There are hundreds of former NHL players who could mesmerize a room telling old war stories, including ones about the antics of their coaches. The tales would leave those listening wide-eyed, I’m certain, so stunned would they be by the sheer viciousness of some of the men who once held the job.
The ugly headlines that have enveloped Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters this week have incited a flood of unpleasant memories from former NHL players. Mr. Peters apologized for using racial slurs against a black player on his team a decade ago, but he resigned on Friday anyway.
The incident has prompted a slew of ex-players to document other cases of physical and psychological abuse by former coaches. Some believe this could be a seminal moment for the NHL and hockey culture more generally. It’s been likened to the opening salvo in the game’s own #MeToo movement.
I’m certainly aware of the abuse that was present at one time in some NHL dressing rooms. In a previous life, I was a sportswriter who had the opportunity to chronicle the brief, unhappy tenure of Mike Keenan as the coach of the Vancouver Canucks in the late 1990s.
Mr. Keenan’s reputation preceded him, consequently his nickname “Iron Mike.” He often used threats, intimidation and humiliation as motivational tools. For years he had an enviable win-loss record, which served to sanction his coaching style. Then his New York Rangers won a Stanley Cup in 1994, which only affirmed his hard-ass, my-way-or-the-highway approach.
But many players found it repugnant.
Mr. Keenan once berated Canucks icon Trevor Linden in front of the entire team, calling him a “pussy” and insinuating he was too soft to play the game. When defenceman Grant Ledyard temporarily left the team to be with his wife in Dallas as she began cancer treatments, Mr. Keenan had the player’s dressing room stall cleaned out. The coach told the players the defenceman had deserted them.
During a game in Phoenix, Mr. Linden went down with a knee injury. Mr. Ledyard went into the trainer’s room between periods to see how his injured teammate was doing. Mr. Keenan caught wind of this, raced into the trainer’s room and dragged Mr. Ledyard back into the main dressing room amid a torrent of profanities. The players looked on in shocked disbelief.
I flew back to Vancouver the next day with Mr. Linden and had never seen a Canucks player so despondent about the team in general, and his coach more specifically. He despised Mr. Keenan, who eventually traded the former captain and team icon to the New York Islanders.
At the time, Mr. Keenan’s abrasive, often caustic coaching style was emulated far and wide. I’ll never forget the time I was in the dressing room before a game in which my then-11-year-old son was playing. It was a very good team and the coach, I’m sure, had visions of ascending the ranks himself. To motivate the kids he started to talk about how much he hated the coach on the other team.
“I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire,” he bellowed.
I probably should have taken my son off the team right then and there, but didn’t. Nor did I after the same coach smashed a hockey stick in two over a garbage pail in the dressing room, nearly decapitating one of the kids with the blade of the broken stick.
This type of abusive behaviour was normalized in far too many minor-league dressing rooms, conditioning some of the players who would go on to play professionally to the mistreatment they would receive at the highest levels of the game.
The good news is that the Mike Keenans of the world have mostly disappeared from NHL dressing rooms. The players have far more power than they used to. As long-time former coach Ken Hitchcock recently said in response to the Peters affair, today’s NHL player no longer responds to scare tactics. Today, that approach is known by its true name: bullying.
I still see the conversation that the Peters case has ignited as important and cathartic. There are many players haunted by some of the abuse they suffered in their places of work. Recognizing that it would have been difficult to speak up in such an environment, in many ways, their silence enabled some of these men to carry on in the way they did to the detriment of many.
That Mr. Peters is no longer in charge of an NHL team is a good thing. His continued presence behind the bench would have been an everyday reminder of the toxic culture that has existed in hockey for far too long.
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