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Tipsheet: NHL's coaching reform adds Montgomery to its casualty list

Tipsheet: NHL's coaching reform adds Montgomery to its casualty list

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Suddenly the NHL is quite concerned about the conduct of its coaches.

This trend began after the Toronto Maple Leafs fired old-school bench czar Mike Babcock. Some of his tactics came to light, such as asking then-rookie Mitch Marner to rank his teammates in order of their work ethic.

Babcock said that ranking was confidential -- then he shared it with the team, putting Marner in a terrible spot.

Johan Franzen, who played for Babcock in Detroit, called him the "worst person I have ever met" in a Swedish newspaper on Dec. 2 and alleged that Babcock was a "bully" who "attacked" him daily.

Akim Aliu chimed in, claiming that Babcock acolyte Bill Peters was abusive while coaching him in Rockford of the AHL. He cited a racially-charged outburst that, when widely verified, prompted the Calgary Flames to fire him.

It didn't help that Peters also physically abused a player on the bench while coaching the Carolina Hurricanes, an incident that current Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour verified.

The Chicago Blackhawks suspended assistant coach Marc Crawford pending a probe into his past behavior. The famously abrasive Crawford stood accused of kicking player Sean Avery when they were with the Los Angeles Kings.

In fairness to Crawford, Avery was arguably the biggest tool to play in the NHL in modern times. Context is important.

"Marc Crawford had every right in the world to kick me in the (backside). He should have spanked my (backside) a little bit more. I deserved it," Avery later admitted in a video posted to Twitter. "I loved Crow. He was my second-favorite NHL coach. Fact."

These scenarios prompted the NHL to develop a coaching code of conduct at its recent Board of Governors meeting. And while that discussion was still ongoing, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill was investigating a complaint against coach Jim Montgomery.

The club dismissed Montgomery on Tuesday for "a material act of unprofessionalism." Nill offered no detail, other than to say it didn't involve a current or former Stars player.

That was a stunner given Montgomery's success during 1½ seasons on the Dallas bench.

So the NHL is trying to move on from the era when coaches ruled like kings, tyrants, dictators and so forth. Long-time Blues fans can recall "Iron Mike" Keenan waging psychological warfare on his players here and elsewhere.

Perhaps the caricature of the old-school coach was John Brophy, who dressed like a gangster behind the Maple Leafs bench and acted like one.

Those were the days. The boys who played back then are shaking their head at the "Me Too" phenomenon sweeping in the NHL, but such is the world we live in.

“Listen, I think you can take a player out of his comfort zone. I think that you can push a player beyond what he thinks he is capable of and still ask yourself the question at the end of the day, ‘Have I done this in an appropriate way?’," noted Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, the former Blues star who clashed with Keenan back in the STL. “It’s not always going to be a good day. At the end of the day, you want to get the most out of the players, and I think that what the players are saying now is there is a more positive way in which that can be approached.”

Here his what the pundits have had to say about all of this:

Ken Campbell, The Hockey News: "Never before have coaches in this league been so severely scrutinized and disciplined. And that is a good thing. Here’s the thing with the Stars and Nill. If you were compiling a list of the people with the most integrity in the hockey world, Nill’s name would be at or near the top of it. You can bet that from the time he took the call over the weekend alerting him to what happened, whatever it was, he dealt with it fairly, all the while employing a very reliable moral compass. At this point, we don’t know exactly what it is that Montgomery is alleged to have done, but if Nill thinks the punishment is appropriate, this corner is on board. When faced with allegations of misconduct, Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving and Nill, and their organizations, have probably done more to police the conduct of coaches than the four-point plan NHL commissioner Gary Bettman outlined to the board of governors could ever do. Don’t get us wrong. The league’s strategy to attack this issue is commendable and well worth the effort, but nothing will get a coach’s attention more than the knowledge that he could lose his job quickly and without any bearing on what he has accomplished on the ice. You want to eliminate the win-at-all-costs philosophy and justification that might guide a coach when he steps out of line? This should do it quite nicely."

Eliotte Friedman, Sportsnet: "Lawyers will tell you the NHL properly handled the Bill Peters investigation, but the slower pace in a frenzied world and the fact he resigned instead of being fired left a sour taste in many mouths. Clear guidelines eliminate grey area, and ease another percolating debate: Where is the line of acceptability? While everyone should recognize racial comments and physical abuse as zero-tolerance offences, verbal criticism hits all ranges, and everyone reacts differently. A dressing-down that bothers you might not bother someone else. Sometimes, the truth hurts, but we need the honesty. There must be clarity."

Greg Wyshynski, "The walls of silence around the dressing room are crumbling, but I'm not convinced the hockey community is ready to traverse through the debris. To do this right, there needs to be a hard conversation about the gray areas. The days of a coach assaulting a player are going to be over, as players are more empowered and leagues are becoming vigilant about ending that behavior. But how do we define verbal abuse? How much yelling at someone is too much, knowing that it varies from player to player? Is a bag skate abuse? Is that scene from 'Miracle,' previously lauded as a defining moment for the late Herb Brooks, now a shameful display? Is 'not knowing any better' an excuse, when any rational person would? Is there a statute of limitations for kicking or punching a player because 'that's just how it was?' It's astonishing how many players have stories about getting punched or kicked by a coach. It's astonishing how many chalk it up to an emotional outburst, which leads to apologies, which leads to the general manager shaking his finger and saying never to do that again, and everyone moves on. This isn't about a few coaches losing their jobs or having their reputations taking a hit, and it being the end of this. It's about having that happen to break this cycle, and putting it back together in a better, safer, more respectful way. These are difficult, fundamental changes for a sport that typically lurches forward toward progress with the rapidity of an overfed zombie. But it's the kick in the pants the NHL requires right now."

Pierre LeBrun, The Athletic: "Before the NHL Board of Governors meeting, one particular governor was somewhat skeptical. He believed that when it came time for Gary Bettman to speak during the discussion entitled 'Hockey Culture,’ the NHL commissioner would deliver a guarded, vague and somewhat legalese response. That’s not what he got on Monday. 'I was impressed,' the governor said. 'He was firm, concise and detailed. There’s the potential for a plan in place here that will help the league have a 360-degree response to ensure the NHL will have zero tolerance to some of these things we’re talking about.' The governor was speaking on the condition of anonymity because the league requested that Bettman be the sole voice on this subject during the opening day of the Board of Governors meeting. After Akim Aliu’s story sparked some difficult conversations in the hockey world, many were wondering how the league would respond. The initial reaction to the NHL’s plan is that the league is taking this matter seriously. Bettman’s four-point plan, first detailed to NHL owners and then to the assembled media, has the potential to make a difference. I say potential because now comes the hard part, proving that these were not just words spoken at the Board of Governors meeting. That this is a plan that will be followed through at every level."


"I think the culture was that if a coach punches you in the head, that's acceptable. Whether that's actually acceptable or not, that was the culture at the time. But just like everything else, stuff is gonna change. The way things were 20 years ago, it's not going to be acceptable now. It's a new generation of kids. You have (social media), where you can get the information out there right away."

Former NHL player Anthony Stewart, on the ESPN On Ice podcast.

Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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