The Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal and the NHL’s dismal reaction to it have laid bare a systemic rot at the heart of hockey’s old boys’ club
On 23 May 2010, “within an hour after the Blackhawks won the playoff game that secured their place in the Stanley Cup Finals,” members of Chicago’s senior management, along with then-head coach Joel Quenneville and team counselor Jim Gary, had a meeting about an allegation of sexual assault involving a coach and player.
The story they heard was that then-video coach Brad Aldrich had tried to “get under the sheets” with a Blackhawks player, then known only as John Doe, but who we now know is Kyle Beach. The details, as they’ve been since alleged, are that Aldrich had invited Beach to his apartment, gave him dinner and drinks, and turned on some porn. Aldrich then tried to be physically intimate. Beach, apparently, hit him. At that point, Aldrich allegedly stood up, grabbed a small baseball bat, and told Beach that “if you don’t lay down and enjoy it, I’ll make sure you never play in the NHL or walk again.”
After they’d heard about the allegation at the May meeting, Quenneville apparently “shook his head and said that it was hard for the team to get to where they were, and they could not deal with this issue now,” according to an extensive report into the incident. Sure enough, there’s no evidence anyone told human resources about it until nearly a month later. Aldrich was then given an option: submit to an investigation or resign. He chose the latter, got severance and a playoff bonus. He got his name on the Stanley Cup. A few years later, Aldrich was working at a high school in Michigan when he was arrested and pled guilty to fourth degree criminal sexual conduct involving a minor.
Until this year, a decade after the incident, the Blackhawks had never launched an investigation into Beach’s allegation. Since that report landed, general manager Stan Bowman and president and CEO John McDonough – both present at that meeting in May – have left. Quenneville, who was coaching the Panthers, resigned. And the NHL levied the Blackhawks a paltry $2m fine for their mishandling of the incident.
On Monday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly held a press conference. Doesn’t it say something about the culture of hockey, one reporter wondered, that in the 10 years since that May 2010 meeting, nobody – including Kevin Cheveldayoff, now general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, who was present for the May 2010 meeting – had ever publicly mentioned this allegation? “Do you find that troubling at all?” the reporter asked. “Kevin was such a minor player in this,” Bettman explained. “He had no reason to believe that anything other than the right things were going on.”
No more a damning phrase than this can summarize the source of the NHL’s – and hockey’s – many issues. Whether it’s the concussion denials, the hidden prescription drug use, the quietly tolerated racism, the secret hazing rituals – you name it, it’s all the product of a governing ideology in hockey that has at its heart exactly the assumption Bettman laid bare: that silence can only mean the right things are going on.
And what do you get with a league, and a sport, that subscribes to this ideology? You will probably get more Kyle Beaches. “I was scared, mostly. I was fearful. I’d had my career threatened. I felt alone and dark,” Beach told TSN last week about how he felt in the days after the incident in Aldrich’s apartment. “I felt like I was alone and there was nothing I could do and nobody to turn to for help.”
In the days since Beach spoke publicly to TSN, there have been calls for change – even for Bettman’s resignation. For his part, Bettman appears to believe that change has already come – to the league and, perhaps, to him. “Had we known about this in 2011, everything would have been handled differently,” Bettman said a few minutes later. “But we didn’t… What we know now, I don’t think anybody knew when the complaint was filed. So, obviously it would have been treated differently because we wouldn’t tolerate this.”
In the winter of 1997, then-St Louis Blues head coach Mike Keenan – so controlling that players on his earlier Philadelphia Flyers teams reportedly took to giving Hitler salutes behind his back – was embroiled in a tempestuous exit from yet another team. After two disastrous seasons and amidst Keenan’s feuding with star Brett Hull, Blues ownership had pulled the plug. During the All-Star game’s period break, the CBC’s Ron MacLean briefly noted Keenan’s ongoing settlement dispute with the Blues. Bettman, it so happened, was appointed the arbiter of the case. “How are you the arbitrator when you in fact are hired by the owners?” MacLean asked Bettman. “When we have a dispute within the family, we don’t see any reason to air our laundry outside,” Bettman replied.
I don’t know. Maybe some things, and some people, never change.