DENVER — One of the most culturally significant two-week periods in NHL history started with something that happened 21,000 times before:
Marc-Andre Fleury made a save.
Fleury’s miraculous diving save on Nov. 20 sealed a 3-2 Golden Knights victory over the Maple Leafs, and struggling Leafs coach Mike Babcock was fired the next day.
Babcock’s firing prompted public airing of his cruelty to then-rookie Mitch Marner a few years earlier. That prompted Akim Aliu to speak up about the racist behavior of Bill Peters, Babcock’s longtime friend and understudy, during the 2009-10 season in Rockford. And that prompted former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan to mention Peters’ pattern of physical abuse of players in Carolina.
The wave of stunning and later confirmed allegations have sent shock waves through a sport in desperate need, societally, of a 21st century makeover. The twists and turns of this saga likely aren’t finished, but at least the second chapter seemed to reach a conclusion Friday with Peters’ resignation in Calgary.
So far, five franchises have been touched significantly in hockey’s November of reckoning: the Leafs, Flames, Blackhawks, Hurricanes, and the yet-unnamed future Seattle team.
Indeed, the Hawks are not entirely blameless. No matter how naive the front office — including general manager Stan Bowman and president John McDonough, as wave-maker Akim Aliu boldly name-dropped — was to Peters’ racism during his 2008-11 tenure in Rockford, his racism was clearly blatant enough that their naivety indicates a concerning lack of oversight.
We now know Peters unleashed his backward vitriol on multiple players, over multiple seasons, and that much of the team was present and aware. Aliu’s claim that Peters called him the N-word repeatedly in a locker-room tirade over his hip-hop music was confirmed by multiple IceHogs teammates to TSN. Team captain Jake Dowell reportedly later confronted Peters personally.
Nine players from that group, including Dowell, went on to play for the Hawks in the ensuing seasons. Although the last remaining one — Corey Crawford — said this week he didn’t remember the incident, it was obviously well-known throughout the Hawks’ top affiliate at the time.
The Hawks’ brass had a responsibility to know, too, even if it didn’t.
And Aliu’s AHL-to-ECHL demotion likely will always be suspicious. Aliu initially tweeted that Peters curiously “wrote a letter” to Bowman and McDonough requesting it. He later told TSN it happened when he rebuffed Peters at a practice weeks later.
The Hawks, in their official statement, claimed Peters’ racist eruption “had not been reported or brought to our attention prior to [Monday] and had no effect on any player personnel decision.” That might well be true, and there’s no way to prove the contrary.
But one way or another, a 20-year-old second-round pick having an objectively decent rookie season — 17 points in 48 AHL games as a defenseman — ended up in the ECHL, a hinterland to which very few players on NHL contracts are ever sent. The Hawks logically could’ve granted Peters’ request to send Aliu down without looking into or questioning Peters’ reasoning. But if so, they left unfilled a duty to do so.
In the end, though, the Hawks will emerge from this wrecking ball’s path splattered with dirt but not buried by it.
The Leafs’ culture seems highly toxic. The Flames are without a coach. The Hurricanes, or at least the old Hurricanes, were clearly dysfunctional. Seattle could lose its GM-to-be (Ron Francis reportedly knew about Peters’ physically abusing players in Carolina and did nothing).
The Hawks enter December wiping their brows, no doubt.
Nonetheless, the experience should send an important message of accountability and equity throughout the organization. And that is one unquestionably positive side effect.