PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Bettman declared it “an opportunity and a moment for positive change,” and he punctuated every aspect of the NHL’s plan of attack with added emphasis.
Call it a four-point program designed to change hockey culture for the better. A strong, clear roadmap for how the league intends to move forward from the Bill Peters situation and both prevent and handle other similarly inappropriate conduct in the future.
Bettman was unequivocal that a line has been drawn.
That what used to be is no more.
Where once it was common practice for NHL teams to circle the wagons and deal with issues internally, that is no longer an option available to them.
“Our clubs are on notice that if they become aware of an incident of conduct involving NHL personnel on or off the ice that is clearly inappropriate, unlawful or demonstrably abusive … we at the league office — [deputy commissioner] Bill Daly or me — must be immediately advised,” said Bettman. “There will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us and in the event of such failure, the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline.”
It was a message the commissioner first delivered behind closed doors to the Board of Governors and then repeated in front of the cameras. You didn’t get the sense he was doing it for the benefit of reporters or fans as much as he was reiterating and double-underlining the point.
The league’s head office was totally blindsided by the allegations Akim Aliu put forward about Peters two weeks ago. Same with the Calgary Flames, who employed Peters as their head coach and were in the middle of a game in Pittsburgh when Aliu shared his story
That was his last act with the team.
Peters resigned on Nov. 29 amid a Flames investigation into Aliu’s claim that his former coach used the N-word against him several times while with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs a decade ago.
It was followed by further accusations from Michal Jordan, who said that Peters kicked him on the bench while he was a member of the Carolina Hurricanes and punched another unnamed member of the team. His story was later corroborated by Rod Brind’Amour, now Hurricanes head coach and an assistant at the time of those incidents.
Other stories of abuse have followed at various levels of the sport and the Chicago Blackhawks suspended assistant coach Marc Crawford while investigating claims against him.
Bettman and Daly met with Aliu last week in Toronto while crafting the plan they unveiled to owners on Monday. In addition to mandating that every incident be reported to the NHL’s top officials, they will:
• Require that all team executives and coaches participate in an annual training program that focuses on “counselling, consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion.”
• Ensure all inappropriate conduct is subject to league or team discipline that is “severe and appropriate and designed to remedy the situation and ensure that the conduct does not occur again.”
• Create a hotline where instances of inappropriate conduct can be reported either anonymously or with attribution. Bettman noted that it is of “critical importance” that whistleblowers be protected.
On Monday night, Aliu released a statement saying he was “encouraged” that Bettman “embraced many of the changes we proposed at the meeting.”
“Now the hard work begins of focusing on specifics and implementing policy that will make this sport more diverse, safer and accountable,” said Aliu. “We have to ensure that future generations of hockey players do not face the barriers and racism that I have throughout my career.
“Together we can do something truly great and transformative for hockey.”
Bettman is still weeding through everything that happened in the last few weeks. While saying that no other coaches are privately under investigation, he said he still intends to get to the bottom of what happened in Carolina after the organization was made aware of Peters’ physical abuse on the bench — something that former owner Peter Karmanos and former general manager Ron Francis have disagreed on.
The NHL also continues to investigate Peters and could further discipline him.
Bettman hopes it is now clear what lines can’t be crossed — “physical abuse and racial and homophobic language” — and that over time any grey area will become black or white because of the “program we create, and its attendant consciousness-raising will help better define what is and what is not acceptable conduct.”
There will be more onus on the teams, too.
“I think it is pretty fair to say that from now on when a club is hiring a coach, the due diligence a team conducts will go to levels never seen before,” said Bettman.
“And that is a good thing.”