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The exits of Don Cherry, Mike Babcock and Bill Peters mark the tipping point of a change in the business of hockey

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In less than two weeks, we’ve seen the forced departures of three very old-school NHL people – Don Cherry, Mike Babcock and (almost certainly) Bill Peters.

And in the process, I most certainly believe we are seeing a tipping point in the business of hockey, which for SO LONG has been ruled with an iron fist by a certain mindset, which might be categorized as: “Shut up and do as we say, shut up and take it, shut up and don’t complain, and if you do – if you do – you will be bounced out on your ass so fast it’ll make your $$%$^^&&#@ head spin, kid.”

If my life ended tonight and I was deposed to give one, on-the-record takeaway about covering pro hockey for 25 years it would be this: You are not supposed to complain about anything in the NHL or on-the-way-up-to-the-NHL, especially when it comes to Old Testament-style treatment from coaches or management. You don’t make waves. You don’t complain. You take it, no matter how bad the abuse, and you don’t whine about it. If you do whine about it, well that only means you’re soft. You couldn’t take it. You’re not tough enough.

This is where things, admittedly, get a little confusing to 54-year-old males like myself. I was raised in that old-school, no-whining world. And I take a look at all that’s been accomplished in that old-school world – interstate highways and skyscrapers and men on the moon and a country where we’re free to say what we believe without fear of being locked up for it (well, for a little while longer, at least) and I think ‘You know what, the old school worked pretty frigging well!’ And, ‘Look at how well guys turned out under absolute old-school, hardass coaches, like Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry and Knute Rockne and Scotty Bowman and Earl Weaver and on and on. They yelled at their players nonstop and played little mind games with them, and players hated them at the time, but then they all admit they never would have had the success they had without them.’ 

I don’t want to judge anyone, not Don Cherry or Mike Babcock or Bill Peters. I’m the last to judge anyone. I’m a forgiving guy. I have said many things I’ve regretted, and paid the price in many cases. In the worst cases, I’ve just tried to say “Sorry, I regret it” and tried to learn from it, and let my future actions tell the final story. If that is what’s in the heart of any of the above and they really ask for forgiveness and try to turn things into a positive, then I’ll be the first to shake their hand and grant them the chance. But who cares what I think?

I have to admit, though: I grew up in a world where there were just some really a-hole bullies in the coaching world. Coaches who felt they could say and do anything. Anyone who said anything about it was to be further bullied and ridiculed. One of my grade school coaches was a bully, someone who flat-out called you homophobic insults to your face if you didn’t do the drill right. I always shuddered inside at things like that – and for feeling like that, it was just pure luck in having educated parents who didn’t tolerate anything racial or homophobic. I was further lucky in going to a school that had some diversity. I had an African American man as my coach in junior high basketball, and I revered him. One of my dad’s best friends, on the commune in Vermont, was a white guy who had an African American man as a partner. How I revered being around both them of them too! They were smart and interesting and wonderful people. I didn’t think there was anything unnatural about this kind of partnership, at a young age. Lucky me. If I’d been raised by bigoted, intolerant parents who blamed “other people” for their troubles, the odds are likely very high I’d spout such opinions today.

Back then, though, I didn’t dare say anything back. Talk back to a coach, are you kidding? They were authority. They were coaches. They must know what they’re doing. Sit down and shut up. Sooooo many hockey players I’ve covered in these last 25 years thought the exact same thing. As we can see, though, that’s changing.

The bully-style of coach is on the way out, whether they like it or not. The coach who feels they can come in a room and humiliate people, all in the name of “toughening them up” – well, they just have to read the headlines of the last two weeks to know they won’t get away with it anymore.

I still believe coaches should be tough. Life is damn tough, and handing out participation trophies to kids does NOT WORK. I’ll argue with anyone on that one.

But there is a line between being tough and abusing people. Too many authority figures from my era thought it was OK to abuse younger people, all in the name of toughening them up. It doesn’t toughen anyone up in abusing them. It fucks them up.

The best coaches and people seem to know where the line is. There are going to be more shoes that drop in the coming days. Call this the “MeToo” era for coaches now.

I definitely think many of the next shoes to drop will be, unfortunately, about sexual abuse. As a kid who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, I have my own stories. Sexual abuse was everywhere. My high-school basketball coach was imprisoned for a relationship with an under-age girl, and I rode in the same car as both of them. My assistant varsity basketball coach did time for sleeping with underage girls, too, and so were a couple others. Did this contribute to an effed view of relationships and ways of talking to women, for a long time, for me? I don’t know. I don’t like to play the victim. But did that stuff help me mature in good ways? Probably no.

When I was a 12-year-old kid going to a basketball camp in Nashua, N.H., I slept on the top bunk in a room full of fellow campers, most of whom were a couple years older than me. I was the young kid at the camp, which meant I got picked on a ton. But that was fine, I could take that, and still laugh that stuff off.

What wasn’t so hard to laugh off was the 50-something coach as part of that camp, who laid naked all the time, every time in his lower bunk, as I walked back to my bed and had to hoist myself up to the top bunk to go to sleep. I definitely remember the uncomfortable moment when my eyes briefly met his, on the way to the top bunk. It was scary. The look on his face was suggestive and scary. The feeling I had was one of “I’m 12 years old and have no idea what that leery look on your face is supposed to mean”, but I had a vague feeling that it was nothing good. What if that coach had come up to my bunk and done something? What would I have done? My fear is that I would have done: nothing. And then, been an effed-up victim of real trauma, for the rest of my life.

I’m lucky that didn’t happen, but look at how vivid this is to me all these years later. What would my memories be had something actually happened? That’s why I don’t take any story anybody says of anything similar lightly.

I have personally heard of stories of sexual abuse that happened between a hockey coach and a still-unnamed player from the junior/minor pro ranks. Should I go to the police about this? I don’t really know what the hell to do now. But maybe I should. At least, to get the accusations on some kind of record somewhere. When I was told all this, it was on the understanding of “You listen, but don’t tell.”

I tried to go to a camp counselor about my own experience in N.H., later on. The reply essentially was, “Don’t make waves, punk. Kids should be seen and not heard. He’s an esteemed person, and you’re nothing. Shut up and play ball.”

Hopefully, that old 12-year-old kid will be taken more seriously in the year 2019 and beyond.

 

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Pat Jones
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Pat Jones

Bill Peters

idavsfan
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idavsfan

Don Cherry was a hard ass (I got to see him coach the Rockies), but that’s not what cost him his job – he called out those who he didn’t feel appreciated those who make the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms they enjoy – he just wants everyone to show some respect. Was his choice of words questionable, yes – but as someone who lost his father while he was serving his country – I’m totally onboard with Cherry’s intent.

Matt Briggle
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Matt Briggle

I don’t disagree with you that his intent was good, but you have to be careful about words. It would be like someone saying “I kneel with Kaepernick, but all cops need to be honored.” Sure, you can be against systemic racism and the police violence towards minorities that it produces, but still respect police officers for doing the nearly impossible job that they do do. But when a cop crosses the line, you have to be willing to call them out on it. It’s not about hating cops, it’s about wanting the best out of the cops overall and… Read more »

Turk
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Turk

Not here to make an enemy or anything. But too compare Don Cherrys situation to Kaps is complete idiotic. Not on the same page, not in the sane book. Don used the incorrect words. His message was 100% dead on. But people now a days are too sensitive and u can’t speak the truth unless u word it properly. Don has been re-hired multiple times, given raises for his way of speaking and his views. What he said is true, he just worded it wrong for the politically correct. The world has gone soft and it’s u fair to the… Read more »

Matt Briggle
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Matt Briggle

The reason the comparison to Kaepernick is, I feel accurate, is that both of these issues are dealing with racism and how we address it as a society. This isn’t about society going soft or being unfair to those old school folks, it’s about living in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society and making sure that everyone in our society is treated fairly and respectfully. If you want to criticize someone for poor performance you still can, but when you start bringing in race, religion, sexuality, etc… into that criticism then it’s crossing a line. Sure this all happened in the… Read more »

M.S. Anderson
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M.S. Anderson

That means making sure Cherry is treated fairly, too. Right, Matt? Got that? Same goes for Bill Peters. The media has become the new court and we’re all expected to issue a verdict. If someone is libeled or slandered, they’re supposed to go to court and sue for defamation and the accused are allowed to defend themselves.

Matt Briggle
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Matt Briggle

I don’t see how either one of them are being treated unfairly. Cherry chose his own words there and has stood by them even after getting fired. Peters is currently suspended with pay (as I understand things) while the team and league investigate the allegations. Given that they’re all public figures by choice, this will naturally be played out publicly first. If either of them feels like they are slandered during this process, they can of course take it to court, but I haven’t seen anything that would rise to those standards.

AndreWindermere
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AndreWindermere

If he meant everyone, he would have said everyone. Don Cherry specifically called out immigrants in his final coaches corner.

“You people that come here…”

If he had misspoken, he had ample time to correct the record before he was terminated. The fact that he didn’t speaks volumes regarding his intent.

The PG
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The PG

100% agree. The man made a healthy living using words. Specific words chosen by him for their dramatic impact to the HNIC audience. To absolve him because “he used the wrong words” is, well, “idiotic”. He meant to call out a specific set of people.

aggrady
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aggrady

I enjoyed Cherry but he was basically grading the patriotism of people in a group. That is unfair. I’m a Marine veteran and I suffered in my service, but it’s unfair for me to judge others in a group who don’t look like me because they aren’t meeting an artificial standard of patriotism I have set for them. We usually err when we assign motives to people we don’t really know.
Very thoughtful article AD.

Ricardo
Member
Ricardo

Very insightful–I, fortunately, did not have a coach who was abusive. I really enjoyed your comments. It is important to have discipline and limits without abuse. We have more than enough snowflakes.

Alex Young
Guest

Enjoyed this read, AD.

bernieslugs
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bernieslugs

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks but now I can see all articles (with advertisements though) without signing in. Is this new?

PER AGESSON
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PER AGESSON

Well put and spot on Adrian!

Alex Harris
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Alex Harris

Bill peters is a RACIST. Babs had to go. Don is Don always will love the guy. But putting bill into a category with those two is kind of contraversal.

James K Martin
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James K Martin

So this was about you and not Cherry, Babcock or Peters.

The PG
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The PG

Dater, what you experienced is real trauma and shouldn’t be trivialized. The evidence goes to how specific you are with the details and the fact that it is still so vivid for you to this date.
Going to the police is a tough choice. I would recommend doing so, but unless the player is willing to file a complaint, there may not be much for them to investigate. Still your choice.

Mike
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Mike

Times were different back then. Does that make it right? Of course not, but it was a different time. Don Cherry said nothing incorrect. I agree with him. His wording could offend. Akim Aliu is just capitalizing on an opportunity. Kaepernick went to a job interview, instead of showcasing, he made it a political stunt. Would you ask for a job interview, then 30 min before tell your potential employer that you’d rather do the interview on your couch than in his office? Meanwhile Justin Trudeau paints himself black and holds a banana and CBC, Canada just accept it…. ‘Oh… Read more »

Michael Senn
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Michael Senn

Hi Folks, I see a range of opinions here. That’s fine we are a democracy. My question is, and has always been, throughout this controversy, what is Don Cherry’s real contribution to hockey and society. One contribution stands out for sure – it is an abundance of very low quality entertainment, one that’s soundly rejected by the more educated younger generation. I have read numerous comments, letters to say he is utterly irrelevant, out of touch with the real world, completely redundant and expendable. His relentless pursuit of the muscularity of Canadian hockey players is out of date as the… Read more »

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