Any professional sports team, no matter how good their players are, is nothing without a coach backing them.
A coach is something that can make or break a team. Because of that they are often valued above the players. A good coach is something that is hard to come by, but a player is expendable. If their performance isn’t satisfactory there will always be numerous others behind them ready for their chance to prove themselves.
This sentiment rings true in the aftermath of the firing of former Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock.
After what proved to be a disappointing start to the season for the Maple Leafs, the team was willing to do whatever it took to bring life back into the team. The ushering in of a new head coach for an underperforming team is not anything new for the NHL. However, Babcock’s firing proved to be a bigger spectacle than anybody could have predicted.
Reports started coming out from multiple former players and news publications detailing the ways that Babcock would abuse the power he had over the players to get them to comply.
The story at the center of this involves then Maple Leafs’ rookie Mitch Marner. It was said that during the 2016-17 season, Babcock asked Marner to list his teammates in order of hardest to least hardest workers. Babcock then proceeded to take that list and tell the players on the bottom of it where Marner ranked them with Marner in the room.
Emotionally abusing a player and abusing your power to try and get his teammates to turn against him are not things that a coach should be doing, no matter how good that coach may seem.
Multiple players from Babcock’s time as the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings have also come forward with similar sentiments of verbal and emotional abuse.
This wouldn’t have been so noteworthy if it was an isolated incident involving only Babcock. However, that is far from the case.
Reports of abuse from coaches at all levels of hockey started coming to light. Former head coach of the Calgary Flames Bill Peters resigned due to allegations of racist remarks against former player Akim Aliu and reports that he physically abused players during his time with the Carolina Hurricanes. Assistant coach of the Chicago Blackhawks Marc Crawford was suspended by the team for a month due to multiple reports that he physically abused players.
This behavior from coaches is nothing new.
A coaching position is something that gives a person extreme amounts of power over a group of people, a lot of them being quite young. Because someone’s playing career rests directly on the decisions their coach makes, many are not going to challenge their coach or what they are told to do by them.
This is a problem that can be seen clearly within junior hockey leagues.
Players are encouraged to leave home to join hockey teams in different cities, different states or even different countries at a young age if they ever want the chance to play professionally. This serves as the first time many of them are living away from home, leaving them extremely vulnerable and susceptible to abuse.
On these teams, hazing is something that is recognized as a common and normal thing. It’s seen as a form of team bonding. But physical, sexual and emotional abuse and manipulation should never be something seen as necessary for a team’s success.
The coaches of these teams are not blind to what is happening with their players. They are remaining complacent in these situations and should not be seen as innocent.
And so, the question we have to ask is: What position should a coach play in the lives of their players? How do we judge when a situation between a coach and a player has gone too far?
A lot of beliefs and mentalities surrounding coaching have changed for the better, but that does not mean that they are perfect. In hockey especially, there is a clear divide in coaching styles. A lot of coaches are still stuck in the old boys’ club mentality.
The NHL has stated that they are taking steps to minimize abuse from coaches within the league. Despite the fact that it sounds like it is wholly good for the league and shows that they are being proactive in reducing abuse in the league, some of the new policies begin to raise some questions.
One major thing they announced was the fact that they would be creating an anonymous platform for people to be able to report incidents of abuse. While having a direct form of contact within the league to address these issues is beneficial, it cannot be known that this platform will not be used as a way for the NHL to get ahead of the story and prevent these issues from ever reaching the public.
For all prior allegations, players voiced their concerns online or to the media. They took their thoughts to a public forum as a way to hold the people involved and the NHL responsible. It cannot be said how this will change with the creation of the platform.
Abuse has been a problem within hockey for a long time, it is only now that it is being discussed openly. These are important conversations to be having now and to continue having in the future.
No coach should abuse their players for any reason. Above all, the mental, physical and emotional health of the players should be prioritized.
No amount of wins or points is worth abusing anybody and the NHL’s coaches need to recognize that.