It was a question near the end of his news conference announcing the resignation of Bill Peters that seemed to undo Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving.
Will Peters ever work in hockey again?
“That’s difficult to speculate,” Treliving said, then appeared to zone out for a few, long seconds while he did that. “I … I … I … don’t want to speculate.”
Treliving was doing what a lot of people in the NHL have spent the last week doing – marvelling at how quickly the rules in their cloistered world have changed.
Peters will never coach another hockey team. In the end, his biggest impact on the game may be forever changing the way people are hired in the NHL.
From now on, every team will ask prospective employees, “You haven’t by any chance slurred any racial minorities, have you? Sucker-punched the backup goalie? And, please God, tell us you have never made any bizarre lists.”
There’s been a lot of talk in the past few days about how hockey has been changed by the Peters mess. I’m not sure that’s exactly right.
At its highest levels – so, not your junior-high-aged kid playing on a travel team – hockey remains a sub-culture steeped in a sort of Fight Club ethos.
Doling out violence and, crucially, expecting to receive it in return is what separates hockey from other popular sports.
The other night, Florida Panthers defenceman Keith Yandle lost nine teeth after taking a puck in the face and still finished the game. A regular-season game in November.
I don’t care how tough they are in pro rugby or the NFL. Nobody else does that.
The ability to endure pain, every sort of it, typifies the hockey mentality. That includes being psychologically broken down by coaches at every level in order to be forged into a sort of military unit.
That hasn’t changed. Hockey players won’t let it. Not yet, at least.
What has changed is the way in which that culture can be presented to the wider one outside hockey.
People no longer think the idea of a grown man losing his mind and wildly lashing out at his co-workers sounds like fun. These days, quite rightly, that sounds like abuse.
A lot of good things have gone out of fashion recently – reasoned public debate, empathy, drinking at lunch. But it is heartening to see how quickly bullying has gone from something discouraged in our society to an outright taboo.
That’s the heart of this. It’s what lots of people – even those who don’t care all that much about hockey – responded to. Absolutely no one likes a bully.
This all started with Mike Babcock’s list.
After Babcock was fired in Toronto, a story circulated about the time Babcock asked then-rookie Mitch Marner to rank his teammates on the basis of work ethic. Then he told Marner’s teammates where he’d ranked them.
Even 10 years ago, that’s a funny story about a slightly unhinged coach. It might even have burnished Babcock’s reputation as the NHL’s preeminent player of mind games.
But in 2019, people recoiled. Not everyone has played the game, but everyone has had a boss like Babcock. Had he beaten Marner with a tire iron during a team dinner, he could not have come off worse.
For a lot of people, Babcock will no longer be remembered as the guy who won gold. He’s the weirdo with the list.
I’m sure most people in the NHL took this as the usual public beating any failed coach takes after he’s sacked. He was once a genius. Now he’s an idiot.
But then the cracks spread.
That’s how Treliving ends up at a podium, at times near tears, saying, “I pray that nobody in this room or anybody else has to go through this.”
He wasn’t talking about the players who found themselves in Peters’s striking radius. He was talking about himself.
Hockey may change, slowly, because of Babcock and Peters. Maybe we are on the edge of a kinder, gentler game. How that can be reconciled with the sport’s fixations with violence and masochism is a question to be reckoned with.
But the way in which the NHL presents itself to the paying public must change immediately. No team can afford a Bill Peters in its midst. Tolerating such a person has become a sort of infection – if you knew about it, you may also find yourself being cut out.
That is what has the NHL so rattled. A great moral shift is also a business opportunity. A new cohort of coaches and executives might use this as a basis to attack the older, entrenched one.
The players have also been enormously empowered. An accusation by any one of them can now end careers. Scores can be settled. In such an atmosphere, a witch hunt is a possibility.
This must be why NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been so silent on the Peters issue. He doesn’t want to say anything definitive until he fully understands how this is going to shake out.
But if the NHL is worried, I doubt it needs to be.
You can already feel the rule of omerta being re-established. Because surely Akim Aliu and Michal Jordan weren’t the only people who’ve ever felt mistreated. But no one still playing in the NHL is piping up with their own stories. Yet.
The players instinctively understand that once you head down the path of call outs, the road starts to fork in all sorts of unpredictable directions.
A coach may have done something horrible to them back in the day, but what did those NHLers do when the rookies on their junior team were being hazed? Do they want that stuff coming out with all the rest of the laundry? Probably not.
What the NHL needed to seal this off was a public hanging. Treliving gave it to them.
Just because everyone stood around and watched doesn’t guarantee they will all go forth and live lives free of sin from now on. It probably just means they will be more careful about getting caught.