Opinion

Shame on the Arizona Coyotes. Shame on the NHL. And shame on those of us who believed the sport was truly taking matters such as diversity and racial inclusion seriously.

All of the pledges and gestures on display during the return-to-play protocols inside the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles were rendered rather meaningless the second Mitchell Miller was picked 111th overall in the NHL draft earlier this month. And we're once again reminded how common sense is often thrown out the window when someone can skate real fast or shoot a puck real hard — especially if they happen to be Caucasian.

Like most of you, I'd never heard of Miller until this week. But what we now know is horrific. The 18-year-old defenceman from Ohio was convicted four years ago of what was essentially a hate crime. A juvenile court heard how Miller repeatedly taunted a developmentally disabled African-American junior high classmate, using vile slurs and tricking him into licking a sucker that he'd smeared around a dirty bathroom urinal.

The victim, who also had his head smashed against a wall by Miller, had to be tested for HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases. And while Miller apologized for his conduct to all 31 NHL teams in a self-serving letter sent prior to the draft that was intended to undo some of the damage he'd caused, he couldn't be bothered to say anything personally to the poor kid whose life he made a living hell.

Mitchell Miller admitted in court to bullying a Black developmentally disabled classmate in Ohio. (Codie McLachlan / The Canadian Press files)

Mitchell Miller admitted in court to bullying a Black developmentally disabled classmate in Ohio. (Codie McLachlan / The Canadian Press files)

The only acknowledgement was a flimsy, forced "I'm sorry" letter a judge made him write as part of his sentence, along with 25 hours of community service he received for the misdemeanour. According to the victim and his family, Miller doubled down on his conduct just two years ago, verbally intimidating the boy during a chance meeting on the street.

And now? He's one step closer to his professional dream, made possible by a list of enablers a mile long that go beyond the most recent culprits who were willing to turn a blind eye to a past he has basically taken no ownership of. That list includes: USA Hockey, which allowed him to participate on multiple national teams; the USHL, where he spent the past two seasons; and the University of North Dakota, which recruited him and gave him a scholarship to play this coming season.

"Y’all read this and tell me hockey doesn’t have major problems. No one else will say it but I will. A Black, or player of colour would NEVER get a pass or be forgiven for something like this. EVER!" former NHLer Akim Aliu, a founding member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, wrote on Twitter this week.

Aliu, a victim of racism at the hands of former coach Bill Peters, is bang on. Playing pro hockey for a living is a privilege, not a right. And Miller's heinous conduct goes far beyond the typical stupidity of an immature teenager, regardless of what he may have experienced in his own upbringing. That said, his case does raise some prickly ethical issues, especially considering he was a youth at the time and those records would otherwise be sealed from any reporting if he was Canadian.

Should that alone entitle him the opportunity to pursue his chosen career? I'd have a lot easier time seeing that point of view if he'd shown one ounce of genuine remorse.

Akim Aliu, a founding member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, says a Black player would never get away with what Miller did. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press files)

Akim Aliu, a founding member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, says a Black player would never get away with what Miller did. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press files)

It would be one thing if Miller, his new team and the league had all gotten in front of this, admitted to wrongdoing, taken tangible steps to right his many wrongs and put together a real commitment to change and a comprehensive plan towards rehabilitation. But none of that happened. This was all a dirty little secret within the hockey world, one everyone likely thought would remain that way until the Arizona Republic broke the story earlier this week by speaking with the victim and his family.

"Everyone thinks he's so cool that he gets to go to the NHL, but I don't see how someone can be cool when you pick on someone and bully someone your entire life," the now 18-year-old boy told the paper.

Now that it's out in the open and the Coyotes and NHL are in full-blown damage control mode, a plan of action is reportedly being put together. Too little, too late. And just more lip service. The fact this involves an organization that just openly patted itself on the back last month after their president and CEO, Xavier Gutierrez, was named to a new NHL committee tasked with fighting racism in the sport is even more obscene.

Also obscene is the fact scouting reports suggest it was Miller's lack of size that caused him to slide down to the fourth round in the draft, rather than his ugly background. Not that we should be surprised.

I'm sure there were some teams that would not have gone anywhere near this kid, including the Winnipeg Jets. Say what you want about the organization, but they've always made it clear character counts for something. They've drafted four scholastic players of the year from the junior ranks, including recent 10th-overall selection Cole Perfetti.

Not so for Arizona, which had forfeited an earlier draft pick after getting caught cheating when it came to the league's combine testing policy. Gutierrez released a laughable statement in which he claimed selecting Mitchell with their first pick of the draft would allow them to "put in the time, effort, and energy and provide him with the necessary resources and platform to confront bullying and racism. This isn’t a story about excuses or justifications. It’s a story about reflection, growth, and community impact."

Is anyone really surprised by this? (David Zalubowski / The Associated Press files)

Is anyone really surprised by this? (David Zalubowski / The Associated Press files)

Hey, whatever helps you sleep at night, I guess.

If nothing else, Miller should have gone undrafted, which would not have ended his hockey ambitions. But it would have sent a strong message that some sins won't be easily forgotten, or forgiven, and that any possible road to redemption will be a long one.

The same thing happened a couple years ago to star college pitcher Luke Heimlich, who was bypassed in the MLB draft after he was convicted as a youth of sexually molesting his six-year-old niece. As I wrote last year, the Winnipeg Goldeyes were one of the independent teams that briefly considered signing Heimlich, but ultimately decided against it. At last check, Heimlich was playing in Mexico.

I'll say this about the NHL: they had us fooled for a bit there, starting with Matt Dumba's stirring speech during the start of the playoffs in August. Perhaps we should have seen this coming when one of the few non-Caucasian players in the league (Dumba's mom is Filipino) took a knee — and nobody else on the ice joined him. Then came the Black Lives Matter hashtags and slogans in the rinks, followed by the two-day boycott, led by Black NHLer Ryan Reaves, to protest the latest act of police brutality, one day after the NBA and MLB did the same.

But actions always speak louder than words, and a lily-white sport with a dubious track record on these matters has once again showed its true colours.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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