Mike Babcock was recently fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs. In January 2017 he did something that is probably a lot more common in the NHL than we would like to think:
Babcock allegedly asked Marner in January of 2017 to list his teammates from “hardest-working to those who, in the eyes of the rookies, didn’t have a strong work ethic,” wrote Koshan about the incident. Per Tulloch, Babcock was frustrated with Marner “for his perceived laziness in the first half of his rookie season.” (source)
Wanting to appease his boss, Marner did what he was told. He constructed his list and put himself at the bottom. He knew that he had to work harder without the puck.
This is where the story should have ended, but Babcock wasn’t done with the rankings his future star put together for him. In what can only be perceived as an attempt to light a fire under a few of the team’s veterans, Babcock shared the list with some of the individuals that Marner placed just above himself.
The entire story is uncomfortable and should once again make people stop and think about what hockey culture actually means. Hockey culture seems to hold a lot of deference and not a lot of space to stand up for yourself if your feel like you are being bullied by someone with more power than you.
Bullying behaviour is prevalent in hockey. It was there when Brian Burke threatened to fight Kevin Lowe in a barn, it was there when Steve Downie allegedly fought Akim Aliu for refusing to be “hot boxed” on the Windsor Spitfires bus. It is everywhere and is toxic for everyone involved.
To be clear, what Mike Babcock did was bullying. He took a player and used his power over him to get him to do something that was not related to his job. Babcock then used the information that he asked the rookie for to shame his teammates for their work ethic. But this should not be surprising.
Hockey has long favoured those who work hard and speak in cliche. It favours people who are white. It favours those who hold power over those who don’t. Think about when the story was slowly emerging about Evander Kane’s track suit being thrown in a tub or shower: no one saw that there was something inherently wrong with throwing someone’s clothes into a shower or tub to make them wet for the person. And yet there was a debate about if what Byfuglien did was wrong.
This is what hockey is. Hockey has many issues with power and they also all start with the person with power imposing themselves onto someone with less power and forcing them to do something. It spills into issues away from the rink when it comes to violence including sexual violence against women. If bullying behaviour is taught, it will be followed and lead to worse things for innocent victims.
This all starts at the top. It starts with revered hockey men abusing their position of power over young players to get them to shame themselves. It starts with media reporting on something like Brian Burke wanting to challenge Kevin Lowe to a barn fight without actually looking at the implications of someone who resorts to violence over a completely legal move (an offer sheet) because it was not gentlemanly. What is not gentlemanly is Burke’s response. Hockey has a problem with bullying and it has led to other bad behaviour that leads to more people being hurt. Until the deferential treatment of hockey men stops, the behaviour will continue.
The Way Forward
Hockey might be able to solve the problem and instead of starting in minor hockey, the NHL and international associations need to start at the highest levels and start to make changes. People follow the leaders and if the leaders are setting good examples on how one should behave, others are more likely to follow. Force institutional changes on those at the top on how they treat the players. Players deserve to be heard and not used to make a point unless it is at their permission. Stop cowing them into doing something and instead teach them what they need to change.
Secondly, and this is important, diversify leadership. People harp on the fact that the NHL has no women in leadership positions, but it is an issue. There is also the fact there are no people of colour in leadership positions. If we counted women of colour, a cross-section of these two groups, the answer is still zero. Until the leadership starts to be more diverse and not just diversity through token females or token people of colour being let into the room, the NHL and hockey will continue to have these problems. It sometimes takes a fresh perspective from outside the room to change the room itself.
Hockey men have been feeding toxic hockey culture for far too long. While changing it would not be easy, it would be worthwhile. It would reduce harm caused by the game. Harm not only to the players, but those in the shadows who have been hurt by the toxic culture and entitlement that hockey brings.
Above all, hockey needs to listen to and support the victims. They are the ones who are truly hurt by the culture around them. People like Akim Aliu who was traded at 16 after refusing to be hazed (and according to his twitter account, sent to the ECHL after Bill Peters called him a racial slur) or the women who have come forward with allegations or rape or whatever we call Evander Kane forcing a woman to have abortions. Those are the voices that should carry weight. Those are the voices that should matter when it comes to hockey culture. If those who have been harmed by hockey men want to help change the very culture that harmed them, let them. Give them the opportunity to lead the change. The worst thing that could happen is nothing would change.