Another week, another coaching change. Only this time the process was strikingly different. Termination through the vise grip of Twitter.
Bill Peters, called out Monday as racist on Twitter by a player he coached in the AHL a decade ago, was left with no choice but to resign Friday in Calgary, only a season-plus into his tenure behind the Flames’ bench.
What now for the 54-year-old Peters? No way he ever works again in the NHL or anywhere else in hockey, short of, say, an attempt at a redemptive tour in community service somehow related to the game. By his own words and actions, he has been rendered that toxic. His racially charged diatribe, as repeated by the aggrieved player, Nigerian-born Akim Aliu, will shadow him forever.
Adding to Peters’s woes, and further diminishing his future employment hopes anywhere, a former Hurricanes player early this past week charged that he and a teammate were physically abused by Peters during the coach’s four-year stay (2014-18) in Raleigh. The player, Czech-born defenseman Michal Jordan, told TSN’s Frank Seravalli he suffered “multiple” physical attacks by Peters.
Jordan also tweeted, saying he was kicked by Peters and a teammate was punched in the head during a game.
“Now other guys are speaking out,” Jordan said to TSN, noting he was too afraid to say anything at the time, “so I felt I could.”
Only a day later, Jordan’s claims of physical abuse were confirmed by Hurricanes icon and current coach Rod Brind’Amour, a former Hurricanes assistant under Peters. If Brind’Amour said anything at the time of the incidents, it wasn’t made public.
“The players have way more power now,” Brind’Amour noted during a media scrum on Wednesday. “I think they realize that and I think it’s important for them to speak out about whatever is important.”
Jordan, now 29, played 74 games for the Peters-coached Hurricanes, 2014-16. He departed North America after the 2015-16 season and is now in his fourth season with KHL Khabarovsk.
Aliu, 30, played briefly for ECHL Orlando last season, his 10th year as a pro, and is now back home in Ontario, ostensibly retired. His career included only seven NHL games, all for the Flames, years before Peters began working for the franchise. The NHL said this past week it plans to meet with Aliu.
Aliu initially tweeted about Peters, though not directly by name, on Monday in the wake of the Maple Leafs firing coach Mike Babcock. He referred to Peters as a Babcock protégé who “dropped the N-bomb several times toward me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music.” Peters broke into the NHL as an assistant on Babcock’s staff in Detroit in 2013.
Originally a Blackhawks draft pick, Aliu at the time of the verbal abuse played for their AHL Rockford affiliate, where Peters was the head coach. Further, Aliu claimed, Peters felt compelled to request his bosses (general manager Stan Bowman and team president John McDonough) in Chicago demote the then-20-year-old defenseman to ECHL Toledo. Aliu saw brief tours in the ECHL in his first three pro seasons, including after the Blackhawks bundled him into the 2010 Dustin Byfuglien deal to the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise.
Per TSN, two of Akim’s Rockford teammates in 2009-10, Simon Danis-Pepin and Peter MacArthur, confirmed Akim’s account of the incident involving Aliu’s choice of music.
“I was too scared to speak up,” said Aliu. “I beat myself up every day over it.”
The Flames immediately sidelined Peters and launched an investigation nearly the moment Aliu hit the “send” button on his Twitter account. Ex-Bruins assistant Geoff Ward assumed the lead coaching role the next day, including as bench boss Wednesday night in Buffalo. On Friday, upon announcing Peters’s resignation, GM Brad Treliving formally installed Ward as interim coach.
Peters remained silent during the club’s investigation and on Wednesday penned a letter of apology, not to Aliu but to Treliving, noting he regretted the “offensive language” he uttered “in a professional setting a decade ago.”
His comments at the time, Peters added, “were made in a moment of frustration and do not reflect my personal values.”
Aliu was not impressed and quickly labeled Peters’s comments “misleading, insincere, and concerning.”
Start to finish, from tweet to resignation, took less than 96 hours. Peters is finished. Aliu, burdened 10 years by a hateful verbal attack, perhaps now finds some measure of peace and healing. The NHL, and the hockey community at large, must turn inward and ask why such behavior was ever tolerated, and to a degree enabled.
Then there’s the lingering question, does the hockey culture of 2019 allow such bigotry and hate, and abuse both verbal and physical, to linger and fester in the shadows?
FAR FROM SATISFIED
Always room for improvement
As of the morning of Thanksgiving, the 17-3-5 Bruins were ranked No. 1 overall in the NHL standings and still were the only club yet to lose in regulation on home ice (9-0-4).
With 57 games to go, they needed to play a smidge better than break-even the rest of the way to reach the 100-point plateau for their third straight season under Bruce Cassidy. Read: zero reason to rush Patrice Bergeron (core injury) or Kevan Miller (knee) back into the lineup; not with a playoff seed tucked neatly in the winter larder before the first snowfall.
Had Black Friday marked the opening of the Stanley Cup playoffs (feel free to add that to your holiday wish list), the Bruins would have faced off against No. 8 seed Philadelphia in Round 1 and been granted home ice throughout the tournament.
“Health is always our biggest concern,” said Don Sweeney, currently on what appears to be a zip line to a second consecutive GM of the Year award. “An awful lot of teams in the same boat . . . and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
For a team grown accustomed to the backline getting chewed up (remember the decimated blue line woodpile for Round 1 vs. the Senators in 2017?), the Bruins thus far have been inordinately chipped up among their forwards, a total of nine already missing 80-plus man games because of injury. Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Charlie Coyle, Danton Heinen, and Sean Kuraly have been the only forwards to go whistling blithely by the trainer’s room.
“Like most teams, we haven’t been healthy,” said team president Cam Neely, asked specifically what, if anything, he’s identified as a roster need to this point. “So we’ve had a lot of juggling with our forward group in particular. I’d like to see, if we can get some continuity with four lines . . . maybe get a little more consistency out of all four lines, then we’ll have a better chance of assessing.
“Right now I could say a bunch of different things that I’d like, but I want to wait and see where we’re at, if we ever get healthy.”
Asked if he’d share any of the elements in that “bunch,” Neely broke into laughter and said, “No, it wouldn’t be fair to our group.”
Truth is, in the Original 31, with its grueling 82-game regular season, it’s a fait accompli that teams are never at full health. Even rosters labeled as 100 percent typically are diminished by some percentage (pick a number) based on who is dinged up.
One working fallacy worth putting to rest is that the Bruins can’t be a worthy Cup contender without finding David Krejci a permanent, bona fide right winger in his pairing with Jake DeBrusk. As of the one-day holiday break, the Bruins led the league with a plus-31 goal differential, a full touchdown and field goal better than No. 2 Pittsburgh (plus-21). So much for the alleged Achilles’ heel in the offense.
Playoff success forever will be most about goaltending and defense. The Bruins, with their blend of forwards and Cassidy’s acumen in mixing and matching on the fly, have proven they can score enough. They also have arguably the best net tandem in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak (brilliant in the 8-1 pasting of the Canadiens on Tuesday, as odd as that may sound).
Ultimately, thriving again in the postseason, and perhaps ending on a note other than Blue, will come down to the health, composition, and competence of the backline chorus.
As of Sunday, the Feb. 24 trade deadline is a mere 85 days in the not-so-distant future. It looks from here like a defenseman, one inclined to pitch in with a goal or two, would be Sweeney’s primary target.
“Well, you need an awful lot of ’em,” said Sweeney, noting that both John Moore and Miller have yet to suit up this season. “You need 10 or 12 to play over the course of the year. I think we have a decent amount of depth. I think we used all those players last year. We’ve also had [Urho Vaakanainen] up this year, [Jeremy] Lauzon and [Jakub] Zboril played last year. [Alex] Petrovic [assigned to AHL Providence] also is part of our group — a bigger guy on the right side, we’re happy to have him.”
Like Neely, Sweeney’s to-do list sounds more focused on the forwards.
“In terms of depth of scoring, it played out OK for us last year in the playoffs,” Sweeney said. “I think it’s paramount. We have some guys right now who I think are OK offensively, but we need a little more for me to be comfortable.”
McAvoy eager to give back
Charlie McAvoy grew up a long wrist shot, all of three blocks, from the Long Beach (N.Y.) Ice Arena, typically making his way on foot or bike for hockey practices and games.
“Lots of great memories there,” recalled the Bruins defenseman, who spun childhood dreams into a career that now has him working on a three-year deal worth upward of $15 million. “That’s where it all started.”
In the summer of 2018, with his parents packing up and moving to another part of town, McAvoy returned to his childhood homestead and bundled up more than a decade’s worth of his gear that he kept stuffed into the corners of his bedroom and attic.
“We had, gosh, bins of stuff,” noted McAvoy. “Bins full of pads. Bins full of skates. I think I had every skate I’d ever worn. I didn’t need any of it anymore, obviously . . . so it was my dad’s idea for us to bring it over to the rink. They’ve got these donation bins for programs like learn to skate and all that. So maybe through that some kids were able to skate and stuff — kids who normally would not have been able to.”
Hockey, and skating in general, remains what is often a daunting financial proposition for parents and children. One of the Bruins’ myriad youth hockey initiatives in recent years has been to help beginners get trimmed out in their first gear for a substantial price reduction. The club’s “Learn to Play” program, the largest in the NHL, is in its sixth season. For $140 (about the cost of an adult carbon stick these days), beginners receive full head-to-toe CCM equipment (retail: $500-plus) and four weeks of on-ice instruction.
McAvoy grew up a Rangers fan in an area east of Manhattan that often sees it allegiances split between the Broadway Blueshirts and the Islanders. One of his prized possessions as a little kid was a pair of gloves trimmed in Ranger red, white, and blue. It’s a good bet some of the stuff he hauled off to the Long Beach Ice Arena donation bins were marked up in Ranger colors by his handiwork. The bins are stamped with a Rangers logo. Some kids in the old neighborhood might not know they’re sporting the gear once worn by a neighborhood rink rat now playing for the rival Black and Gold.
“Funny thing is, at some point some of it was someone else’s gear, too,” said McAvoy, his dad a plumber who understood the strains youth hockey can have on the purse. “I don’t think it was until I started playing travel hockey that I began to get nicer stuff. What we put in there was, like, generations of hand-me-down stuff. But nonetheless, it still works.”
It wasn’t until he spent a few years climbing up the Long Beach youth hockey ladder, McAvoy recalled, that it dawned on him that, “I wasn’t doing all this for free . . . someone’s got to pay for all of it.”
Dad was writing the checks.
“He always made it work,” said McAvoy. “When I figured out the cost of it all, and I’d be OK getting the cheaper stuff, like last year’s stick, my dad would be like, ‘No, we are getting the best stuff.’ Everything I got was because of him.”
Impressive, somewhat unexpected, start for Sheldon Keefe behind the Maple Leafs’ bench upon taking over for Mike Babcock. Headed into the weekend, the Blue and White had polished off Arizona (3-1), Colorado (5-3), and Detroit (6-0), all on the road. “We have really good players,” said Keefe, downplaying his direct impact. “When they are feeling confident, good things can happen.” Much like when Bruce Cassidy took over the Boston bench from Claude Julien, Keefe has made only slight tweaks to Babcock’s game plan — with an emphasis on offense, particularly engaging the blue line in the attack. It can be subtle changes that make a major change, but the Leafs look like they still need roster help, on the back end and in backup goaltending . . . Sitting in the Bell Centre stands on Tuesday morning, Sweeney was asked if he recalled the hammering he took from Habs winger Brian Skrudland at the old Forum in January 1990. “Right there,” said Sweeney, pointing across the ice to the area behind what would be Boston’s defensive blue line. “Different building, but hard to forget.” Not even 24 months removed from the Harvard campus, Sweeney was steamrolled by the bigger (6 feet, 200 pounds), 26-year-old Skrudland. It’s worth a look on YouTube. Without exaggerating, at least one of us in the press box figured it would be Sweeney’s last shift, if he ever got up. “Yep, got me good,” said a smiling Sweeney, who retired 14 years later, with 1,115 games on his résumé. “How fast do you think they would have placed me in concussion protocol with that one today?” Best Sweeney recalls, he and Skrudland, who played 15 seasons, never shared a recollection of it in their later years. “No,” said Sweeney, “but that wasn’t an era when you became pals when it was all over.”