31 Thoughts: A ‘Code of Conduct’ is coming to the NHL

Akim Aliu spoke to the media briefly following his meeting with Gary Bettman about “big change” coming and how excited he is to see that come to fruition.

• Written “Code of Conduct” is coming
• What’s next for Babcock?
• Hall trade talks intensifying

Akim Aliu spoke for 36 seconds on Tuesday afternoon, with one sentence standing out from the rest: “I think there’s some big change coming…. It’s long overdue, and I’m excited to see it come to fruition.”

According to several sources, the NHL essentially rewrote its agenda for next week’s Board of Governors meeting in California. After a week of allegations, investigations and controversy, only the comatose wouldn’t recognize the need for swift protocols with teeth.

Since his bombshell tweets turned the hockey world on its ears, Aliu collected experiences from other players of colour, both past and present. Word is he shared those stories with Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly — adding more of his own, beyond what we already know. Going in, both men were preparing for action. More evidence increases the urgency.

A written “Code of Conduct” is coming. Discussions are underway. Lawyers will tell you the NHL properly handled the Bill Peters investigation, but the slower pace in a frenzied world and the fact he resigned instead of being fired left a sour taste in many mouths. Clear guidelines eliminate grey area, and ease another percolating debate: Where is the line of acceptability?

While everyone should recognize racial comments and physical abuse as zero-tolerance offences, verbal criticism hits all ranges, and everyone reacts differently. A dressing-down that bothers you might not bother someone else. Sometimes, the truth hurts, but we need the honesty.

There must be clarity.

There also must be specific language detailing what needs to be reported, and to whom. We’re still not sure (at least publicly) who knew what about the Peters/Aliu fiasco in the Blackhawks organization. In 2016, after Peters apologized to one particular Hurricanes player for punching him on the bench (and to the team as a whole), then-GM Ron Francis chose to deal with it internally. It never happened again, but the decision is now an enormous controversy.

Take it out of the teams’ hands.

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In addition, Aliu apparently raised concerns about protecting players against retaliation, breaking the culture of silence and encouraging more inclusion in the sport at all levels. The whistleblower protection is essential. There are still people who don’t want their names used in discussing these events. From what I understand, the league — among other things — is asking for suggestions on what kind of increased role recently retired minority players could have.

We’re long past the point of putting the onus on active players of all ages to “handle it.”

“Guys just live with it,” said one ex-coach who asked his name not be used. “You can deal with it two ways: internalize it — but it bothers you — or if you act out at the time… you can be labelled. Look at Akim. The first time (when Aliu was targeted in junior for refusing to be hazed) he acted out, was suspended and traded. (At AHL Rockford), he internalized, held it in, and it tormented him for 10 years.

“Either way it’s pretty hard.”

There needs to be a third way: a severe, swift and clear punishment. It’s coming, and it is about time.

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1. It got lost in everything else last week, but one thing that threw people for a loop was seeing a current minority owner (Peter Karmanos) contradicted in a statement on NHL letterhead.

There is an additional twist here. The process as set up in Carolina’s current ownership agreement is complex, and may not ever occur — but it is possible that Karmanos could, in the future, be majority owner of the Hurricanes once again.

2. Maybe the most impossible question to answer is what Mike Babcock’s future will be. When he was fired, word was that at least two teams privately reached out to gauge his interest in coaching right away — only to be told that he preferred to take some time. I heard from people in Russia that there was KHL interest, either as a coach or a consultant. There were rumours he’d be offered a World Junior role (not as head coach, but in an advisory position) and/or the head job for the World Championships. Then came the avalanche, and now that’s all in doubt.

There is a wide, wide spectrum of debate on his particular situation. No one defends revealing Mitchell Marner’s “hard-working” list after promising not to, and his handling of Jason Spezza has no fans, but there are others who feel that if he is willing to evolve, he could coach again.

One of the things I’ve learned about some coaches is they’re almost two different people: the one at the rink, and the one away from it. Away from the rink, I saw first-hand how he dedicated time to people’s mental health. But that “two-person” approach no longer works, and is not a defence for anything that happens at your workplace.

3. Chris Chelios’s Spittin’ Chiclets interview about Babcock had some confusing timelines, because when the Johan Franzen incident occurred (as Nashville eliminated Detroit in Game 5 of the 2012 first round), Chelios was no longer on the Red Wings. He referenced a meeting Ken Holland had with the players, where the GM defended his coach. I think this has to do with Marty McSorley. McSorley worked on San Jose Sharks broadcasts, and once said none of the Red Wings liked playing for Babcock. Word got back to Detroit reporters, who asked Holland about it. (The current Edmonton GM declined to discuss this, but did speak to the Detroit Free Press’s Helene St. James about the Franzen incident.)

What I heard is Holland didn’t like how players gave McSorley that information, and told them that if they wanted to say anything to him (or be traded), they could meet him privately in his office and he would keep those conversations secret. I don’t believe anyone asked out. McSorley left his Sharks’ TV role following the 2006-07 season. Anyway, just some clarity on that situation.

4. Okay, let’s look at some other things. On Nov. 16, Jack Eichel scored four goals in a 4–2 win over Ottawa. Watch him before a face-off with 30 seconds left and the Senators’ net empty:

Someone told me he was telling players not to focus on giving him the puck for a fourth goal, but to play smart and safe. Asked about it last week, though, he said he was actually trying to put Jimmy Vesey in position to score. The winger had no goals in 15 games to that point.

“Maybe an empty-netter gets him going,” the Sabres captain added.

A small thing, but a big thing. His efforts in dragging the Sabres out of their struggles have not gone unnoticed.

5. There is an interesting development regarding the 2020–21 salary cap. Because players and agents were trying to avoid putting too much salary into what could have been a lockout/strike season, there is less cash scheduled to be paid out next year. There are some big contracts on the way (Torey Krug, Alex Pietrangelo, etc.), but the overall amount of cash is still going to be lower. That’s good news for escrow haters, because (very early) predictions from both the NHL and NHLPA indicate that number will be very low. It’s too early to know for sure, but that opens the possibility the players add some breathing room by using more of their “inflator” on the cap. They can raise it up to five per cent, but have been going considerably lower the last couple of seasons. Cap-strapped clubs would love that news.

6. New Jersey GM Ray Shero was asked if Alain Nasreddine stays the rest of the season. “We’ll have a list that we’ll compile,” he answered. “We know at the end of the year there’s more possibilities…. For the short term for sure, I really want to see where this goes. The opportunity for (Nasreddine) is there in front of him.”

There is no point in rushing to hire a new coach unless there’s someone out there you absolutely must have — and, as I write this, there’s no evidence of such an overwhelming candidate.

The Devils did the right thing by Hynes, not making him coach one more game in front of the same fans who chanted for his firing last weekend.

There will be a lot of Dan Bylsma rumours because of his history with Shero, but that’s far from a guarantee. It’s such an unsettled time because of everything that’s coming out; it’s probably the worst time to try to hire somebody. AHL Chicago’s Rocky Thompson worked in the Edmonton organization while the team’s VP of analytics, Tyler Dellow, was in the Alberta capital. And someone’s going to give Lane Lambert a shot.

7. The Taylor Hall trade talks have intensified, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen at this time.

“He’s trying,” another GM said of Shero.

The Devils have made it clear they want first-rounders (although they are willing to discuss conditional situations, depending on the acquiring team’s ability to re-sign Hall or playoff results) and/or high-level prospects who are ready to play. They badly need defence, which is why there’s a lot of focus on Colorado as the perfect trade partner. The Avalanche have plenty of defensive prospects and think they can win. Several teams believe Arizona is making a serious effort. Hall is what they need, too. It’s believed Dallas and St. Louis are among other pursuers.

8. I do think Edmonton’s interested, but there’s a limit. I’m not convinced the Oilers will pay what New Jersey wants.

9. Before the Dec. 1 signing deadline, word is the Oilers re-engaged some of the clubs who had shown previous interest in Jesse Puljujarvi. That includes the Rangers, St. Louis and Tampa Bay. I believe they discussed Lias Andersson with New York, and think Puljujarvi wanted to go there, but things couldn’t close.

10. Another Devil on the block is Miles Wood. He has two more years at a $2.75-million AAV, but isn’t as aggressive or edgy as he’s been in the past. Hopefully he gets back there, I liked his game.

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11. I was surprised GM Marc Bergevin followed through on his trip to Russia with the Canadiens in such a bad run. But they beat the Islanders to end the winless streak, and maybe Bergevin should stay overseas to keep the karma. Missing the playoffs is not an option. It’s impossible not to see major change if that happens again.

Other teams really respect Montreal’s prospect base, but how do you bridge the gap from now until those players are ready? Bergevin’s not afraid to make bold moves, but, if you look at this history, he doesn’t do it during the season. His biggest was Jeff Petry at the 2015 deadline. This “feels” different, though, and I wonder if one of the reasons he continued with his Russia visit was that he wants to know what he can count on for next year before making any major moves this year.

12. Montreal took a long look at Alec Martinez before he was injured. The Shayne Gostisbehere rumours were denied.

13. Earlier in Carey Price’s career, then-coach Jacques Martin was critical of the goalie’s work habits. He’d say that Patrick Roy would go on the ice without pucks to work on his technique and Price did not do that. Things are very, very different now, which is why he’s too good to continue on this path. November was his worst month of the 2018–19 season by far, and he got hot after that. In a four-game stretch during this current streak, the Canadiens gave up six goals within 2:30 of a goal they had scored.

14. You don’t see it too often, but the Devils used a righty-righty defensive duo of P.K. Subban and Sami Vatanen. Purely my own thinking, but I wondered if Montreal would consider it with Petry and Shea Weber.

15. Before everything that happened last week in Calgary, other clubs were trying to see if they could steal Sam Bennett. The Flames apparently laughed off lowball offers. In the past, teams that have tried to get him include Anaheim, Montreal and Nashville.

16. Nicklas Backstrom confirmed this week that he is negotiating on his own with Capitals GM Brian MacLellan. At this point, it would be an absolute shocker if he isn’t re-signed.


17. It got lost in a busy day, but Tuesday was huge for Kyle Turris. Back in the lineup after seven straight scratches, the centre was put on the second line, responding with a goal and an assist in a 3–2 overtime loss to Tampa Bay. Turris, whose quiet nature hides an edge and a lot of pride, told the Tennessean’s Paul Skrbina, “I felt like I played the exact same game I would have played if I didn’t sit seven straight games. I learned a lot from last year. I’m not going to second guess myself anymore. I’m done with that.”

The Predators have tried to move him, but this is, quite honestly, the better path for both. Just by watching, you can tell that, when he plays on the fourth line, he’s asked to be more conservative. He struggles with that and just doesn’t appear as confident. We’ll see how long this goes, but he looked so much more confident against the Lightning.

18. Quietly, the Avalanche’s reaction to Vancouver scoring while Matt Calvert was down is having an affect. Since that game, I’ve seen more plays blown dead than before. One time it was Ottawa’s Vladislav Namestnikov. Another was Montreal’s Joel Armia.

19. Brad Marchand tweeted out an apology to the concussion spotter after complaining how long it took him to be removed from last week’s game against the Rangers:

Here’s what happened: Marchand collided with Jacob Trouba, got an (unintentional) elbow to the head and looked dazed. However, it took place late in the period, and a replay wasn’t shown until the intermission. When the spotter saw that, they asked for him to be held back. It took a few minutes to make communication before everyone got back to the bench.

20. There was an interesting story a couple of weeks ago by ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski about a radical schedule idea being discussed by the NBA. It would see a reduction of regular-season games, the addition of both an in-season tournament and a playoff play-in, and re-seeding the Conference Finals based on regular-season standings.

I asked around to see how much of this the NHL has looked at. The answer is: a lot. The re-seeding of the Stanley Cup semifinals was originally part of the last divisional/playoff re-alignment. The league wanted it, but teams and players pushed back because of travel worries. Not enough people wanted to risk, say, a Montreal-San Jose third round. We know the commissioner hates the play-in, and a player texted me this season to stop “with that stupid idea.” In-season tournament? Let’s see if a World Cup gets done for February 2021, and how everyone feels about that.

21. The schedule is an issue, however. There are a lot of complaints this year about it. The scheduling Czar, Steve Hatze Petros, gave a presentation at last month’s GM meetings. Teams were told if they wanted to help solve the problem, they should provide more available home dates. But the frustration is growing.

22. Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton had good intel on Victor Olofsson’s shot: “He’s got a such a ‘whippy’ stick that you can’t tell where it is going.”

23. It’s been a difficult time for Jacob Markstrom, who missed Tuesday’s game against Ottawa to attend his father’s service. Through that, he has continued to play at a high level. He’s an unrestricted free agent, and contract talks are expected to begin in the next little while. As big as term and dollars always are, the Seattle expansion draft looms large over this, too.

24. Reminder of other situations to watch: Los Angeles with most of their veterans, with the exception of Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar; Buffalo with its defence; Carolina continues to look for a top-nine forward. Meanwhile, things have calmed in Minnesota as the Wild show a surge.

25. And one GM predicts, “Watch St. Louis. They think they can repeat, and they will go for it.”

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26. There was a ton of interest in Toronto’s AHL job. Coaches were probably sabotaging each others’ cars on the way to interviews.

27. Math isn’t my strong suit, but my exploratory calculations indicate Toronto is dangerously close (if not over) their salary ceiling — unless Trevor Moore is on long-term injured reserve. I’m curious to see if Pierre Engvall stays when Moore eventually returns. The salary slot makes him vulnerable, and he’s waiver-exempt. But he’s played well and Sheldon Keefe clearly likes him. Business ruins everything, as Frederik Gauthier and Dmytro Timashov probably wouldn’t clear.

28. We’re a little over a month away from the CHL trade deadline, which happens right after the World Juniors. Among NHL-drafted prospects who could be on the move: Los Angeles’s Akil Thomas (OHL Niagara, with London as a possibility), Dallas’s Thomas Harley (OHL Mississauga, although it’s a big ask), and Florida’s Serron Noel, out now with an injury in Oshawa. Watch QMJHL Halifax, too. They loaded up for last year and have some big fish in the sea.

29. During everything that happened in the past week, I was reaching out to as many people as possible to see what was out there. There was one story I wanted share. I asked Brock McGillis if there was any coach who pleasantly surprised him. He was dealt from OHL Windsor to Sault Ste. Marie early in the 2001-02 season.

“They traded for me because they thought Ray Emery was going to be away for the World Juniors and needed another goalie,” McGillis said last week. “But Ray didn’t make the team, and all of a sudden they had three goalies. The coach was Craig Hartsburg… very intense person. I was a little scared of him.”

If you’re not familiar with Brock’s story, he came out as gay in 2016, six years after he told his family. An excellent public speaker and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin 15 years ago.

“I was not thrilled with myself,” McGillis says now. “I was mentally a mess dealing with my sexuality — suicidal, drinking every night.”

Because of the three netminders, McGillis was told he’d have to sit out one particular game.

“I told [Hartsburg], ‘I didn’t come here to sit in the stands.’ You had to see the look on his face — he’s so intense. He told me, ‘You’re getting a start — that other kid isn’t.’ He said I wasn’t working hard in practice.”

Hartsburg surprised his player by reaching out to McGillis’s father because he was concerned. “He was genuine and honest…. (He) took the time to talk to me, spoke to my dad, said he didn’t like how he saw my future play out. He didn’t know what I was struggling with, but, obviously something there made him realize I was not at my optimum.”

30. Hartsburg, reached for this story, agreed to talk under one condition.

“Don’t make me out to be the saint of coaches,” he said. “I don’t think any of us can say we’re perfect. In Brock’s case, we sensed there was something bothering him. We were never hard on a kid so it would help me — we would be hard on a kid so he’d become a good teammate and person.”

When McGillis made his public announcement, Hartsburg sent a Facebook message of support.

“That meant the world to me,” McGillis said. “I hadn’t spoken to him since I was 18.”

“I was proud of him,” Hartsburg replied. “That’s not an easy thing to do. He’s got some courage, he’s done the right thing for himself and the message is positive for the world, in general.”

Just thought that this was something that needed to be shared. We can all be that person to someone.

31. If you’re of a certain vintage, you’d go out at night, and, if there was music involved, the deejay would inevitably crank up “Home for a Rest.” (Usually, it was pretty late.) No matter what else was going on, everyone would stop what they were doing and belt out that tune together. Spirit of the West is a huge part of the soundtrack of my existence from university into my thirties. Them, Barenaked Ladies, Tragically Hip, Lowest of the Low, Skydiggers — that was my university experience. Lead singer John Mann died at age 57 on Nov. 20. All the best to his friends and family. His name brings a smile, thinking of great times.

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