By Greg Wyshynski | ESPN
For months, the defining moment of 2019 was the St. Louis Blues winning their first Stanley Cup. Especially since everyone is now copying that “promote an interim coach, find the song in your heart and you too can go from worst to first!” thing.
But then Don Cherry and Bill Peters personified the sports’ diversity and inclusion problems. Then Mike Babcock, Marc Crawford and Peters (again) symbolized the physical and mental abuse by coaches against players at every level of hockey. And the definitive moment was redefined.
As we turn our attention to 2020, these scandals are still being investigated and scrutinized by the NHL. They will, in some way, help define how the next year in hockey plays out. But there are plenty of others who will add their own definitions.
Here are the people who will matter most in hockey in 2020.
(Note: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman isn’t listed here, because he doesn’t need to be. He remains the most influential figure in the NHL. He’ll always matter most, as everyone except Gary Bettman will tell you.)
The Capitals star entered the holiday break with 681 career goals. Assuming he has 15 more goals in him this season — a fairly safe assumption, given his durability and average of 0.61 goals per game — Ovechkin will pass Teemu Selanne (684), Mario Lemieux (690), Steve Yzerman (692) and Mark Messier (694) into eighth on the all-time list. The next milestone is 700 goals, accomplished by seven players in NHL history.
Yet as the assault on Wayne Gretzky’s 894 continues, Ovechkin has other Baltic sculpin to fry in 2020: chasing a second Stanley Cup with a Washington team that very much looks like a contender for it. Prepare the public fountains in D.C. thusly.
Since retiring in 2015, Carcillo has been providing needles for the hockey power structure’s balloons on a variety of issues, including concussion awareness and mental health of players. His Twitter feed (@CarBombBoom13) became a clearinghouse of news on those topics, as uncomfortable and as alienating as it could feel for him. “It’s been difficult to be a man on an island. But I have a really great tool with social media,” he said.
In 2019, in the wake of the coaching scandals, Carcillo’s role as an abuse survivor and player advocate took on a new urgency. His call for stories of abuse from his peers inspired over 400 players to message him, many of them talking about the sexual abuse they suffered in minor and junior hockey. How he moves forward with this campaign could help define the movement in 2020.
Carcillo is also one of the most vocal skeptics about the NHL’s role in fixing these problems. Look no further than his reaction to the league’s “coach abuse hotline” that was recently announced.
“Do I think that NHL players will call into a hotline and the NHL’s going to listen to their voicemails? Absolutely not. There’s always fear of reprisal,” he said.
There are certainly times when the volume of Carcillo’s work can seem scattershot or overwhelming. But on the big issues, few voices have the legitimacy and the reach of the former NHL brawler.
Davis has been with the NHL since November 2017, when she was hired as the league’s executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. But her role took on new prominence this month, when it was announced that Davis would lead a “multidisciplinary council to suggest initiatives, monitor progress and coordinate efforts with all levels of hockey” in response to the recent coaching behavior controversies, and specifically the racist language used by former Flames coach Bill Peters against Akim Aliu.
“This has just accelerated our timeline and our resolve. There’s often some kind of defining moment for an organization that causes that organization to both accelerate its efforts but also to become a rallying call for that organization. So I see that as positive,” she said at the NHL board of governors meeting in December.
Davis has been doing great work outside the spotlight in the NHL for the last two years, but this announcement put her front and center on the league’s diversity and inclusion challenges. “[It’s about] creating an environment where people — players and people within our sport — feel a level of trust such that they believe they can now step forward and speak the truth. Speaking truth to power is hard,” she said.
Will he get another coaching job in 2020? That greatly depends on Babcock. As Mark Whicker wrote in the OC Register recently, “Mike Babcock’s career is long past rewinding. It also might be salvaged if humiliation changes him as profoundly as success did.”
Humiliation is an understatement. The stories of mental abuse from his days with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings have sandblasted the gold off his coaching standard. Can anyone look at Babcock and not think of Johan Franzen being driven to a nervous breakdown on the bench? Or Darren McCarty saying the Red Wings “won in ’08 in spite of [Babcock] and lost in ’09 because of him”?
As Whicker notes, there is a path back for Babcock. One with public mea culpas and behavioral counseling. One with a tacit admission that his tactics were wrong, and that he can change with the times. In other words: the kind of crisis public relations that can provide cover for his next employer should one want to hire him. And, in the process, a potential template for other shamed coaches to use in their comeback attempts.
Of course, the real fascinating thing is when Babcock would want to get back to work, given that he’s collecting a reported $22 million-plus from the Leafs through 2023.
Hall is the CEO and founder of SportsMEDIA Technology, the company tasked with making puck and player tracking (finally) a reality for the NHL. SMT became the league’s primary partner after it split with Jogmo World Corp. — which had been developing the data processing side of tracking for a few years — due to what Bettman called “organizational and financial challenges.”
So now it’s on Hall’s firm to finally crack the code on the technology — and I’m skeptical of this mixed-use of sensor tracking and optical tracking — which could revolutionize how we assess players and analyze games. Oh yeah: and how we bet on hockey. That too. The plan is still to have the tech in the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs with 2020-21 targeted for full implementation.
It may not hit the ice until 2021, but the Seattle expansion team is going to make a lot of news next year. Most notably, we won’t have to refer to it as “the Seattle expansion team” after the franchise’s nickname and colors are revealed at a fan event after the All-Star break. (Our choices: Sockeyes, if we’re sticking to the actual potential names; Sasquatch, if we’re being honest.)
Leiweke, the team’s CEO, will have enormous input on both. But he’s also the guy who hired GM Ron Francis, and then stood by him during the ongoing NHL investigation into physical abuse allegations against Peters when Francis was GM of the Carolina Hurricanes and Peters was the coach.
Barring something unforeseen, Francis will be tasked with hiring the first coach for Seattle — something that could happen before the end of 2020, depending on the candidates’ availability. It’s here we’ll recycle the speculation on Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, whom Francis played for and worked above in Carolina, and who is in the last year of his contract — even though he recently said that he’s very happy in the ‘Peg.
When we say the words “NHL player agent,” the first image that comes to mind isn’t likely to be a 35-year-old woman. Which is (a) a shame and (b) about to change in a big way with Castonguay. A member of the ascendant Momentum Hockey agency, she’s the agent for presumed 2020 first overall draft pick Alexis Lafreniere, and a trailblazer in a male-dominated industry.
“Knowledge is power,” she told USA Today. “And I have that. As soon as I start talking hockey, they realize I know what I’m talking about; the fact I’m a female is forgotten.”