31 Thoughts: Jim Montgomery firing hockey’s latest bombshell

Check out Gary Bettman's full press conference where he detailed the changes coming to the NHL after recent investigation into hockey culture.

• Flames surging under Geoff Ward
• Leafs may not alter backup goalie situation
• Kim Davis’s important vision

At Monday’s Board of Governors media conference, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly were asked if anyone else was under investigation for anything similar to what cost Bill Peters his job in Calgary.

They said no.

Bettman and Daly are lawyers. Good ones. If the question had stopped at, “Is anyone else under investigation?” the answer might have been different. They knew Monday night what the rest of us found out on Tuesday, that Jim Montgomery was finished as head coach of the Dallas Stars.

GM Jim Nill announced Montgomery’s dismissal hours after discovering “a material act of unprofessionalism.” According to multiple sources, Dallas fired Montgomery for cause, terminating the final two-and-a-half-years on his contract. (What remains to be seen is if Montgomery mounts a legal challenge.) Calgary needed more than three days to do a proper investigation, and Peters wasn’t officially fired. Marc Crawford’s been on leave for over a week. The Stars’ situation was different because the offending behaviour happened on their watch, not in a previous locale. They were certain of their corroboration and/or documentation, and they were certain of it quick.

The team and league bent over backwards to say that Montgomery’s punishment wasn’t for the racial or physical abuse being targeted for elimination. The word is this is a “personal behaviour issue,” with information being kept tight to protect the person who revealed the impropriety and out of respect to the rest of Montgomery’s family. (I don’t believe last week’s eyebrow-raising Dallas radio interview circulating through social media had anything to do with the decision.)

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Montgomery’s coaching acumen was never in question. Dallas went to a second-round Game 7 double-overtime against the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in his first season, and righted itself into a legit Cup contender after an awful 1-7-1 start this year. If there was a concern, it’s how much fun he liked to have away from the rink. You have to be so careful walking that line.

We’re in a cycle of bombshells ripping through the sport. Bettman looked at the cameras Monday night and said, “We don’t like surprises.” That message may have been delivered to the media, but it was directed at the NHL — anyone in a position to cover up anything. He read the same notes to the assembled Governors that he read publicly. He did not specify the penalties for failure to report, but the expectation is they will be severe.

There was a time when success could cover-up these things. Last season, Peters’ Flames finished second in the NHL. Montgomery’s .579 points percentage was 13th among active coaches and 54th all-time (per hockey-reference).

His firing was a message that while the spotlight may be on certain issues, any behavioural missteps are potentially fatal.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Nobody desires a job under these circumstances, but, quietly, Rick Bowness wanted one more chance to run an NHL bench. An in-demand assistant, Bowness was 123-289-48 as a head coach in some ugly situations — including expansion Ottawa. His last try was as an interim in Phoenix during 2003-04, winning his last game on April 4, 2004 when Krys Kolanos scored in overtime to beat Chicago. Bob Murray went with Randy Carlyle in Anaheim in 2016, but both Bowness and Travis Green interviewed very well.

2. At last year’s December Board of Governors’ meeting, Bettman predicted an $83 million cap, only to see it end up at $81.5 million. Because that number wasn’t finalized until late June, the squeeze tortured teams and players. This time, he was more guarded, refusing to give an estimate. Instead, he recognized that the final number will come as part of a negotiation with the players, who have the right to “inflate” the ceiling by up to five per cent.

While some clubs will be careful because of what happened a year ago, others have the impression it could be $84-$85 million. Why? Because of lockout/strike fears, many players structured their contracts with lower cash payouts in 2020-21. That means lower escrow, which allows the possibility the NHLPA would be willing to raise the ceiling by more than, say, the 1.15 per cent of 2018-19.

3. With the World Cup shelved for 2021, do not be surprised if that All-Star Game is a three-on-three mini-World Cup or Ryder Cup format.

4. Geoff Ward could retire undefeated, now 6-0 running the bench. While Calgary gave its interim boss a salary raise for the remainder of the season, they have yet to commit to him for the rest of the year. First, after a tumultuous month, the organization just wanted to breathe and see how the players responded. Second, the Flames did not want to be unfair to him by saying, “Hey, it’s yours” in case circumstances changed at a later date. I believe the metaphor being used is, “They’re dating, but not engaged.” Results speak, however, and, right now, Ward’s are excellent. He’s come a long way since assisting Don McKee at the University of Waterloo in 1989.

5. I’m not sure anyone knew what to expect when Peters was told in Buffalo that he could not be with the team. But everyone noticed an immediate difference, a more relaxed vibe. Winning creates the most happiness. Second is your players getting their cookies. Sean Monahan, who looked lost, has points in all six of those games, and goals in each of the past four. Johnny Gaudreau, looking so much more engaged, has four points. Dillon Dube, Milan Lucic, Zac Rinaldo and Derek Ryan had 16 points before Ward’s ascension and 19 since. A little belief goes a long way.

6. You know who is looking for a scorer? The New York Islanders. But I’m not expecting Lou Lamoriello to tell me how he feels about Taylor Hall.

7. There are reports out of Russia that CSKA Moscow is trying to extend Islanders goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin. Tough to say if this is legit or a negotiating tactic, but he will be 25 in August. If the extension is at least three years, he becomes an unrestricted free agent in North America.

8. Remember that Ilya Kovalchuk is due his final bonus payment from the Kings on Dec. 15. After that, we’ll see if he and the Kings can work out some kind of termination agreement.

9. During last week’s Hockey Night in Canada pre-game, St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong gave a good interview, including an insightful answer to Kelly Hrudey’s question about leading scorer David Perron.

“His shot’s improved, he now can score from distance, he changed the flex on his stick,” Armstrong said. “I think he’s very content in who he is and what he is as a player now. He’s found some very good synergy with (Ryan) O’Reilly, which certainly helps.”

The talk about Perron’s stick piqued my curiosity, so here’s some more intel. The winger used a shorter stick for better control, stick-handling and puck protection — but it was always stiff. He’s got a great mind for the game, and noticed how some of the superb young shooters (Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, etc.) could really fire it with softer sticks. As much as Perron worked on his game, he couldn’t duplicate that even when trying a similar stick to what they used.

In Vegas, Perron sat next to another terrific shooter, Jonathan Marchessault, who had a 75 flex. Ultimately, he decided during training camp to commit to practising with one of Marchessault’s sticks for a week. Perron noticed immediate improvement and stayed with it. (Apparently, the joke is that Marchessault wants one per cent of Perron’s salary as compensation.) Perron also gives a lot of credit to O’Reilly, and to Craig Berube, who has shown great confidence in him.

10. Armstrong, asked if there was any progress on the Alex Pietrangelo front: “We keep those things in-house, and I know it’s a long time until June 30, 2020.”

11. Living in Toronto, you could feel the mild panic in the city after last Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to Colorado. After that game, the Maple Leafs were one point out of the playoffs, but their high number of games played made the math towards a playoff berth unappealing. They weren’t scoring, but you could sense the organization believed that, of all problems they could have, a lack of offence would sort itself out. The other thing they liked was their schedule. When we broke it down last Saturday, 28 of their 51 remaining games were against non-playoff teams, and only six back-to-backs are left. They were done with Colorado and St. Louis. They have one game remaining against Boston and Washington. Even with important wins over the Blues and Vancouver, every game is a playoff game for them here on in.

12. I’m not convinced Toronto’s going to alter its backup situation. They just don’t seem enamoured with what’s out there. Tristan Jarry’s gone from potential trade target to Pittsburgh record-holder, with a shutout streak of 177:15 ended by the Canadiens. Until a long-term decision is made with Matt Murray, will the Penguins move either Jarry or Casey DeSmith? There’s a lot of love for Alexandar Georgiev — and deservedly so, he looks terrific — who is three games from becoming waiver-eligible. The Rangers have Igor Shesterkin lighting up AHL Hartford in his first North American season, but 37-year-old future Hall-of-Famer Henrik Lundqvist is signed for only one more year. Is Georgiev/Shesterkin the future?

13. Not that they want to, but when things were going poorly for the Maple Leafs, another GM said Toronto learned it could trade Kasperi Kapanen very easily. “But they don’t want to,” he added.

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14. Brendan Shanahan, asked what he would say if another club wanted to talk to Mike Babcock: “I think that’s sort of a hypothetical I wouldn’t want to get into, quite honestly. Much was made of the incident with Mike a few years ago with Mitch Marner, for instance, and I know our general manager at the time (Lou Lamoriello) had called me and let me know about it right away and had addressed it right away with Mike. Mike apologized to Mitch and there was communication with (Lamoriello) and the agent and the family. It wasn’t something that was appropriate or acceptable to us. Since then, my general manager — whether it was Lou or Kyle — had never come to us with a situation like that. Is it a highly charged atmosphere, is it an atmosphere where players and coaches, where we can all sometimes want to go back and do things a little bit better? Absolutely. But I think that this is a good starting point. I think some of the league’s plans and some of the education that we should all have available to us can certainly be a help.”

The Maple Leafs feel strongly that Babcock should not be grouped with the other recent incidents. We’ll see how he’s willing to evolve, but, unless he declines to coach again, there’s going to be interest.

15. Even before Jim Rutherford told The Athletic’s Josh Yohe that Alex Galchenyuk may not fit in Pittsburgh’s top 12 forwards, the Penguins were testing the market on the winger. Buffalo has considered it. There were rumblings about Ottawa, but a few sources pooh-poohed that.

16. Prior to Dec. 1, I think Carolina was most interested in Julius Honka. Dallas’s contract situation (48 of the maximum 50), was a major factor, as the Stars wanted draft picks or unsigned prospects, in return. Honka is ineligible to play in the NHL this season. We’ll see what the summer brings, because he needs a fresh start.

17. The NHL looked at this Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin trick-shot feature and got an idea. Could something like this be done in the All-Star skills competition? They recently tested it in St. Louis for January’s event, and it could happen. (If you’re worried about pucks flying into the crowd, the league is working on a mechanism to drop the netting over the fans to protect them. This would put the All-Stars in the crowd during competition, with the possibility of alumni (Brett Hull?) trying, too. George Parros was one of the testers, and was insulted when I asked if he hit any targets. “Didn’t you know I won the accuracy competition several times with the Ducks?” he glared. “It was no problem when everyone was stationary. It’s when people moved around that caused me trouble.”

18. If you ask anyone who played with Alain Nasreddine to say something about him, there are two consistent replies. First, people love him. He was a very, very popular teammate. Second, he drove one hideous station wagon while playing in the AHL. “Who told you that?” he said last week, while laughing at the memory. “I totalled my (previous) car and needed to buy something quick. It was a 1997 yellow Chevrolet Caprice, for $500. You remember those?” Oh yes. “It was priceless. The back seat faced the rear of the car, the door opened sideways like a truck.” He pauses and laughs some more.

In March 2004, he was traded to Pittsburgh from the Islanders and reported to Wilkes Barre-Scranton. “I show up on my first day, and we’re going on a road trip. The guys are waiting on the bus and see me pulling in with that wagon. They are looking at me like, ‘What have we traded for here?’ Those guys would try to see how many of them could fit in it.” I heard eight. “I think it was nine. We tried for 10, but think we could only do nine.” Later, Nasreddine says he sold it to Daniel Carcillo and Stephen Dixon.

19. Nasreddine played 74 NHL games. He scored his only goal while a Penguin, in his hometown of Montreal on Dec. 16, 2006. It came at 19:59 of the first period. “I got so much grief for the celebration,” he said. “I never, ever left the blue line, but because there were only five seconds left in the period, that was time to take a chance. There were so many good stories about that night. First, because of the time, you’re not sure it counts, so you’re waiting for confirmation. To have my family there to see it, that was special.”

One family member who couldn’t be in attendance was brother Samy, who played professionally for more than 20 years, everywhere from Peoria to Soenderjyske in Denmark. At the time, Samy was playing for the Coventry Blaze of the British Elite Ice Hockey League. “He stayed up late and called some of my friends who were watching the game. When I scored, they all went berserk. They told him what happened, and he said, ‘Yeah right, settle down.’ He didn’t believe it. Teammates were all over me, saying this is proof Sidney Crosby is such a great player, because he could help you score a goal. It was unreal. Usually when we lost a game, I took it pretty hard. This night, you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.”

20. In 2003-04, Mike Kitchen replaced Joel Quenneville as head coach in St. Louis. They are partners-in-crime, and Kitchen asked for his buddy’s blessing before accepting the job. “You have to take it,” Quenneville told him. Nasreddine, in his 10th consecutive season alongside John Hynes from Wilkes-Barre to New Jersey, said he “felt like Kitchen” when told about Hynes’ firing. “John made it easy for me, though. There are mixed emotions. Both families have known each other for 10 years. Our kids grew up together. But he made it clear he wants to see me succeed. My wife (Josiane) is great for me. She’s a real go-getter, and once we got the blessing from John, she was saying, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do this.’ That was huge for me.”

21. I asked Nasreddine if it was hard to coach a team where trade rumours swirled over the group, there are few untouchables and anything could happen at any time. “I don’t have time to think about that,” he answered. “It’s out of my control. What I have to be aware of is how Taylor Hall is feeling, where we’re at and how I can help the team. You can’t look into the future. There’s enough to be better than we are now.” How? “What are we? What do we want to be? The way we were built, the vision, is a speed team. We’re not Los Angeles or St. Louis. We have to get back to using that speed, and not be afraid to make mistakes.”

22. Not sure what’s in Hynes’ future, but it wouldn’t be a shocker if there was a Nashville tie-in. Hynes and Predators’ assistant GM Jeff Kealty were teammates at NCAA Boston University from 1994-95 to 1996-97.

23. Arizona entered Tuesday night’s games with a team save percentage of .929. The last team to exceed that in a full season was the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, at .930 (Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask). Ottawa’s Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner soared to .933, but that was the 48-game, lockout-shortened 2012-13 year.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

24. At the Board of Governors, the NHL made Kim Davis available. Hired two years ago as Executive Vice-President of Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs, Davis kept a low profile as she learned the league. There were several requests to interview her because of the events of the past few weeks, and she informally sat down with reporters who were there. Whatever “it” is, Davis has that.

The conversation was really informative. “We have been spending time developing a three-to-five-year strategic plan around culture and inclusion, long before the recent incidents,” she said. “This has just accelerated both our timeline and our resolve. You know I’ve been in this culture work for a long time, not only as part of a large organization (JP Morgan), where I spent over 20 years. But also, four years as a consultant who advises CEOs on these issues and really created the practice at Teneo, which is the firm that I was with. And from that work I know that there’s often some kind of defining moment in an organization that causes that organization to accelerate its efforts, but also to become a rallying call. And so I see that as a positive.”

25. Davis was asked point-blank if hockey has a racism problem. “I believe society has a racism problem,” she answered. “To categorize this as a hockey problem minimizes our ability to use this moment in our sport to understand that we are a microcosm of society. I think that we have all kinds of problems in our society. Are there cases and incidents of racism? Of course there are. But to say that the culture of hockey is racist, I think is inappropriate and I don’t think it is accurate.

“You can have the best training programs going on in the world, but if you don’t have peoples’ attention, then we aren’t going to change the culture. A big part of this is helping people to understand and recognize both conscious and unconscious bias. And there’s a difference between the two. I think most people operate in the space of unconscious bias. Often when they are able to recognize and understand the environments that they operate in, the networks that they have access to, and that they contribute to your inability to understand how to operate with people across a lot of dimensions, people become very open to understanding how they have to change. But, if you don’t create the conditions for that, you can spend all the money in the world, have the best training in the world and it doesn’t penetrate. That’s why, 30 years later, we’re still having this conversation in industry about diversity and inclusion.”

At the Board level, hockey is overwhelmingly homogenous. “I would say to you that, four years ago that room probably looked different than it does today,” Davis answered. “Not as, not as good. Now that’s not an excuse for how the room looks but I think that kind of change at an ownership level is going to be something that we’re going to have to see over time. I think the bigger and more important opportunity exists in front office and coaching and all of those areas where we can now set the tone and begin to build pipelines of talent that over the next 10 years, will influence locker rooms and will influence front offices and will influence the kind of talent that we have across the league. And that is a key part of the plan that we’re putting together.”

She mentioned Seattle as a leader and added that “I’ve been having some hugely interesting conversations with a number of owners who really get that it’s going to take them using their platforms to create these elite pathways for kids of colour. And I think you’re going to see in the next couple of years, a number of these programs, tested in different markets. So I’m encouraged by that.”

26. Finally, what is Kim Davis’s vision? What does she wish to accomplish? “Imagine that the work that we’re doing today is going to set the tone for the way the sport looks 20 years from now. Culture change is not something that you’re going to see in six months, and nine months, maybe not even in two years. We are already seeing examples of culture change in terms of people feeling like now they have a voice and a view, and they’re coming out. We can’t underestimate the power of that, as an example, as one of the steps for this creation of an environment where people feel welcome. So we have to measure this in terms of all of the little things that lead up to the Big Bang. I think that’s our vision for this is, that this becomes part of the DNA of how we operate. And it’s not just a flavour of the month.”

She mentioned “a generational history of individuals who have gone through a certain kind of treatment feeling like, ‘Well I endured it so the next generation has to endure it.’ And until you break that cycle, that continues.” Sure looks like we are getting to that point, if we aren’t there already.

27. When Tony McKegney was a young boy learning to play hockey, his adoptive father gave him some great advice: “Always have the puck on your stick when you skate by yourself.” Willie O’Ree became the first black player to play in the NHL in 1958. Sixteen years later, Mike Marson became an original Washington Capital. But McKegney became the first black player to establish himself. He scored 320 goals in 912 NHL games for Buffalo, Quebec (twice), Minnesota, the Rangers, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago from 1978-91.

As the Akim Aliu/Bill Peters story unfolded over the past few weeks, McKegney, recovering from a knee replacement, spent a lot of time thinking about his life in the sport. He sent a statement to NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and to NHL.com’s William Douglas (his Twitter account is @ColorOfHockey). Reached on Monday, McKegney talked for 45 minutes about his time on the ice. It was a real education for me.

“The first time I ever played against another black player was Grant Fuhr, in the NHL,” he said. “Think about that. For 17 years, I was the only black player every day. I was good, I had the puck a lot, and I could take over games.” McKegney said that the Donald Brashears, the Georges Laraques and the Peter Worrells had it tougher than he did, because they fought. That made the vitriol worse for them than him. But it didn’t mean he got away unscathed. “Every game I played outside of Sarnia (where he grew up) and Kingston (his junior home), I thought my middle name was ‘(expletive).’”

I asked him what he would say to a young person of colour about playing hockey. “Oh, I would say yes. I’d say to persevere. I’d point to Jarome Iginla, to Grant Fuhr, to Willie O’Ree. Hall of Famers. You have to persevere.” Like Kim Davis, he worries about the cost. “The financials are such a burden to so many people.” There were a couple moments that really stood out to him for kindness. The first was at the 1978 OHA All-Star Game in Windsor. “NHL President John Ziegler was there, and, at the banquet, he talked to me and to Wayne Gretzky. Everyone knew Wayne was going to the WHA, and I was talking to them also. He said, ‘We are really looking forward to having you two in the NHL.’”

Yes, Ziegler was trying to defend his turf, but it meant a lot to McKegney. In his statement, he wrote that, “It is my contention that (Bettman and Daly) have done an excellent job in continuing the work initially done by John Ziegler welcoming black players to the NHL as he did to me as a junior-aged player.”

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28. The other incident involved Mark Howe. McKegney thinks it was 1985. He was playing in Philadelphia. “There was a guy there who would have signs — ‘Pick up a basketball’ — things like that. One game, he yelled the word at me.” Reached on Tuesday, Howe said he remembered exactly what happened. “There was a fight going on down near the corner,” Howe said. “Tony and I grabbed each other, and watched the fight. The ‘N word’ came out clear as day, pointed. Tony was extremely upset, and rightfully so.”

McKegney continued: “I remember Mark putting his arm around me, trying to calm me down, saying ‘Don’t worry about that.’” It is clear that, to McKegney, a Flyer in Philadelphia putting an arm around him in that moment was an important thing. “Tony wanted to go after the fan,” Howe added. “I grabbed him harder, trying to keep him away. I didn’t want him to get sued. I remember talking to him the whole time. I don’t think I did anything any different than other guys I played with would have done. Brad Marsh, Ronnie Sutter, Lindsay Carson, Brian Propp, Brad McCrimmon, Dave Brown. You try to win, but you also try to be a decent human being.” Howe paused. “That’s how bad it was. We both remember it so vividly.” Out of the worst should come our best.

29. This is the Sabres’ 50th anniversary season. McKegney finished our interview by telling a hilarious story about how he’d call some ex-teammates to say, “Oh man, too bad. I talked to the voters, and you came in 51st.”

30. Flying to California early Sunday morning for the Board of Governors’ meeting, I met a Mr. King (I’m really sorry, I was sleepy, I don’t remember his first name). His son, Michael, attends Trinity College School in Port Hope, ON, and made the junior varsity hockey team there. He won a recent contest and, as a result, got to meet Mitch Marner. Michael is similar to Marner in size, and told the Maple Leaf that to stand out and show he wouldn’t be intimidated, he was playing much more physical than normal. “(Marner) told him not to do that,” Mr. King said. “Stick to your identity, what you do well.” Good advice I thought I’d share. Oh, and on the flight home, I sat in front of Robert Orr. No, not that one. This one’s middle name is Bruce.

31. I didn’t think the Peloton ad was that bad.

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