PIERRE LaBOSSIERE COLUMN: Culture of silence over abusive coaches is toxic

Flying under the radar a bit because it involved hockey was an incredibly ugly story about former Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters.

This comes right on the heels of hockey commentator Don Cherry finally being fired and right on the heels of the Toronto Maple Leafs firing their coach, Mike Babcock.

About 10 years ago, it’s alleged that Peters, when he was coaching in the minor leagues, dropped the N bomb several times on a black player. No one complained about it at the time.

After those allegations came out, which were backed up by other players and never denied by Peters, more allegations came out that just a few years ago, Peters physically assaulted players for the Carolina Hurricanes, both kicking and punching them.

No one complained publicly about Peters’ behavior at Carolina. Players did go to management apparently and it was all handled in-house.

So, then the guy gets hired in Calgary, someone who apparently has a history of ugly and abusive behavior toward players. Because everyone stayed silent.

Babcock’s alleged abuse

Then, at almost the same time that the Peters story came out, there were more stories about Peters’ mentor, Mike Babcock, mentally and psychologically damaging his players. There was a story just Monday that one of his players, Johan Franzen, suffered a nervous breakdown because of Babcock’s idea of motivating people was by messing with their minds and verbally assaulting them. Franzen was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety caused by post-concussion syndrome (and probably Babcock’s abuse). This week, Franzen was quoted as saying Babcock “is the worst person I’ve ever known.”

This abuse from Babcock, who was just fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs because reportedly his players hated him, all happened years ago. Just now people are speaking about him.

And this is the part of the story that bothered me the most — the silence. For years. The player whom the N word was directed at, Akim Aliu, said he didn’t dare speak up against Peters for fear of retaliation from the coach and team.

No one spoke up against Babcock for years. No one went public with Peters’ racism and physical abuse of players for years. Because of fear.

Culture of silence

Canada has a huge problem with sexual abuse of players by coaches. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of young players sexually abused over the years. That same culture of silence that allows coaches to verbally assault and physically assault players because of their personal power trips also allows coaches to sexually assault them at the junior hockey level.

I remember years ago there was a terrible and infamous hockey coach, Mike Keenan, who managed to take one team to the Stanley Cup Finals and then won a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994. I suspect that team really won because of Mark Messier’s leadership, not Keenan. Keenan was infamous for messing with players’ minds and picking a star player on the team to scapegoat.

That 1994 Stanley Cup bought Keenan about another 10 to 12 years in the NHL. He bounced from team to team, would last a year or two, and then he would get fired because the players hated him and his Neanderthal motivating tactics kept failing. I never forgave him for running Trevor Linden, the Canucks’ star player, out of town after he took over in Vancouver. After Keenan was inevitably fired by the Canucks, Linden was brought back to Vancouver where he finished his career, had his number retired and became an executive for the team. Keenan was eventually drummed out of the league.

But for a while, for some inexplicable reason, teams kept hiring Keenan, even though he had a reputation of being a miserable jerk and even though it had been years since he won a Stanley Cup. And guys like Babcock and Peters keep getting hired in the NHL. Because everyone is staying silent about coaches like this. And at the youth hockey level, predators can especially thrive in the darkness of “don’t speak up.”

I brought up Cherry because guys like Peters, Keenan and Babcock are cut from the same cloth. Neanderthals and bullies who got away with their nonsense for years because there’s still a lot of stupid old people running hockey organizations who believe the only road to success somehow comes from making players afraid or angry.

I’ve worked for a couple of bosses like that over the years, we probably all have. Bosses like that don’t motivate people. They just burn people out and motivate people to start mailing out resumes. Some companies have figured this out. Some sports teams have. But a lot of hockey franchises are stuck in the past, much like Don Cherry, who for years got away with complaining about French-Canadians and too many foreign players in the NHL until he finally went too far.

It’s time for the silence to stop. Messing with players’ heads, physically assaulting them and throwing around racial slurs is not motivating people and it’s not somehow making kids into stronger men. I’m not a total wimp about this. I had a coach literally grab my facemask and scream in my face because I passed up an open shot and tried to make a pass to a guy who I thought was open. He screamed two inches from my face, “Next time, shoot the [bleeping] puck!”

Afterward, I laughed about it. He was trying to tell me not to be afraid to shoot it. I had a hard, but wild shot and I was reluctant to shoot. So, to me, that wasn’t abuse.

It’s time for hockey — and ALL sports — to lose these Neanderthal coaches, to get rid of the abusers. They don’t create better players or people. They just create a toxic culture of silence.


Sports Editor Pierre LaBossiere can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or [email protected]

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