Gary Bettman and Don Fehr Must Go

Photo by Thank You (21 Million +) Views from Flickr.

Guest Post by Derek Silva and Nathan Kalman-Lamb

Derek Silva is associate professor of criminology at King’s University College at Western university and cohost of The End of Sport podcast. His work on hockey culture can be found in Punishment & SocietyCrime, Media, Culture, and the Sociology of Sport Journal. He can be found on Twitter @Derekcrim.

Nathan Kalman-Lamb is lecturing fellow at Duke University and cohost of The End of Sport podcast. He is also the author of Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom and the Business of Sport. He can be found on Twitter @nkalamb

“To be honest, I was scared mostly. I was fearful. I had my career threatened. I felt alone and dark.”

That’s how the NHL left Kyle Beach for over a decade after he was sexually abused by Chicago coach Brad Aldrich in 2010. While some, like Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville have subsequently lost their jobs for their abject failure to to protect Beach and others, most of those responsible for what amounts to a cover up continue to operate in positions of authority and leadership. Foremost among them, longstanding NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr.

Beach’s traumatic experience, meticulously documented in the Jenner and Block Report and first exposed by Rick Westhead, reveals how he was violently subjected to unwanted sexual interactions by a coach wielding status coercion over his career prospects and a literal weapon. What it also reveals, however, is when and how various authorities in the world of professional hockey learned of these events, and the ways they decided to respond. As Kyle Beach brilliantly articulated it: “To be honest, I was scared mostly. I was fearful. I had my career threatened. I felt alone and dark. Sorry, it’s tough to recall these moments. I felt like I was alone and there was nothing I could do and nobody I could turn to for help.”

Most disturbingly, the report shows that in advance of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, in which Chicago participated, “five members  of  senior management  (then-President John McDonough, (senior vice-president of hockey operations, Al MacIsaac, General Manager Stan Bowman, then-Executive Vice President Jay Blunk, and then-Assistant General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff)” were informed of what happened and decided they “did not want any negative publicity during the Stanley Cup Finals” because it of “the challenge of getting to the Stanley Cup Finals and a desire to focus on the team and the playoffs.” In short, senior management of Chicago actively decided to put winning and the brand ahead of a person who was sexually assaulted. Even more, Aldrich continued to travel and work with the team for the remainder of the season, received a positive job reference from the club, had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup (now covered by Xs), and even got to take the trophy to his hometown. Beach said witnessing his abuser celebrating with the team made him “feel like nothing. It made me feel like I didn’t exist. It made me feel like he was in the right and I was wrong.”

After Westhead first broke the story, new details were quick to emerge that suggest not only that upper-management in Chicago, including General Manager Stan Bowman along with then-President John McDonogh and vice-president Al MacIsaac, were aware of the allegations, but that they actively refused to report the alleged abuses of players to law enforcement for investigation. As reported by TSN’s Westhead, these alleged assaults were “an open secret” within the franchise. Former player Nick Boynton told Westhead that investigators “asked me who knew [about the allegations] and I gave them names, basically everyone on the team.” As Kyle Beach told Westhead: “I do believe that everyone in that locker room knew about it. Because the comments were made in the locker room, they were made on the ice, they were made around the arena with all different people of all different backgrounds – players, staff, media in the presence.” Boynton went on to say “I said everybody fucking knew about it. I said you can talk to the coaches…I said talk to [former assistant coach John Tochetti. I called out Brian Campbell, and said talk to Patrick Sharp and talk to [Patrick Kane]…the training staff knew. I’m sick of this wall of silence.” This is the culture of silence and protection that has long been built into not only NHL management, but in hockey culture more generally. 

Photo by Nicole Yeary from Flickr.

It is, we hope, self-evident from this information alone that in Chicago, performance imperatives were privileged over and above the egregious harm inflicted upon one of their employees. This basic calculus tells us everything we need to know about the toxic dynamics of hockey culture. 

Which brings us to Gary Bettman. As Commissioner of the NHL, Bettman found himself in a position to redress some of the harm perpetrated in Chicago. Instead, what he has done in the last half year is reiterate and legitimate the league’s refusal to protect its workers and defend the most basic of human rights. 

Despite learning of the report in December 2020, Bettman waited until the public release of the Jenner and Block report in late October 2021 to take any action. The action he did take was remarkably muted. Most notably, he fined the team $2 million. To put that in context, as Rick Westhead noted, the Arizona Coyotes were penalized draft picks for the way they worked out a prospect and the New Jersey Devils received a 50% higher $3 million fine for a salary cap issue. Yet, when confronted with this information, Bettman betrayed an abject failure to acknowledge the stakes of the Beach situation, stating simply: “Different context, different facts.”

It should also be noted that it was not Bettman who held former Chicago coach Quenneville accountable for his determination to suppress information about sexual violence so as not to distract a team during the playoffs. Instead, Bettman allowed Quenneville to continue behind the bench even after the release of the report. His justification for that? “He had already coached 867 games since 2010, and I wanted to make sure that no one, including Coach Quenneville, could say that I had prejudged him.” The more salient question might be whether Bettman judged him at all. Indeed, perhaps the most profound indictment of Bettman’s leadership–of his refusal to definitively demonstrate that the sexual violence catalogued by Jenner and Block can have no place in the NHL–was in the answer he provided to another question from Westhead, who asked whether the Beach lawsuit against Chicago has merit. Although the team itself has publicly apologized to Beach, although Bowman and Quenneville have both resigned due to their roles, Bettman’s answered in a legalese most evocative of moral bankruptcy: “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on whether the lawsuit has merit.” 

Bettman is not the only significant person in a position of vital leadership who has abdicated the responsibility to protect Kyle Beach and other players. Don Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, was informed in 2010 about what happened. And yet, as Beach put it, “I know I reported every single detail to an individual at the NHLPA, who I was put in contact with after I believe two different people talked to Don Fehr. For him to turn his back on the players when his one job is to protect the players at all costs, I don’t know how that can be your leader.” Or, as the Jenner and Block report put it, “The  confidant recalled that Fehr suggested  that  the individual  could  speak to an NHLPA-affiliated  therapist even though the individual  was  not an NHLPA member.” Not exactly the response one might hope for from the player’s union leader when confronted with evidence of sexual violence.

NHLPA member players agree. One anonymous player rep interviewed by ESPN said, “For nine years NHLPA knew and did nothing to investigate nor help Kyle Beach in dealing with this trauma. They stopped talking to him after the second call.” Another concisely summed it up: “How was [Beach] left on an island?” Antoine Roussel put it even more directly: “I was surprised to see that level of negligence … It’s not acceptable. You look to your union and tell them that there’s a problem; that’s when you need each other. That’s when you need them to go to bat for you. In the end, it was the complete opposite.”

Donald Fehr is the executive director of the players’ union. His job is to protect players — their security, their health, and their safety. Not only did Fehr fail Kyle Beach in this regard, he put countless others at risk through his callous disregard for Kyle’s story. How can you continue as senior leader of the NHLPA when you don’t do the bare minimum to protect members? If that is not a failure of leadership, we don’t know what is. 

From youth and university hockey to the minor and professional leagues, hockey has a long history of implicitly and explicitly endorsing or ignoring racism and xenophobia, sexual and physical violence, and discrimination, and — perhaps even worse — protecting folks who have committed all of the above (even when laws have been broken). Take, for instance, the Carolina Hurricanes recent signing of Tony DeAngelo, who has a history of overt racism targeting teammates dating back to his days in the Ontario Hockey League, citing that the player “recognizes he has made mistakes and he knows he’s got to continue to grow as a person.” It’s the same trope yet again. Everyone gets to learn from their mistakes if it helps the hockey team. But how can we keep trusting the people who continue to allow those mistakes to happen to be the arbiters of character? Where is the evidence that those in power are capable of making these sound judgements? 

The NHL has a hockey problem that begins at the top. It’s not as much a problem with the game itself, as it is with the culture that surrounds it and for which it can’t escape. It has a problem with being built on the foundations of a heterosexual white boy’s club that systematically works to protect itself at the expense of a number of vulnerable groups — namely victims of sexual violence, women, and racialized groups of athletes, staff and fans alike.

The NHL may very well be beyond ‘repair’ because we keep looking at it as if change will (or can) come from within. The past few weeks have yet again made very clear that those in power have no interest in learning, in understanding, in listening, or, most importantly, in acting. How can we expect this culture to change if the same people who cause harm are able to keep doing the same things without any tangible accountability? Change can’t be expected to come from within that system — it requires a complete dismantling and rebuilding of hockey culture into something founded on reconciliation, on inclusion, on anti-racism and anti-sexism, on turning words into action. A hockey culture that acts on its wrongs and actively works to ensure not only that its harms are not repeated, but also that it truly supports those it has and continues to harm. The senior leaders who have been complicit in failing to protect survivors like Kyle Beach cannot be entrusted with that transformation. Gary Bettman, Don Fehr, and anyone else who failed to act for Kyle (and importantly John Doe 2) must be replaced. 

Our message to the NHL? Save the “we can do better” talk and prefabricated PR statements and force change. Root out those responsible for harm and prove that it will no longer be permitted. This means putting support for survivors at the fore instead of the culture of silence that has long plagued the sport. Unfortunately for senior leadership in the NHL, that means change must begin at the top. That’s what their behavior demands. It’s what’s required to begin a process of healing, although it cannot be the end.

But, anything less is simply unacceptable. You tolerate harm and abuse, or you don’t.

So, which is it?


One thought on “Gary Bettman and Don Fehr Must Go

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