Coaches kicking their players in the back, or punching them in the head, is unacceptable.
That's a given, right? That a superior assaulting a subordinate is wrong? That these power dynamics discourage any pushback, because the victim risks a reduction in playing time, outright removal from the team or escalating physical and mental abuse under the guise of "hard practices?"
Bill Peters punched and kicked two players with the Carolina Hurricanes. It might not be the primary reason he's no longer coaching the Calgary Flames, but it was a contributing one. Marc Crawford has been accused of kicking and choking players while coaching the Los Angeles Kings. His current team, the Chicago Blackhawks, has put him on administrative leave pending their investigation.
You know who else punched a player in the head on the bench?
Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette.
It happened on Feb. 18, 2011, when Laviolette was coaching the Philadelphia Flyers. The player he punched was 27-year-old Finnish forward Ville Leino, in his second NHL season. We know this happened not because a retired player made an accusation. We know this happened because many of us watched it at the time.
What about this guy? Laviolette on camera punching Leino in the head. Likely not an isolated incident. pic.twitter.com/egiJEVECG7— Burn Unit (@ClintonPapin) December 3, 2019
I've thought a lot about that punch recently. It hasn't been mentioned much, if at all, in this parade of accusations against coaches; despite, you know, being readily available on YouTube. We know how punching a player in the head looks now. How did some of us react at the time?
"I wish we could zoom in so that the camera could catch the single tear running down Leino's face after getting knocked on the side of the head." --Uproxx
"You know this will only make us love you more, Lavvy. And you too, Leino, for taking the shot like a man." -- NBC Sports Philadelphia
"The coolest part? It actually seemed to light a fire under the teams' collective a--. And Leino didn't even budge." --Broad Street Hockey
I'm not trying to pick on certain media outlets here. They were amplifying the overall reaction to the incident in the hockey community. In fact, you know who else didn't have a problem with Ville Leino getting punched in the head by Peter Laviolette at the time?
"There are lot of emotions in the game. Coaches get fired up and things happen," Leino told ESPN via email. "I don't think Peter tried to hit me, and it looks worse in the video than it was."
Leino hadn't thought about this incident in quite a while, until a friend showed him the video the other day. He recalls Laviolette apologizing for the punch at the time. "Peter was a very passionate and emotional coach. That made him good, but sometimes stuff like this happened," he said. "Nevertheless, it shouldn't happen."
Leino retired in 2015 and is now CEO of a successful clothing brand in Finland called Billebeino. He has watched from afar as this reckoning of coaches' behavior has happened in the NHL, from Peters to Crawford to the accusations of mental abuse against Mike Babcock, who was Leino's first coach in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings. And he has thought a lot about what was seen as acceptable then, and how we view it now.
"Back in the day, almost every coach I played for was doing or saying stuff that's not appropriate in a normal work environment. It happened every day. It was part of the culture. I guess it was considered normal," he said. "It's hard to put the blame on just few of the coaches or certain moments when it happened. Times have changed, and people have changed."
Can the culture change?
When Akim Aliu accused Peters of directing racist language toward him, which was corroborated by two teammates, the reaction from the hockey community, the Flames and the NHL itself was swift and justifiable condemnation. But accusations of physical abuse against coaches have entered an area that can be best called "selective enforcement." Part of that is the players' reactions. Call it toxic masculinity, or violence being the one true vernacular of a violent sport, but at best we're getting "it's wrong, but we didn't know better at the time" from players. And at worst, we're getting Sean Avery.
The former New York Rangers forward told the New York Post that Crawford kicked him in the back hard enough to leave a mark when the two were with the Kings. That was grouped with other accusations of physical abuse from players like Patrick O'Sullivan and Brent Sopel. But two days later, Avery backed away from the story so fast he left smoking tire treads on the sidewalk.
"Marc Crawford had every right in the world to kick me in the a--. He should have spanked my a-- a little bit more. I deserved it," Avery said, in a video posted to Twitter. "I loved Crow. He was my second-favorite NHL coach. Fact."
Avery excused it as "tough love." Others now view it for what it was, which is physical abuse of a power imbalance.
In which direction is the NHL, and hockey culture, going to head?
"I think the culture was that if a coach punches you in the head, that's acceptable. Whether that's actually acceptable or not, that was the culture at the time. But just like everything else, stuff is gonna change," former NHL player Anthony Stewart told us this week on the ESPN On Ice podcast. "The way things were 20 years ago, it's not going to be acceptable now. It's a new generation of kids. You have [social media], where you can get the information out there right away."
The "kids" are an important part of this solution. This type of abuse is far more prevalent in junior hockey than it is in the pros, where the power imbalance is more severe: Teams have less scrutiny and junior players have no leverage, considering their entire career path could be demolished for speaking out. This is where abuse gets standardized, and then it becomes accepted at other levels. Remember the outrage over hazing? Same culture, same toxic tradition.
"Coaches and athletic directors, general managers are generally former athletes themselves, right? So they're also a part of that culture. And in terms of hazing, had it done to them and did it to others," Jay Johnson, a professor at the University of Manitoba that studied hazing in junior hockey, told the CBC last year. "And that really normalizes behavior, because everyone's doing it."
So the culture has to change. But how far are we willing to take that change?
The walls of silence around the dressing room are crumbling, but I'm not convinced the hockey community is ready to traverse through the debris. To do this right, there needs to be a hard conversation about the gray areas. The days of a coach assaulting a player are going to be over, as players are more empowered and leagues are becoming vigilant about ending that behavior. But how do we define verbal abuse? How much yelling at someone is too much, knowing that it varies from player to player? Is a bag skate abuse? Is that scene from "Miracle," previously lauded as a defining moment for the late Herb Brooks, now a shameful display? Is "not knowing any better" an excuse, when any rational person would? Is there a statute of limitations for kicking or punching a player because "that's just how it was?"
It's astonishing how many players have stories about getting punched or kicked by a coach. It's astonishing how many chalk it up to an emotional outburst, which leads to apologies, which leads to the general manager shaking his finger and saying never to do that again, and everyone moves on.
This isn't about a few coaches losing their jobs or having their reputations taking a hit, and it being the end of this. It's about having that happen to break this cycle, and putting it back together in a better, safer, more respectful way. These are difficult, fundamental changes for a sport that typically lurches forward toward progress with the rapidity of an overfed zombie. But it's the kick in the pants the NHL requires right now.
"We need these latest talks, because they will change things," Leino said. "I hope it will be little easier, especially for the young guys."
From Madison Square Garden:
Death to the shootout: ECHL edition
Regular readers of this space know I abhor the shootout with the fury of a thousand burning suns, as it's a completely artificial, inferior and inequitable way to determine the victor of a team sport.
The NHL recognizes this too, which is why we don't have the shootout in the playoffs and why the league shifted to 3-on-3 overtime in an effort to minimize them even more.
But according to ESPN Stats & Information research, shootouts are up this season: 9.38% of games have gone to a shootout. Last season, 6.85% of games (87 of 1,271) were shootout games. Through Dec. 4 this season, we've had 41 shootouts. Through Dec. 4 last season, we had 26. That is the highest such percentage through games of Dec. 4 in a season since 2016-17 (9.8%, 37 of 377 games).
Oh, this is not good. What shall we do?
There has been talk here and there about what expanding overtime could do to reduce the number of shootouts. One league is currently seeing what that looks like, and so far shootouts are down dramatically.
The ECHL expanded 3-on-3 overtime to seven minutes this season. Through the first 258 games this season, 54 were tied after regulation, or 21% of games played. Of those, 45 were decided in the 3-on-3 overtime (83.3%) and nine in the shootout (16.7%). At the 273-game mark last season, 60 were tied (22%), 39 were decided in overtime (65%) and 21 in the shootout (35%).
For context: In the 2018-19 ECHL season, out of 972 total games, 200 were tied after regulation (20.6% of games played). Of those, 122 were decided in overtime (61.0%) and 78 in the shootout (39.0%).
Of note: The average time of the winning goal in overtime so far this season is at the 3:02 mark, and nine of the 45 games were decided in those extra two minutes of overtime. Last season, the average time of the winning goal was at the 2:23 mark.
As shootouts creep up, perhaps it's time to increase the length of overtime. This would be good news for those of us who love the 3-on-3 overtime, which remains chaotically glorious no matter how conservatively teams try to play it.
Listen to ESPN On Ice
We returned from our holiday break to discuss ... well, a lot of what you read at the top of this column, with Anthony Stewart of Sportsnet. Plus, a spin around the NHL Awards Watch, Taylor Hall trade rumors and ... that Peloton ad. Listen here, and please rate and review!
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: John Hynes
Typically, a coach losing his job isn't going to land him on the winners list. But consider the outpouring of respect for Hynes after the New Jersey Devils fired him after four-plus seasons this week. "You'll see him in the NHL, head coaching at some point soon. He's a good man. I have a pretty cool trophy at home that I think he had a part in," former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall said. Also, Hynes will never have to stand behind the Devils' bench for another debacle like that 7-1 loss to Buffalo, either.
Loser: Ray Shero
This season is a disaster for the Devils. It took them seven games to get a win out of the gate. They gave away leads at home as if they were magnetic calendars. Shero, the Devils' general manager, added P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds and Jack Hughes in the offseason. He had a healthy Taylor Hall. What he didn't address was the goaltending, which consisted of a still-untested Mackenzie Blackwood and the fourth season of hoping Cory Schneider could turn his career around. (Spoiler: He didn't.) Increasingly, Shero's approach to this season after seeing what happened last season is like that real estate guy from the original "Poltergeist": He put a bunch of fancy new property on top of where the bodies were still buried, and the team was haunted by it.
Winner: Nathan MacKinnon
MacKinnon is on an unbelievable tear, with 22 points in his last 11 games, giving him 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists) in 28 games this season. The Avalanche are the best offensive team in the league and are ensconced in a playoff spot. That MacKinnon and the team have accomplished this with Mikko Rantanen, who just returned on Nov. 30, and Gabriel Landeskog, who returned Thursday night, out of the lineup is the stuff that Stanley Cup contenders are made from.
Loser: Anyone trying to defend Connor McDavid
This could make our winners and losers every week, but watching the Ottawa Senators surround McDavid with five players while the Edmonton Oilers change, and still have McDavid slice through for a Grade-A scoring chance is as comical as it is awe-inspiring.
Ya'll if this ain't the most Connor McDavid photo ever I don't know what is. The fact that he got a grade A scoring chance after is something out of a novel. Absolutely unbelievable. pic.twitter.com/YsfPG3CqTM— 𝗔𝗱𝗮𝗺 (@OilersAdam) December 5, 2019
Winner: Mark Borowiecki
The Senators defenseman stopped a robbery in Vancouver recently when he saw someone breaking into a parked car. He wrestled away a bag from the person, who ran away. "I'm a mediocre fighter on the ice, but I'm very confident handling myself off the ice. I wasn't too worried about anything that would happen," he said.
Loser: Calgary taxpayers
Congrats to the Calgary Flames and their billionaire owner on their bountiful new well of corporate welfare, as the citizens of the city foot half the bill for their new arena.
Very interesting lawsuit news: "The state appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a teen injured in "freak accident" during a 2013 hockey game at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough. The teen's wrist was sliced open by another player's skate, and he sued the player, the rink owner, and the referees overseeing the game."
Minnesota, just an FYI that Jenna Fischer is coming to your state to film a "Hoosiers"-esque hockey movie.
Safe to say that you've arrived as a legit competitor when traditional powerhouses like Denver are cutting promos on you, Arizona State.
For the first time in program history, we'll travel to Arizona State this weekend— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) December 4, 2019
It looks like the Sun Devils will be debuting new jerseys for the 2,000th time in their three-minute history #PioneerTogether https://t.co/4tTStPtd0E
Nice piece here by Kevin Allen on Caley Chelios and the increasing roles for women in the NHL.
Snoop Dogg has been added to EA Sports' NHL 20, as an announcer and a playable character. Where was this when I was a kid? "Bliz-ades of Steel?"
Finally, remember Andrew "The Hamburglar" Hammond? Here he is making a "scorpion save" in the AHL. Wow!
Andrew Hammond also known as the "The Hamburglar" with the scorpion save in the AHL.... 👀 pic.twitter.com/pGOdQhXe02— Robert Söderlind (@HockeyWebCast) December 5, 2019
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
John Tortorella's players, current and former, on his tactics in light of everything that's happening in the NHL. Said Brandon Dubinsky: "As far as crossing lines, he's never crossed any lines with me. I've never seen him cross any lines, as far as physically or really saying things to the point of being abusive."
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN