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In a series of low points for the NHL during the Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault scandal and subsequent coverup, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s Monday zoom session with reporters was scraping near the bottom.
Bettman was contrite and apologetic, but it felt like there were just too many fires for him to put out this time around. Many of the answers were lawyerly and lacked the kind of warmth and genuine conviction needed to address a situation where the Blackhawks, the NHL and the hockey world-at-large forced a 20-year-old kid into the worst situation imaginable.
Beach recalled the pain, the shame and the trauma of watching nothing happen over the last 10 years in a gut-wrenching interview with TSN, something Bettman referenced during the media session.
"We could not be more sorry for the trauma that Kyle has had to endure," said the 69-year-old Bettman on Monday. "And our goal is to do what is necessary to continue to move forward. [The TSN interview with Beach] was emotional. I was distressed.
“I knew that he had obviously been suffering just by watching him and I wanted to make sure that we were continued to be focused on how to deal with what was now in front of us. I was sorry as a personal matter that anybody, particularly him, had to go through what he was discussing."
Bettman had a private phone call with Beach where he implored the former Blackhawks top prospect to “call me Gary” and ensured that NHL-sponsored counseling would be available to him. At least there was some measure of empathy finally coming from the NHL commissioner’s office, but it all felt too little, too late at this point. Beyond that there was also the matter of the $2 million fine slapped on the Blackhawks, which was sadly $1 million less than the financial penalty given to the New Jersey Devils for circumventing the salary cap with Ilya Kovalchuk’s back-diving contract.
Bettman viewed it as ‘a clear message” to NHL clubs while most around the hockey world didn’t think it was nearly enough, even if Chicago Blackhawks ownership wasn’t aware of the veracity of the claims until very recently. That’s ultimately why former GM Stan Bowman and Al MacIssac are now out of the league along with former Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville and former Team President John McDonough, as they covered up the incident for a decade and clearly didn’t give accurate accounting of the situation to their NHL employer, or to the league at large.
Each of those individuals will have a stain on their hockey careers for the rest of their lives and there will be a permanent, disgraceful footnote to the three Blackhawks Stanley Cups won with that group as well.
"People have debated the amount of the fine, but it was substantial by any measure. It sends a message to all clubs about how I view their organization responsibilities,” said Bettman, who said the NHL was going to come up with a system of networks ‘to be available to the hockey community, so that wherever you may be in the hockey ecosystem that it’s important everyone has an outlet for help’. "I think it's clear that senior management made the decision to not deal with this and not talk about it and not tell ownership about it. I think this situation, and the view of this that we expressed to the clubs on an ongoing basis, is that the people that work for you do their jobs. You're responsible for what goes on. You need to know about what goes on in your organization and take appropriate action when inappropriate things are taking place.
"If nothing else, this has to serve as a wake-up call for all clubs: You need to make sure you understand what's going on in your organization, because you're going to be held responsible. This was to make clear that the way the Blackhawks organization handled this matter was not appropriate, even though the ownership was not aware. And it was also a message to the rest of the league that you need to make sure your organization is functioning properly on these matters.”
The specifics of the situation, and the media availability session at large, is where things got really dicey for Bettman. It seemed clear the league was trying to duck TSN reporter Rick Westhead, who has been a beacon of journalistic power and integrity during the entire Blackhawks situation. It took more than 40 minutes – and prodding from other reporters during the call -- for him to be allowed to pose questions of Bettman, something the PHWA (Professional Hockey Writers Association) took notice of in the aftermath.
Bettman also shrugged off other bothersome details, like allowing Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to get off without punishment despite being part of a meeting with Blackhawks senior management during the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs where the group decided to prioritize their Stanley Cup run over doing the humane, right thing to report the incident. Or allowing Joel Quenneville to coach last week’s Panthers game against the Boston Bruins before personally meeting with the head coach and essentially banishing him from the league.
"I suppose people can differ on that point, but 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," said Bettman. "Again, people can disagree on this, but I was focused on the long term, not that one game."
Would that be in the same way Bettman, the NHL and the Blackhawks totally prejudged Beach and his accusations in a situation that led to Aldrich sexually assaulting others after he quietly slinked away from the Blackhawks organization?
Clearly there are going to be hockey fans that are now disillusioned with the NHL and rightfully so given the way so many parts of the league’s system failed Beach, essentially victimized those assaulted by Aldrich after him and flat-out failed to do the one right thing. To them Bettman stood, hat in hand, and apologized while essentially saying they were going to do better next time.
"I think people are going to, like us, feel dispirited, disappointed, horrified as to what happened," said Bettman. "But understand we've tried to be as transparent as possible, that action has been taken -- disciplinary -- to address the things that were done wrong. That we have had, even prior to this, procedures and training and counseling in effect to ensure that the culture of hockey doesn't encourage, and in fact prohibits, this type of activity.
"We're going to have to be judged as we move forward. I think if you take into account all the factors here, well, it's certainly a horrible picture. We have to move forward the best we can doing the things that are right in terms of addressing the things that have happened, or how we move forward."
It’s true the NHL will be judged on what happens next.
But there has also been altogether too much damage done and Monday didn’t serve as a compelling enough explanation behind the lack of action, the lack of forethought and the lack of human decency that allowed it all to happen in the first place. There’s going to be a lot of calls for Bettman to resign in the wake of a “horrific” scandal that happened under his watch, and maybe, just maybe, this time they are justified when thinking about all the human wreckage in its wake.