Measures against abuse are necessary, but I'll miss ‘old-time hockey’
Akim Aliu triggered the NHL’s efforts to eliminate abusive language and behavior when he revealed that his former coach, Bill Peters, called him the n-word when both were with the Rockford Ice Hogs.
As an African American who played hockey and who has covered and written about the game at all levels for more than 30 years, I find the NHL’s efforts to eliminate abusive language and behavior is an especially good thing.
But even I mourn another nail in the coffin of “old-time hockey,” that free-wheeling style of play and behavior that made professional hockey more exciting than any other major sport.
The revelations that former Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters used the n-word to Akim Aliu, a player of color, 10 years ago when both were with the Rockford Ice Hogs and that he kicked and punched players as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes have rocked the NHL and put the spotlight on how coaches and team officials treat players.
Peters, who was a Red Wings assistant coach under Mike Babcock a few years ago, recently resigned as Calgary’s coach.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has announced that a whistleblower platform – probably a phone hotline – will be created to allow current and past team personnel to report abusive behavior and language and that all league team personnel will be required to take diversity and inclusiveness training.
That’s extremely good news for players of color.
Black hockey players are not as rare these days as many people. At any given time, some 20-30 players of color are active in the league. That’s certainly not a lot out of more than 700 players, but it’s comparable to the number of Russian or Finnish players in the NHL at any point during the season.
The Red Wings currently have three players of color, all Canadians, in their system – Trevor Daley and Madison Bowey with the team and Givani Smith with Grand Rapids.
And as the New Jersey Devils’ Wayne Simmonds, an African Canadian from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, pointed out recently to Canadian sports network TSN, each of those players of color has been “called a racial slur at some point in their career, whether it's been younger or older."
I can confirm that. I was the subject of a variety of slurs as a teenager while playing hockey out of Redford Township in rinks all over the suburbs in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Heck, one year as – of course – the only black player on a team, the coach nicknamed me “Chocolate Chip.” It didn’t bother me. In fact, it was something my teammates and I laughed about it, an attitude that actually helped to break some of the tension.
Aliu, who played briefly in the NHL with the Calgary Flames who is now a free agent, said the reason he kept quiet about Peters’ comments so long was that, as a 20-year old just starting his career, he did not want to make waves and cause trouble with his coach, who had so much control over his career at that point.
As New Jersey’s Simmonds pointed out, racial slurs are “something people don't like to talk about because it makes them uncomfortable. In light of this coming out, hopefully this can do some good for the hockey community and shed some light on it."
Yes, the NHL has long been evolving from the rowdy images of “old-time hockey” presented by the 1977 movie “Slap Shot,” and this could be a watershed event for the sport.
But that style of hockey was not all bad.
Since I became an NHL and hockey fan at the age of 9, the “outlaw” and “wild, wild West” nature of the game was among the things I’ve always like about it.
Take, for instance, the legacy of mistreating the Stanley Cup, the sport’s most coveted trophy. It’s been left by the side of the road and in Mario Lemieux’s swimming pool. It has substituted as a diaper for babies. It was damaged by Washington Capitals players doing keg stands on it in 2018, just to name a few things.
I guarantee you that no other trophy in professional sports has endured such treatment.
Then there’s the audacity of the sport’s front office members. I remember an incident involving the Red Wings in the late 1970s that could only happen in hockey. Early in a game, then-GM Ted Lindsay disagreed with a call or lack thereof by the referee. So, during the following intermission, he went down to the officials’ room to express his displeasure.
Did he get fined? Nope. Was he ejected from the arena? Nope. At the beginning of the next period, a Detroit player simply served a two-minute minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. And, on the resulting power play, the opposing team scored what proved to be the game-winning goal.
But what had the biggest impact on me was the fighting. In any other sport, if you got into a fight with an opponent, you would be kicked out of the game and probably suspended.
But not in hockey. You simply dropped your gloves, went at it with your opponent and then were separated by the linesmen. After five minutes in the penalty box, the “sin bin” where players served their penalties, you were back on the ice.
That blew my mind as a child.
But I also realized that, even if another player called me one of THOSE names, I didn’t have to take it. I could do something about it right then and there without being ejected or suspended.
When I played, though, I never fought when called a racial slur. I usually responded by simply calling that player the first slur for a Caucasian I could think of.
These days, there is far less fighting in the NHL. The league has long discouraged it. And the combination of what we now know about how repeated blows to the head damage the brain as well as the skill and skating ability necessary to play today’s NHL game has made the value of fighting negligible.
Yes, “old-time hockey” was wild, unpredictable and, on many occasions, fun.
But it was not always fun for everybody.
And it should be.