it will be proactive in enforcing these policies or leave it to its teams. While the league condemned Peters in a statement, it was the Flames who took action in removing him from the bench before his resignation, for example. Whose mess is this to clean up?

OK, so what is the NHLPA's role in all of this?

Wyshynski: The NHL Players' Association supports those players who are taking to social media to make accusations. "I don't think guys are worried about the PA. The PA is there to have every player's back," former NHL player Anthony Stewart told ESPN.

The issue for the PA is that players don't always use it as a way to remedy situations. During preseason meetings and throughout the season, players are made aware that the NHLPA is a resource to which they can take their complaints. But the PA can act on only what's presented to it. It wasn't, for example, made aware of the Bill Peters incidents with the Hurricanes, which were then handled internally.

The NHLPA hasn't commented directly on any of the controversies surrounding Peters, Crawford or Babcock via its Twitter handle or website.

For their part, the NHL Coaches' Association released a statement this week saying they are committed to working with the NHL and NHLPA "to ensure respectful working environments for everyone."

We've heard that this is the tip of the iceberg. What is going to happen next?

Kaplan: According to some, we're about to see a reckoning in hockey. Former NHL forward Daniel Carcillo has been known as a league whistleblower in the past. Carcillo tweeted that he "personally witnessed" abuse from Darryl Sutter, his coach with the Los Angeles Kings during the 2013-14 season. Carcillo put out a call to action on Twitter last week, essentially telling players, "If you have something you want to get off your chest, DM me with your stories." Carcillo told ESPN that he received more than 300 messages in five days.

"Most of the things center around the rookie parties," Carcillo said. "Physical and verbal abuse, and there is some sexual abuse. There are a lot of mental health complications that have been derived from this."

Those actions span all levels -- including the NHL -- though Carcillo said many incidents involve junior teams. Carcillo is hoping some of the players who shared their stories privately will come forward. "This is the exact same thing as the Catholic church, because there is a systematic cover-up," Carcillo said. "Now you have Don Cherry, who tumbled, he's like the pope. Then you have Mike Babcock, who is like a bishop. Then all of the sudden, people are like, 'Holy s---, I can actually enact change if I say something? I'm going to say something now. I'm going to take my power back now.' And that's what it is. My whole campaign is waking former guys up, and waking current guys up, and letting them know that how they're being treated isn't even close to being right."

We're seeing a trickle down to lower levels. Just this week, the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League fired their head athletic trainer and equipment manager, Jamie LeBlanc, "following revelations of recent pattern of demeaning and derogatory comments, threatening behavior and unprofessional conduct."

However, many in the NHL believe that Peters is an isolated incident -- or that generally, the league is in a pretty good place.

"I played with Akim Aliu, I played with him in Calgary for a bit," Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester told ESPN. "You feel bad for the guy, I don't know what it's like to be in that position. But I've also played on teams with guys from all different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, and I know the hockey dressing room is generally a pretty safe space."

"I know there are some people saying, this is going to reach a point where things change," said Bouwmeester, who has been in the NHL since 2002. "But I don't think it's going to be catastrophic, and I don't think there is a need for huge changes because I think that is a pretty isolated incident from 10 years ago, and from that time. Things have changed. That's life. From a general standpoint on culture, it's evolved a lot in my career. I started in '02. Even at that point, it was probably a lot tamer than it has been in years past. The world is just a more transparent place now. Anybody can air their frustrations or problems on their Twitter or whatever -- whether that's a good thing or bad thing, it does keep things moving along."

Added Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher: "I started working full time around the NHL in 1991, and I've been around the game since the early '70s with my dad. The game has changed; so has coaching. I don't think there is a place in the game -- nor has there ever been -- for bullying behavior or for racist behavior. I certainly would say coaching styles have probably changed a little bit in terms of how demanding you are on the players, but I have to say in all my years I can't recall a situation where I have been made aware of a situation of abuse of conduct by a coach."