Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday the NHL will work swiftly to make changes to better deal with personnel conduct issues in the wake of incidents that surfaced in recent weeks.
Speaking at the end of the first day of the Board of Governors meeting at the Inn at Spanish Bay resort in Pebble Beach, Bettman told reporters that NHL personnel will be required to attend mandatory counseling regarding racism and anti-bullying. Bettman also talked about the formation of a hotline for people to call to report any such incidents.
“Inclusion and diversity are not simply buzz words. They are foundational principles of the NHL,” Bettman said. “Our message is unequivocal: We will not tolerate abusive behavior of any kind.”
Bettman’s comments were his first publicly since former NHL player Akim Aliu alleged that former Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters previously directed racial slurs toward him while in the minor leagues a decade ago. Peters, who has also been accused of physical abuse while coaching Carolina, resigned following the accusations by Aliu.
While Bettman said that the NHL is conducting its own review of the Peters-Aliu situation, the commissioner made it clear that there will be zero tolerance from the league moving forward.
To that end, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Board of Governors about a multi-point plan designed to curb any further issues while allowing coaches to still do their job.
“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,” Bettman said.
Included in the proposed plan:
● Teams will be required to immediately report any incidents of inappropriate behavior by club personnel that has been brought to their attention. Failure to do so will result in “severe discipline,” according to Bettman.
● Swift and severe punishment for those involved in any future or past incidents that are brought to the NHL’s attention.
● A mandatory annual counseling program that all NHL coaches, assistant coaches, minor league coaches, general managers and assistant general managers must attend. The program, which will be created by professionals in the field outside of the NHL, will focus on consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion. The players association and coaches association will be consulted in the formation of the program as well.
● The formation of a disciplinary counsel that will be run under the direction of NHL executive vice-president Kim Davis.
Bettman also spoke about the possibility of creating a hotline for people to call to report incidents of abuse, racism or other things that might fall into a ‘grey area’ as Bettman referred to it.
“We understand the critical importance that no one is retaliated against for raising a concern or participating in an investigation. I guarantee we will take all reports seriously and follow up,” Bettman said.
Aliu accused Peters of using racial slurs while the two were with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League from 2008-10.
Bettman said he spoke with the Board of Governors regarding the code of conduct plan and received full support.
“As one of the preeminent professional sports leagues in the world and as the preeminent hockey league in the world, we recognize and embrace our role in setting an example,” Bettman said. “We now are obviously aware of conduct that was and is unacceptable. Whether it happened 10 years ago or last week, the answer must be the same: It is unacceptable.”
The NHL is continuing to investigate the Aliu allegations as well as those made by former Carolina players that Peters physically abused them while coaching the Hurricanes. Aliu on Monday said he was encouraged Bettman is willing to embrace changes.
“Now the hard work begins of focusing on specifics and implementing policy that will make this part more diverse, safer and accountable,” Aliu said in a statement on Twitter. “We have to ensure that future generations of hockey players do not face the barriers and racism that I have throughout my career.”
Ron Francis, general manager for the Seattle expansion team, held the same job with Carolina during the alleged physical abuse and has said that he told former owner Peter Karmanos about the allegations. Karmanos, in a subsequent interview, claimed he was unaware of any incidents regarding Peters.
“There seems to be some confusion between statements by Peter Karmanos and Ron Francis, which I still need to sort out,” Bettman said. “However I am fairly clear that none of this has anything to do with Carolina under (current owner) Tom Dundon who was among the first to call me when Peters’ conduct came to light.”
Bettman said that he believes most NHL coaches conduct themselves appropriately but believes it’s critical to have a program in place to prevent issues from getting out of hand.
“Not everyone will approve of every coach’s methods,” Bettman said. “However there are lines that cannot be crossed. Clearly, physical abuse and racial and homophobic language cross the line.”
Bettman said that he and Daly were updated on the situation regarding current Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Marc Crawford. Crawford has been accused of physical abuse by former player Sean Avery during the 2006-07 season when both were with the Los Angeles Kings. Bettman said the league is deferring to the club’s investigation on the matter.
The NHL expects to put their plans in motion as quickly as possible.
“We want to have a program that is meaningful and effective and is done in the right way,” Bettman said.