Hockey is a place of father figures. The ousting of Mike Babcock as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets for “some of his polarizing old-school tactics” does not stand to represent a change in hockey culture but only exposes the patriarchal structure which dominates the sport. Even the language often used to describe Babcock is rich with paternal imagery, painting him as an “unflinching and often stoic man” who “doesn’t seem to mind if his players like him [but] does need them to respect him.” Babcock himself believes that as a coach his “number one job is to make [players] better men,” while making them better at hockey is only a secondary priority.
Fortunately, Mike Babcock is not your father.
If there is one person who is emblematic of hockey’s patriarchal history it is Don Cherry, host of CBC’s Coach’s Corner from 1981-2019. Voted the seventh greatest Canadian, the former coach used his platform to share opinions on a variety of mostly hockey-related subjects, often dedicating a significant portion of his show to younger viewers. Addressing “all you kids out there,” Cherry would offer such sage advice as “the only guys that don’t like fighting are [the] priss types.” Though he often voiced misogynistic and xenophobic sentiments, many were quick to defend “that old-school guy with a diehard passion” as “strong-minded” and “a hockey institution.”
Inordinately, Don Cherry is hockey’s father.
It is no wonder, then, that the well-trodden patriarchal narrative structure of the coach who holds a father-like role is ever-present in hockey cinema. A quintessential example of this is Disney’s The Mighty Ducks, a movie that went on to spawn two franchises. In it, coach Gordon Bombay continuously fills a father-like role for his players, teaching them both about hockey and life. The film concludes with one of the players using Bombay’s move to score, winning the championship and a kiss for Bombay from the player’s own mother. Life often imitates art, and less than a year after its theatrical release, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim became an NHL team.
Unfortunately, Gordon Bombay is not Mike Babcock.
What has been afoot in ice rinks and theaters was again exposed this September by rumors of intimidation and inappropriate behavior under Babcock’s stewardship. The allegations were met by denial from the coach who claimed that his tactics were simply a team-building exercise. The NHLPA launched an investigation and after seventy-seven days as head coach in Columbus, Mike Babcock resigned. With the vicious terrorizing Babcock has engaged in throughout his coaching career well-documented, the Blue Jackets join a list of victims that lie in his wake, from Anaheim to Detroit to Toronto, from Modano to Marner, Chelios to Spezza, Commodore to Franzen, and countless more.
At this point in Babcock’s career the abuse should not be a surprise, but the way in which it was allowed to happen again must be acknowledged as a sign that the sport of hockey has daddy issues. Babcock demanded players’ phones and rummaged through photos, text messages, and whatever else he deemed relevant. After all it’s a father’s right, and like a family member, Babcock was given another chance.
For his part Babcock noted that it “was going to be too much of a distraction” if he stayed, once again refusing to acknowledge any responsibility or wrongdoing. Yet most telling is the statement released by Columbus GM Jarmo Kekäläinen, thanking the coach “for his hard work and the professionalism he has shown.” Yes, Mike Babcock is a professional father, and he is also a symptom of hockey’s dad problem.
To be sure, someone could argue that Mike Babcock is an especially bad apple and not representative of other coaches. Yet the reemergence of the Mighty Ducks as a TV show in 2021 demonstrates the staying power of hockey’s coach-as-father mentality. Every coach Bombay which we embrace affords a Babcock the chance to thrive, and precisely because we are so convinced of the role coaches should play it allows for the bad ones to be truly naughty.
The danger with the patriarchal structure of hockey is the way it not only breeds the potential for abuse but also establishes the locker room as a private institution that – like family – should be left alone. Business as usual will doom the sport to continued mental, physical, and emotional abuse inflicted on and by its players. From power-hungry coaches to systemic enabling of sexual predators, hockey needs to work the kink out of the way it operates.