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Ending hockey culture’s embedded racism starts with those in power

Akim Aliu’s shocking revelation about former Calgary Flames Head Coach Bill Peters has consumed the hockey world, but will it change anything?

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Calgary Flames v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

When Mike Babcock woke up on the morning of November 20th, he may have had some idea that his job as head coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs was in jeopardy. He may have even expected the news that he was being relieved of his duties to come at any moment.

Nobody likes walking around with an axe above their head, but the fact remains that if you are going to coach the NHL’s most visible, most scrutinized franchise, an underwhelming season is going to cause some grumbling in the outside world. A six-game losing streak in the middle of November of your fourth year is a great way to throw gasoline on that fire. Mike Babcock may be many things. What he is not, is an idiot. However, even if he did expect there to be some serious consideration given to the long-term viability of his tenure as head coach. What he surely wasn’t expecting, was what would come after.

Shortly after he was fired, stories began to circle about why one of the sport’s most lauded coaches, a Stanley Cup and two-time Olympic gold medal winner who had amassed 700 wins for three separate organizations, was seemingly out of his depth trying to coach one of the most offensively talented teams in the league. Sure, he was getting older, but at 56 years old he was still in the prime (if such a thing exists) of his coaching years.

Hell, he’s still younger than Barry Trotz, Joel Quenville, and Bruce Boudreau, none of whom seemed to be plagued by the same types of narratives that had begun to creep up. Say what you want about his defensive inclinations, but this wasn’t a case of someone like Randy Carlyle inexplicably being given another opportunity to coach. Babcock was coming off of three consecutive 40-win seasons and had only ever finished below 40 wins four times in 16 full seasons as a head coach. They say nature abhors a vacuum, and in this instance that vacuum was the reason why one of the most celebrated coaches of the last 20 years had failed so spectacularly.

One such story that came out was about how Babcock had privately asked a rookie (who would later be confirmed as Mitch Marner) to rank veteran players based on how he viewed their work ethic. Not wanting to displease or offend his head coach, the 19-year-old forward gave his answer, only to have Babcock then repeat that list later on to all of the veterans letting them know what Marner had said of them. Babcock would later claim this was a failed attempt to help the young forward in following good examples and choosing the right role models within the organization. In light of this story, the hockey media and larger community began to debate about whether or not this was an acceptable practice for a coach to use. And if not, to what degree. Responses ranged from bewilderment to a form of emotional abuse to publicly embarrass a rookie player in front of his peers and veterans, many of whom he had little to no prior relationship with.

In the middle of this debate, former Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames prospect Akim Aliu sent out a series of tweets regarding his thoughts on these most recent revelations about Babcock’s tactics.

Although Aliu didn’t mention the coach by name, it was quickly confirmed that the coach involved was in fact Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters.

Shortly after it was confirmed to be Peters, questions naturally began to arise as to whether or not he would face any consequences in his capacity as the head coach for an entirely separate organization. People began to question if the allegations were even true to begin with, or if this was just one disgruntled ex-player bringing up one instance from ten years ago.

The next day TSN’s Frank Seravalli released an article in which he spoke directly to Aliu about his allegations. Aliu was clear and concise about what it was that had happened in the Rockford locker room. His story included a note that two players that were also on that team “independently corroborated Aliu’s account” of what had happened. This was hockey’s biggest story now. This dwarfed the firing of the head coach of the only team in the sport’s biggest market. Everyone in hockey media was absolutely outraged that this could happen in their sport. This was The Story™ now and for the near future. This was the biggest story in the sport since … two weeks ago?

On November 12th, longtime TV personality Don Cherry was fired for a rambling, racist rant he had unleashed the previous Saturday that painted immigrants as greedy and unpatriotic. His remarks were poorly masked by a disingenuous discussion about respecting veterans with Remembrance Day coming up. The hockey media and community were absolutely shocked that someone with a recorded history of misogyny and xenophobia could ever say such a thing. And on hockey’s biggest stage no less, on Hockey Night in Canada.

Bill Peters released an apology in the form of a letter to Calgary General Manager, Brad Treliving Wednesday evening. In that apology, he said that his comments “were not directed at anyone in particular”. Aside from the fact that this was as close as he ever got to acknowledging the victim of those slurs, Akim Aliu, the statement was also an outright lie. We know this because Aliu’s story was corroborated by two separate teammates who were in the locker room when the incident occurred.

With the corroboration, it became crystal clear that Peter’s tirade was directed at Aliu and the music he was playing. Aliu’s recount of the incident cites Peters addressing him individually before then attacking his music choices:

“Hey, Akim, I’m sick of you playing that n----- shit”.

Ryan Clark of The Athletic, wrote a very powerful piece about why these words matter; why they cannot and should not be dismissed out of hand:

Calling a black person or referring to anything they do with the word “n****” comes with what should be a known gravity that has existed for hundreds of years. Even typing that word for public consumption to illustrate a point comes with a consequence. This is not like saying someone is a jerk or prick or flicking off somebody in traffic.

That word is an insult that immediately reduces whomever is on the other side of it. For some, it is the thought of their ancestors being herded like cattle off of a slave ship or working in the plantations or still living in the shadow of Jim Crow. It is the instant reminder that you are being viewed as less than. Almost like you’re three-fifths of a human being. That no matter what you do as a person, there are people out there who only see you as that word and nothing more.

These words have a living memory, and to try and dismiss or obfuscate that memory, that history, is in and of itself an act of violence against its victims.

Peters expects any reasonable person to assume that after directly addressing a single individual, who it would seem just coincidentally happened to be black, that he then changed the subject of the remaining statement to not be about “anyone in particular”.

For a minute, let’s entertain the premise of the statement and the conditions in which it would have to happen for Peters’ explanation to hold some merit. If there were not, in fact, any black players in the room, a situation altogether too common in the sport and not in any way implausible, then are his comments no longer racist or malicious? If, for example, Peters had said “Hey, Braydyn, I’m sick of hearing this n-----s f------ other n-----s in the ass stuff”, would his comments be regrettable but ultimately harmless?

No, they absolutely would not be. Ignoring the flourish of homophobia he sprinkled in for good measure, his comments would still be racist, vile, hurtful, and completely unacceptable.

However, there would have been another consequence as well.

They would have never gone public.

If Aliu had never sent those tweets in the aftermath of Babcock’s firing, the hockey community at large, as well as the general public since this story has rightly gone beyond the boundaries of the hockey world, would never have known that Bill Peters had made those remarks. Which means that he never would have been forced to face the consequences of his despicable behavior.

Once again, as it so often does, the responsibility to stand up to racism has fallen on the shoulders of its victims. Perhaps even more alarmingly, it has bypassed the people who hold all the power to directly make the necessary changes required to make hockey a sport for the best players in the world regardless of race or background.

Now, it should be noted here that according to Aliu, Rockford captain Jake Dowell later confronted Peters privately in the coach’s office, causing Peters to call Aliu in afterwards and double down on his criticism of the player’s music choices. Except this time, he wasn’t yelling, and it wasn’t in front of the entire team. It’s hard to know what Peters thought would come of such a meeting. Peters has claimed to have “regretted the incident since it happened”, although it is hard to accept him at his word. Again, he never mentions Akim Aliu by name at any point in the letter.

And still, regardless of any regret he may or may not have over his actions that day, the fact remains he would never have had to face any actual consequences for his racist tirade if Aliu had not sent out those tweets. Dowell deserves a measure of appreciation and respect for his actions in confronting his head coach, but they seem to have had little to no effect on Peters or help alleviate the hostile environment in which Aliu was forced to work. Thanks to Aliu finally feeling empowered enough by the discussion surrounding Babcock’s firing to be able to come forward with this story, the hockey community is being forced to grapple with the racism that exists within itself.

Many people will note that most of the people in that room, and in the hockey community at large, are not racists or homophobes; that very well may be true. But that fact did nothing at all to stop Peters from shouting racial slurs at a 20-year-old with absolutely no mechanism with which to defend himself. Even if literally every single person in the hockey world besides Bill Peters doesn’t harbor those views, it’s clear that an environment was created to allow this type of thing to happen.

So, what value does the majority not being racist really hold? What good does it do the victims of the past, present, and future if hockey’s self-professed “good guys” don’t stand up and hold their lesser colleagues accountable for their actions? The answer is none. It does absolutely no one any good at all.

No, for real change to occur in the hockey community (and in the world at large for that matter), then people who aren’t victims need to come forward and make the actions of other offenders known and see that they are held accountable. Martin Luther King Jr. said that perhaps the greatest impediment to change and progress in matters of race and race relations, is the White Moderate. The people who know better, but, whether out of a fear of retribution or an affinity for minimal comforts, refuse to speak out against their peers.

Once again, we are given a prime example of how change cannot occur without purpose, focus, and a commitment from those who are not directly affected. The sport of hockey is a cultural institution in more ways than one. By their very nature, cultural institutions are resistant to change. Simple things can very quickly become cemented into their makeup if they are not addressed and corrected in a timely manner. If things such as racist behavior or language are ignored, then they can come to be seen as tolerated by both the offenders and the offended.

A lot of people have been quick to talk about how damning an allegation calling someone a racist can be. How we need to be careful about what we say and who we accuse and of what. How it can affect their careers down the line. Clearly that isn’t the case. In fact, most often, it is the victim, and not the perpetrator, that see their long-term future affected by the racism they are forced to endure in professional environments.

The idea that calling someone a racist is equally, if not more, damaging than the harm they are being accused of is a cancer that has eaten at the heart of this discussion. In hockey, and in everywhere else. As the venerable Bomani Jones has said, if people cared as much about addressing racism as they did about being called racists we might actually get somewhere.

Hockey culture, or rather the lore and mysticism around hockey culture, loves to proclaim that the good character and strong moral compass inherit in the sport is among its greatest traits. How many times have we heard, for good and bad, about the morality involved in sticking up for other guys on the ice? For defending your teammates. For the brotherhood and camaraderie that is so vital to success in the sport. The right guys, not just the best guys. The strong sense of right and wrong. Where has that been while all this has been going on behind the scenes for ages?

Part of that answer is in the power dynamics that have to be acknowledged here. Players are reticent to speak out against coaches or management when they can so easily be replaced. They have little to no say over their futures in terms of the opportunities they are given. Or in the opportunities that are withheld from them. The potential for professional abuse one might have to endure for speaking out against a coach or manager cannot be dismissed. It’s hard to ask a room full of 20-year-olds with everything to lose to be better than the 40 and 50-year-old men in the room who have all the power in these spaces, and in the community at large.

The truth of the matter is that they aren’t the only ones who see or hear about this kind of stuff. There are assistant coaches, arena staff, training staff, organizational staff, reporters, and older, more established players. Anyone who sees this kind of behavior has the ability and the opportunity to speak up.

But most importantly, they also have the responsibility.

It is possible to talk about things you have seen without forcing victims to go public, because the truth is, if you saw it then someone else probably did too. And it’s highly likely this wasn’t an isolated incident. One person having the strength and courage to come forward can embolden other individuals to come forward as well. It’s infuriatingly simple to dismiss a single individual that can be written off as jilted or vengeful. It’s a lot harder to do so when more than one person comes forward, especially when those people themselves weren’t the victims.

Players like Simon Pepin and Peter MacArthur, 21 and 24 at the time of the incident respectively, should be applauded for coming forward now and supporting an ex-teammate during what must be an incredibly difficult time. Imagine how much better off we would all be if either they or Dowell had felt comfortable coming forward with this story 10 years ago. Maybe Aliu plays more than seven games in the NHL, maybe he doesn’t. After all, he had already earned a reputation as a difficult and rebellious player when he refused to take part in a hazing incident in the OHL. Either way, the hockey world would be a lot better off having had this conversation 10 years ago. Or 10 years before that. Or 10 years before that…

And yet, the reality remains that we are having this conversation now. To hem and haw about what is or isn’t the responsibility of the hockey community in dealing with this issue. To wander aimlessly down a path to nowhere arguing over whether or not someone can and should be fired for comments they made a decade ago (the answers are yes and probably, by the way) in some sort of bad faith argument over the meaning of “justice”. This is a disservice to the countless victims who have been subjected to hockey culture’s latent racism. To spend more time opining for the halcyon days of yesteryear in which “boys could be boys” and “hockey was devoid of politics” is to commit a willful malfeasance that does nothing to address the issue at hand.

Maybe things would be different now if we had heard this story 10 years ago. If we had taken the opportunity then to invest the time and effort needed to addressing issues of systemic racism within the hockey community, maybe then players like Aliu, Simmons, Subban, or Smith-Pelly would not have been forced to endure such cruel and demeaning attacks during their careers.

Unfortunately, we can’t go back and undo the misdeeds of the past, or soothe the wounds that still linger with those who were affected. What we can do, however, is deal with these things now. To seize this opportunity in front of us, and begin to create and foster the diverse and inclusive hockey community that so many of us want. We can make sure that hockey really is for everyone. We just have to want to.