TORONTO — This is about the last place Mitch Marner expected to find himself.
But now that he’s here, in the middle of a growing firestorm about how athletes are treated by their coaches, the Toronto Maple Leafs star is encouraging his peers to come forward and speak their truth.
“If people want to share their stories, do it,” Marner said Tuesday. “If they don’t want to hold it in, it’s your story to tell.”
His own story was initially told for him after The Toronto Sun reported over the weekend about an incident involving Marner and former coach Mike Babcock during the 2016-17 season. But Marner has now addressed it with reporters on two separate occasions, calling it “unfortunate” and saying that he’s moved on.
Still, it understandably struck a nerve when Babcock asked him as a rookie to list his teammates from the hardest-working to least-hardest working and ended up sharing his answers with a couple veterans on the wrong end of the ratings.
The former Leafs head coach told Sportsnet he intended to use it as an exercise in identifying role models, but realized he made a mistake. He apologized to Marner and the player felt that they had a positive relationship for the two-plus years they continued to work together afterwards.
Marner even reached out to Babcock after he was replaced by Sheldon Keefe last week.
“Yeah, I texted him right after and I just said ‘Thanks for everything you did here,’” said Marner. “He turned around this team and this franchise. I just said ‘Good luck wherever it takes you next.'”
Marner was still a 19-year-old rookie finding his way in the league when he was asked to make the list. There were plenty of ups and downs that season, including a stint on the team’s fourth line. The one saving grace was how well his older unnamed teammates handled being told where Marner ranked them.
That made it easier.
“For my case, I kind of forgot about it right away, didn’t really care too much later on,” said Marner. “I was lucky enough that the guys in the locker-room understood the situation, didn’t take it to heart right away, stuck by my side and stayed with me.
“I was very lucky for that.”
Without equating the acts themselves, the general discussion about hockey culture that sprung from the Marner/Babcock incident has seemingly opened the door for other players to come forward.
Akim Aliu has since alleged that he was the victim of racist taunts from Bill Peters 10 years ago while with Rockford in the American Hockey League. Peters, now coach of the Calgary Flames, wasn’t on the ice for Tuesday’s practice while the team and NHL investigated those claims.
Former Carolina defenceman Michal Jordan has also alleged that he was subjected to physical abuse from Peters while playing for the Hurricanes.
While possible racism or physical assault clearly crosses the line in the coach-player relationship, it gets blurry when you’re dealing with psychological situations. Leafs veteran Jason Spezza has played for old-school types like Ken Hitchcock and Lindy Ruff during his long NHL career and believes the tough love he got from Bryan Murray while with the Ottawa Senators early on helped push him to another level.
“He would be on me in practice, he would be on me on off-days, he’d call me into the office, he’d show me clips,” said Spezza. “He was relentless on me in trying to make me a better player and that’s what I really wanted. I really enjoy feedback, especially back then, I was trying to be the best, I was trying to be a leader of our team and he made sure that I was going to try to get there.”
Ultimately, Spezza believes, it comes down to the individual.
“Some people like it, some people don’t and you’ve just got to really individualize your style towards who you’re talking to,” he said.
For Marner, things got better under Babcock when the coach started to show more trust in him. He led all Toronto forwards in ice time and points last season and “had a pretty good relationship” with his coach after their earlier run-in.
Still, he doesn’t think other players should stay silent if they have issues about the way they’re being treated.
“If people want to speak their mind, then let them,” said Marner. “If something’s happened to someone and they feel like it should get out, then let it out. I mean, in my case, I don’t know how it did get out.
“Not too sure, but it’s an unfortunate situation that’s done with now and I’ve kind of forgotten about.”