Columnists, Hockey, Sports

Off the Post: Mitchell Miller signing highlights the NHL’s biggest flaws

I love hockey. If you’re reading this column, I’m sure you do too. While some write it off as “just a game,” the sport can morph into a lifestyle, a belief system, a structured community for many of its followers. So when a team as respected as the Boston Bruins, in a league as prominent as the NHL, announces the signing of an individual like Mitchell Miller, it’s heartbreaking. It’s sad, it’s infuriating, it’s confusing –– but it’s not shocking, and that’s the problem.

Bruins’ General Manager Don Sweeney spoke to the media following the Nov. 4 report and failed to convince anyone with a pulse that his organization made the right call.

“This decision could be wrong … it invited a lot of negativity that, quite frankly, we didn’t need, we didn’t want,” Sweeney said in an interview with Bruins Rinkside. “I am not going to downplay that this has been a personal struggle as well as a professional struggle.”

So why do it in the first place then?

Miller’s contract was rescinded less than 72 hours after the initial offer was made on Nov. 4.

Before inking the entry-level contract with the B’s, he was dropped by the Arizona Coyotes after the 2020 Entry Level Draft and the University of North Dakota, where he planned to skate at the collegiate level.

Miller’s character was called into question following reports of his mistreatment of classmate Isaiah Meyer-Crothers who is Black and is developmentally disabled. The 2016 account details the defenseman using racial slurs, forcing Meyer-Crothers to lick a lollipop that had been wiped in a urinal, and physically harming him. Miller admitted the abuse in Ohio juvenile court.

Read that again. Think about someone doing that to you, to your sibling, to your parents, to your best friend. Think about Isaiah.

Miller spent last year in the USHL with the Tri-City Storm and almost made his way into a professional locker room. While the initial contract was rescinded on Nov. 6, the very fact that it existed in the first place speaks to the desperately needed culture change in the NHL. And this isn’t new.

From the information available to the public, the steps the Bruins’ front office took before offering Miller a deal were simply not enough. Neither Sweeney nor President Cam Neely reached out to the Meyer-Crothers family to hear their side of the story. This was a decision that impacted individuals beyond Miller, and they were ignorant to that.

Joni Meyer-Crothers, Isaiah’s mother, spoke to CBS Boston and The Athletic following the news and made stark distinctions between the two stories. For one, Miller’s abuse of her son wasn’t an isolated incident –– she described it as “years and years of abuse and torment.” Joni also described Miller’s lack of remorse, but most importantly, she emphasized how this is not a closed chapter for Isaiah like it can be for Miller.

“Every time this is brought up, it puts him right back to where he was (…) It’s all this stuff that keeps replaying in his mind all the time,” Joni Meyer-Crothers said to The Athletic. “That he’s not of value. That his life doesn’t matter.”

Today, Nov. 9, Isaiah stepped forward to share the experience in his own words for the first time. The Hockey Diversity Alliance posted Meyer-Crothers’ statement on their Twitter this afternoon, and it’s heartbreaking, to say the least.

“Mitchell isn’t my friend. It hurts my heart what he did to me,” Meyer-Crothers said. “So I just wanted to tell everyone — when Mitchell says we’re friends it isn’t true. I can’t take more of this.”

The second chance narrative has been bent and stretched to try to fit this scenario. Miller is not deserving. Not in a league as prestigious as the NHL, not in a sport and society where we must hold each other to a higher standard.

The Bruins, along with Miller’s agent, painted him as a kid that made a mistake, a kid that was filled with regret, a kid that was working to better himself. This is not true now, and may never be true.

In an interview on Nov. 5, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the Bruins did not consult the NHL before proceeding with the signing. He also made it clear that Miller would have to be cleared by the NHLPA before ever putting a B’s jersey on.

“He’s not coming into the NHL, he’s not eligible at this point to come into the NHL,” Bettman said. “I can’t tell you that he’ll ever be eligible to come into the NHL.”

The Boston Bruins signed Miller without the confidence of most parties involved –– including their players. It’s mind-boggling.

Bruin Captain Patrice Bergeron and forward Nick Foligno spoke to the media while this controversy ensued and just barely bit their tongues before outright disagreeing with their own team’s GM. The two spoke about the Bruins’ history, legacy and culture and how the signing –– to state the obvious –– goes against these sentiments.

“I had my concerns,” Bergeron told reporters. “I shared my opinion. In a way, I was not necessarily agreeing with it. To be honest with you, the culture that we’ve built here goes against that type of behavior. We’re a team that’s built something about character, character … In this locker room we’re all about inclusion, diversity and respect.”

While this may be true within the locker room, the Boston front office put character on the back burner and only had eyes for the business side of the game. There’s no hiding it — the league exists to make money. But at what cost? The ultimate goal is to hoist the Stanley Cup, to have your team and your name etched into NHL history forever, and to bring plenty of dollar signs to the organization.

However, a team shouldn’t have to stoop this low for one “good” prospect.

On behalf of the NHL, the Boston Bruins sent a message to every professional and young aspiring player that the league tolerates deeply racist and abusive behavior. They’d rather see tallies on the scoreboard than ensure a safe environment for all athletes. There’s so much talk about “growing the game,” but this does the exact opposite.

The worst part about it? The Bruins’ big guys are only sorry because they got caught. The extreme backlash from the public and the players pushed them to cut ties with Miller. It was the only direction to turn, but it does not reverse the damage. We’ve witnessed how the league handled the Chicago Blackhawks’ treatment of Kyle Beach and the tight-lipped behavior around the Hockey Canada scandal.

While the NHL is good at putting on an entertaining show, selling cotton candy and your favorite player’s jersey, they are also good at burying things. The Bruins will say they were sorry, the league will say it was wrong, and then all will go back to “normal.” How, as hockey fans, do we keep the sport and league we love accountable? It is a question that still has me reeling.

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