Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/10/2021 (204 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Gary Bettman didn’t invent the ugliest elements of hockey’s culture. He inherited the racism, the misogyny, the violence, the homophobia, the hatred of marginalized groups and the willingness to cover up sexual abuse by people in positions of power.
This week, what we have learned again is that Bettman is unable as a leader to push and prod the sport to embrace a more progressive culture and discard the traditions and destructive patterns of the past.
He demonstrated that in August 2020 in the wake of the police shooting in Wisconsin of Jacob Blake, yet another unarmed Black man, when virtually all of North American professional sport shut down but the NHL carried on with its schedule. Only a day or two later, when it was obvious that the optics were horrific, did the league cease operations for 24 hours.
That ghastly error was on Bettman and his administration.
This week, Bettman’s tone deafness to cultural change outside the world of hockey has been demonstrated once again. Along with Donald Fehr of the NHL Players’ Association and a wide variety of hockey people who once worked for the Chicago Blackhawks, the NHL’s position as a bastion of white male privilege has again been put on vivid display.
These old white men have proven yet again they don’t get it. They know one play and that is to hunker down and protect the business, the owners and what they perceive to be the “brand.” It is never to do the right thing if it comes at a cost, or to protect the vulnerable. Casting aspersions on victims and passing the buck are what they do best. Kyle Beach’s brave words in a TSN interview on Wednesday made that clear.
When the revelations tumbled out of Chicago, Bettman and his administration got it wrong early and often:
- The Blackhawks, a team that stubbornly still uses a racist cartoon of an Indigenous man as a team logo, are valued at about $1.1 billion (U.S.). Bettman fined them $2 million. A pittance. An accounting footnote.
- After Stan Bowman was forced out as Hawks general manager, attention naturally turned to other members of the Chicago organization back in 2010, notably Joel Quenneville, who was the team’s head coach, and Kevin Cheveldayoff, who worked in the hockey office. Bettman announced he would interview both men on Thursday, but allowed Quenneville to go behind the Florida Panthers bench and coach on Wednesday night.
- The league’s media arm, NHL.com, then highlighted Florida’s victory. It seemed defiant, like the league was trolling its critics.
- NHL.com then published a story with the appalling headline “Beach reveals himself as the accuser” in the Hawks scandal. Not as the victim.
The initial reflex of Bettman, a lawyer, is always to defend the interest of his clients — NHL owners — and to attack the accusers. Only on second thought does the concept of taking strong action to address wrongdoing seem to hit him. So, 24 hours after allowing Quenneville to coach a game, Bettman oversaw his removal as head coach of the Panthers on Thursday night.
But the damage was already done.
The league has mastered creating slogans to create the impression it understands a problem and is taking action, while actually doing nothing. That is the legacy of the Akim Aliu episode. Aliu blew the whistle on the racist behaviour of coach Bill Peters, Peters resigned, Bettman met with Aliu and promised action. Aliu created the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
Since then, the league has declined to work with the HDA. Rather than aggressively take action to alter the lily-white complexion of every NHL franchise, the league has done little or nothing of substance.
On Wednesday, with the Hawks/Beach story raging, Bettman sent a three-page memo to teams, according to a TSN report, that underlined the league’s commitment to “inclusion, safety and respect for all.”
Then let Quenneville coach the Panthers against Boston. Words versus action.
Understand, old white men still run this sport. Bettman is 69 years old. His right hand man, Bill Daly, is 57. Fehr is 73. Rocky Wirtz, hailed as the genius who turned Chicago’s NHL franchise around, is 69 years old. Quenneville is 63.
The Hawks tried gamely to put a younger face on their careful response to the crisis by putting 44-year-old Danny Wirtz in front of the camera. That was ultimately undercut by poorly considered comments from team captain Jonathan Toews, who essentially exonerated Bowman and another fired team executive. Toews, team captain at the time the scandal occurred, called Bowman and Al MacIsaac “good people” and repeatedly said how much he respected them. A team release, shockingly, talked about “hiring a new leadership team that is committed to winning championships.”
Sorry not sorry. Back to the business as usual. Hockey culture in a nutshell.
Bettman is the face of the league, and it’s been a tough couple of years for him. He has mishandled the Aliu file. There was the Lake Tahoe outdoor game mess last season, and the Tim Peel officiating scandal. There was a ridiculous attempt to force the Vancouver Canucks to resume games too quickly after COVID ripped through the team. Last summer, the Montreal Canadiens were allowed to make Logan Mailloux a first-round pick after he admitted sharing lewd photos of a woman without her consent and asked not to be drafted at all.
Now this. Bettman had to know all this was coming, but still was slow to react appropriately. Nonetheless, the dominos are falling. Three long-time hockey men have lost their jobs, forced out in the shadow of disgrace 11 years after their inaction exposed a young athlete to abuse. Fehr’s weak “apology” to Beach after he said he reported that abuse to the union and was ignored should be the first step in his departure.
And Bettman? The NHL, the Blackhawks and the NHLPA failed Kyle Beach. This should lead to much-needed change at the very top. This league desperately needs a clean slate.
Correction — Oct. 29, 2021: Jacob Blake was shot and seriously injured by a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer in August 2020. A previous version of this article said the shooting happened in 2019.
Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin