In explaining his decision to fire Jim Montgomery, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said one sentence that jumped out far more than any other. Actually it was part of one sentence. And it was: “It’s an honor and a privilege to work in the NHL.”
A growing number of people are having that privilege taken away from them, including Montgomery, who was found by a team investigation to have been guilty of a “material act of unprofessionalism.” Nothing related to the Stars on the ice. Nothing to do with any player, past or present, with the Stars or any other organization. No criminal activity. And still he was let go quickly and decisively. 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.
Anyone who has experienced the NHL’s way of approaching justice has good reason to cast a wary eye toward the league. Nobody is positing that the league does not care about this. It clearly does, as evidenced by the way it is responding to the claims. As we said, a Code of Conduct is a really, really good place to start. Particularly since the league will be taking the matters out of the dressing room and putting the onus on the teams to bring them to the light by reporting them to the league. But when Bettman says that teams that fail to report instances of misconduct can expect “severe discipline,” what exactly does that mean? Is it fines, loss of employment, loss of draft picks? We don’t know. But anyone associated with the sport knows that the NHL’s idea of “severe discipline” varies greatly from what most of society regards as “severe discipline.” A quick glance at the vast majority of decisions brought down by the Department of Player Safety makes that abundantly clear.
A hotline for whistleblowers? Great idea. More mandatory education and awareness? Right on. Zero tolerance for abuse? Sign us up.
But here’s what’s really going to change behavior. Coaches knowing that one day they could be in the midst of a 10-game winning streak and then be unemployed. That’s not exactly what happened to Montgomery here, but Nill was 100 percent right when he said this had nothing to do with performance. The Stars were very much rounding into form. Management, including Nill, liked the job Montgomery was doing. The players both liked and respected him. And the Stars were starting to fulfill their potential as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. And it was all taken away for something that appeared to have nothing to do with hockey and was an off-ice issue.
Over the past two weeks, there has been a seismic shift in the culture of hockey, all of it started by a Tweet from former minor league journeyman Akim Aliu. That has led to all of this and not only will it dramatically alter the vetting process for coaches, more importantly it will cause them to pause before they do or say something that might end up haunting them.