Content warning: Racism, ableism, physical assault, bullying
What comes to mind when you think of hockey culture? Sexual assault? Hazing? Racism? There is no doubt that the culture of Canada’s game is a travesty to all those it touches. The recent Hockey Canada scandal has provoked an unprecedented level of scrutiny regarding the sport’s culture and despite public outcry for systemic change, the Boston Bruins signed defenceman Mitchell Miller to an entry-level contract on Nov. 4.
In 2016, Miller and a fellow classmate pleaded guilty to one count of assault and one count of violation of the Ohio Safe Schools Act. From the second grade onwards, Miller emotionally and physically abused Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, a Black and developmentally disabled classmate. The bullying ranged from racial slurs to physical attacks, with Miller repeatedly calling Meyer-Crothers the N-word and forcing him to eat a piece of candy that had been rubbed inside of a urinal. At the time of his plea, the juvenile magistrate contended that Miller showed no remorse for his actions.
In 2020, the Arizona Coyotes selected Miller in the fourth round of the NHL draft. Upon receiving major backlash, the Coyotes renounced their rights to Miller. In an attempt to absolve themselves of blame, Arizona cited a background check that did not involve contacting Meyer-Crothers or his family and a desire to be “part of the solution.” In a letter to the Coyotes following the draft, Meyer-Crothers’ mother outlined the damage that Miller inflicted on her son and explained that Miller had continued to harass Meyer-Crothers for two years after the court case had been settled. The Coyotes did not respond.
Many, including Meyer-Crothers’ family, believed this would be it for Miller. He was cut from the University of North Dakota hockey team and sat out the 2020-21 season. But Miller was given yet another chance, returning to his former United States Hockey League (USHL) team, the Tri-City Storm. Not only did Miller play, he was awarded USHL Player and Defenceman of the Year for the 2021-22 season.
This recognition from the USHL put Miller back on the NHL’s radar. Almost two years after the Coyotes scandal, the Bruins moved forward with his signing. Anticipating backlash, the team reassured fans that they had worked on the signing for “almost a year” and believed Miller deserved a “second chance.”
In the days following, the Bruins and Miller’s agent doubled down on their decision, citing attempts at “restorative justice” and releasing disingenuous statements about working with organizations to help “rehabilitate” Miller. Once again, neither Meyer-Crothers nor his parents were contacted by the Bruins as general manager Don Sweeney did not believe it was necessary.
After three days of public outcry from fans, media, and even the Bruins locker room, team President Cam Neely announced that, based on “new information”, the team would “part ways” with Miller. Neely claimed the team believed that Miller’s pattern of abusive behaviour was an “isolated incident” and concluded his statement with a warning “as a father” to young people that the repercussions of “careless behaviours” can be felt for a lifetime.
On Nov. 9, Meyer-Crothers released his own statement on the Hockey Diversity Alliance’s Twitter account detailing the ways in which Miller tortured him. He spoke of racist and hateful messages he has received from those defending Miller on social media. He described Miller’s insincere attempts at an apology, and ended with the heartbreaking line: “I can’t take more of this.”
Despite NHL commissioner Gary Bettman condemning the signing, Miller’s contract would have been approved by the NHL’s central registry as per the collective bargaining agreement. Regardless, the Bruins will likely have to pay Miller’s contract through the 2022-23 season and many believe that the NHL Players Association will file a grievance on Miller’s behalf despite him not having played an NHL game.
Playing in the NHL is a privilege. A privilege that cannot be extended to those who display a pattern of anti-Black and ableist abuse. Professional hockey leagues cannot continue to exist for the purpose of saving privileged white men from their actions—they need to be punished. And until they are, hockey will continue to fail.