With all the serious-face gravity he could muster, Don Sweeney looked into a Zoom camera Friday and repeated the warning he professed to have issued to his newest Bruin.
“I might have been the person who picked him up at the airport when he arrived in Boston,” Sweeney declared, “and I will be the first to drive him to the airport if this goes sideways.”
The “this” to which the Bruins general manager referred is the Friday afternoon news-dump announcement that the team had signed defenseman Mitchell Miller to an entry-level contract, assigning him to Providence.
For those unaware of why the Bruins might have been moved to try to hide the news in the slowest hours just before the weekend, Miller is the player once drafted by the Coyotes only to be dumped when the Arizona Republic exposed a horrific incident from Miller’s past.
At age 14, Miller pleaded guilty to one count of assault and one count of violation of the Ohio Safe Schools Act, admitting to the heinous bullying and racist name-calling of a Black classmate with developmental disabilities. The particularly disgusting detail that Miller and others tricked Isaiah Meyer-Crothers into licking a candy push pop that had been in a urinal meant that Meyer-Crothers had to be tested for hepatitis, HIV, and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Over and over again, Sweeney cast that incident not only as a one-time event, but one to be excused as a teenage mistake, as if we were discussing cheating on a test or sneaking alcohol at a party.
This is not that. But from the Bruins’ standpoint — and remember, while Sweeney took the brunt of public reaction by doing the talking Friday, this is an organizational decision and an organizational embarrassment — there is this deliberate willingness to characterize Miller’s cruelty as a single act of a misguided youth, even though Meyer-Crothers said in the Republic’s interview that Miller taunted him for years, repeatedly using epithets like the “N-word” and “brownie,” while also hitting him with regularity.
Most galling was the moment Sweeney tried to sweep us all into the net of empathy he has thrown over Mitchell by saying, “I think we all question things we have done when we were younger,” as if it’s just routine teenage rebellion to taunt, abuse, and bully a vulnerable classmate.
Sweeney was much closer to the truth when he acknowledged that he might not have been able to make what he called a challenging personal versus professional decision had the victim been his own child. So just what is he saying to Meyer-Crothers’s parents?
As it turns out, neither he nor anyone else with the Bruins even checked in with the victim or the victim’s family during a vetting process he said goes back “almost a year.”
Instead, they move ahead with the satisfaction that Mitchell told them he’d finally reached out to apologize directly to his victim (reportedly done only through a recent Instagram direct message), taking that as enough to fuel their belief that Mitchell had matured from that moment Sweeney described as a “very misguided immature decision in the eighth grade.” Enough to convince them he’d moved beyond racist language Sweeney insisted “nobody will ever condone” but that “for reference … we understood was in a group setting” and that “it’s not been part of Mitchell’s makeup and moving forward it won’t be part of, obviously.”
The only obvious point here is that someone, somewhere in the NHL was going to sign Miller, a 20-year-old who recorded 39 goals and 44 assists with a plus-43 rating in 60 games with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL in 2021-22, enough to earn Player of the Year and Defenseman of the Year, setting league records for goals and points by a defenseman.
The Bruins decided it might as well be them.
Damn the risks, to the team chemistry that has gotten them off to a scintillating 10-1 start, to a franchise that bills itself as being built on character and connection to community, to the cause of diversity that the NHL has been struggling so hard to make us believe it takes seriously, to the fans who have every right to be disgusted by Miller’s addition.
Maybe that’s what made it all so hard to listen to Friday, made it all so difficult to digest, hearing all the twisting justifications wrapped up in notions of noble efforts in education, training, and community involvement. Mitchell himself said Friday in Providence that more than a few teams had been in contact with him, a reality that no doubt pushed the Bruins to action, no different than the Browns stepping up to trade for Deshaun Watson or the Bucs, Patriots, and Raiders taking flyers on Antonio Brown.
“Personally this has been a struggle, to what is right, what is wrong,” said Sweeney. “I can’t categorically tell you this is the right decision. It’s an opportunity for a young man to work and continue to try and earn respect.
“My own personal judgment on this wasn’t the final say — it was part of the equation — but having spent time with him, understanding the direction he would like to take his life in, we felt if other teams were willing to give him the chance, we all have to look in the mirror and say why wouldn’t we be willing to give him the chance?”
There was always another answer available. The Bruins just chose not to take it.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.