Red Wings embrace changing culture as NHL tries to wipe out abuse

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — There is changing culture in the NHL, and it started with one tweet.

Former NHL player Akim Aliu tweeted Nov. 25 about verbal abuse directed at him by then-coach Bill Peters — a former Red Wings assistant and NHL coach for two teams — when the two were in the minor leagues in 2009.

Mike Babcock and Johan Franzen

“Dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music,” Aliu tweeted.

That has proven to be a watershed moment in the NHL, with the standard of what is and isn’t appropriate coaching behavior analyzed, debated and, the NHL hopes, corrected.

The players have been heard.

“It’s definitely a new age with social media and with how people are able to voice their opinions,” said forward Justin Abdelkader, a Red Wings alternate captain and 13-year NHL veteran. “Things are different that way and people are held more accountable.”

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Since Aliu’s statement, there have been a rash of headline-grabbing revelations that have rocked the NHL.

After Aliu came out with his allegations, former Carolina defenseman Michal Jordan contributed examples on social media of Peters physically assaulting Jordan during the 2015-16 season, when Peters coached the Hurricanes.

Peters apologized in a letter made public by Calgary management, but ultimately resigned as Flames coach on Nov. 29.

In Toronto, Mike Babcock, the former Red Wings coach, was fired as coach of the Maple Leafs in November after the team started 9-10-4. In the days after the firing, a slew of accusations against Babcock emerged, most of them concerning verbal abuse.

Former Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios said Babcock “verbally assaulted” Johan Franzen during the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, and that as a result Franzen had a "nervous breakdown."

Franzen confirmed the incident, telling a Swedish newspaper, "I get shivers when I think about it. ... It was coarse, nasty and shocking. But that was just one out of a hundred things he did. The tip of the iceberg."

Attempts by The Detroit News to reach Babcock were not successful, and Babcock has not commented on the allegations in any way since they’ve been made public.

Earlier this month, former Red Wings star Brendan Shanahan, president of the Maple Leafs, said Babcock's coaching tactics were not "appropriate or acceptable."

Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Marc Crawford was placed on leave after reports surfaced of Crawford kicking players in 2006-07, when he was head coach of the Los Angeles Kings. Crawford apologized and will return to the Chicago bench in January.

No current Red Wings have reported issues or abusive conduct from coaches at the NHL level.

Trevor Daley

Red Wings defenseman Trevor Daley was involved in a junior hockey incident in 2003, when then Sault Ste. Marie coach John Vanbiesbrouck resigned as the team’s coach and general manager after using a racial slur to describe Daley, who was the team’s captain.

Daley has not commented on the situation since it occurred.

Red Wings forward Brendan Perlini has heard stories from his father, Fred, who played professionally in North America and England during the 1980s, about hard-driving, tough-minded coaches.

The young Red Wings’ forward thinks about those stories, the examples of player-coach relationships back then, and just shakes his head.

“There was a lot of certain instances where in today’s day and age, I look at it and that would never even come close (to happening),” Perlini said. “But back then, it was normal.”

Perlini says it’s vital for the NHL to make progress toward eliminating all forms of abuse.

“It’s a unique thing, and definitely kind of sprung up on everyone,” Perlini said. “I have never had, off the top of my head, anything similar to those situations. You think back to certain (times), how you’ve been treated, and I can’t compare it.

“I can’t imagine that would be a fun thing to go through and holding it in over the years — you give those guys a lot of credit.”

Justin Abdelkader

Abdelkader was a teammate of Franzen's earlier this decade, but said he never witnessed any sort of abuse.

“So I can’t speak to those,” said Abdelkader, adding that if the recent allegations are accurate, “you don’t want those things in our game, for sure.”

In the wake of the allegations, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently announced a code of conduct for organizations.

►Teams will be required to immediately report any incidents of inappropriate behavior by club personnel. 

►A disciplinary counsel will be run under the direction of NHL executive vice president Kim Davis. Discipline, determined on a case-by-case basis, will be “severe and appropriate.”

►The NHL will develop a mandatory annual counseling program that all league coaches, assistant coaches, minor-league coaches, general managers and assistant general managers must attend.

“Inclusion and diversity are not simply buzzwords. They are foundational principles of the NHL,” Bettman said. “Our message is unequivocal: We will not tolerate abusive behavior of any kind.

“Professionalism and respect have been important to this league but it is now a particularly important time to discuss it because everyone is entitled to a respectful workplace.”

Changes in society, Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said, have spurred changes in the coach-player relationship over the years.

But Blashill says the importance of respect has not changed, and that’s what he has worked to achieve throughout his career.

Jeff Blashill

“What will always hold true is respect, and it’s something that has always been important for me,” Blashill said. “I never get personal with players, never attack the person, because I want to earn their respect and in turn, give respect.

“I also think, certainly, discipline matters and getting the most out of people, sometimes it requires you to be hard on them and push them to greater heights, and that’ll never change, either, so there’s a line between those things.”

Blashill noted he’s appreciated coaches throughout his own playing career who pushed and motivated him.

“I know there’s a lot of coaches who made huge impacts on my life because they pushed me beyond what I thought I could get to,” Blashill said. “So that part never changes, either.”

Aliu met with Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly and was encouraged by the discussion, and the willingness of the NHL to embrace change.

But Aliu also indicated there will be much work ahead.

“Now the hard work begins of focusing on specifics and implementing policy that make this part more diverse, safer and accountable,” Aliu tweeted on Dec. 9. “We have to ensure that future generations of hockey players do not face the barriers and racism that I have throughout my career.”

Twitter: @tkulfan