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Friday, October 29, 2021

Nikolai Yezhov, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the historical record (Updated)

Update, Nov. 3: The Hall removed Aldrich's name. An utterly cheap move that makes the Blackhawks feel good about themselves while doing absolutely nothing for anyone.

I have not written about the ongoing fallout in the NHL from the Chicago Blackhawks' failure to punish an assistant coach, Brad Aldrich, who sexually assaulted and harassed one player (who has identified himself as former prospect Kyle Beach) and harassed another during the team's 2010 Stanley Cup run. This offers a great summary. I am not  a hockey fan and have not had anything to add, other than that Reid Schar, the Jenner & Block partner who led the investigation, is a law school classmate.

But I had to respond to this morally bankrupt attempt to "make amends:" Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz wants the Hockey Hall of Fame to remove Aldrich's name from the Stanley Cup (the names of every player and other person from a champion is engraved on the Cup). Here are the major points of Wirtz's argument:

    • "[I]t was a mistake to submit his name. We are sorry we allowed it to happen."

    • "While nothing can undo what he did, leaving his name on the most prestigious trophy in sports seems profoundly wrong."

    • Citing precedent: The Hall removing from the 1983-84 champion Edmonton Oilers the name Basil Pocklington, father of team owner Pete Pocklington, because Basil played no role on the team (other than, I suppose, siring Pete decades earlier).

    • "Principle and our moral belief that a convicted sex offender does not belong on the Stanley Cup."

I will be outraged if the Hall grants Wirtz's request. Frankly, Wirtz should be ashamed for making the request (although he will not be, just as I question how ashamed he is of this entire mess, beyond how it affects his hockey team).

As a starting point, I do not like ex post punishments that excise the historical record. I do not like it when the NCAA strips wins, records, and championships from programs, coaches, and players. Regardless of whether they broke some rules (e.g., Michigan's Fab Five or Pete Rose), ignored predatory off-field behavior (e.g., Joe Paterno), or were generally bad people during or after their careers (e.g., Curt Schilling but probably many others), they built a real-life historical record and retaining that record matters. Sanctions for misconduct should not entail falsifying what happened in real-life events. I oppose putting Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame and am mostly agnostic about putting Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, etc. in the Hall; I would object to MLB removing Rose's name from atop the list for career hits or Bonds's name from atop the list of home runs in a season. Each accomplished something in the real world that we record; we cannot eliminate a previously acknowledged role in documented real-world events, like erasing Nikolai Yezhov from a photograph.

But context makes Wirtz's request worse than the usual effort to purge history. The Blackhawks' misdeed was that team leadership failed to take action against Aldrich for more than three week after receiving what they deemed a credible and confirmed report of the assault and harassment; they did nothing against Aldrich for almost four weeks, until after they won the championship (during the celebration of which Aldrich reportedly made a sexual advance on a team intern). The reason team officials did nothing was because they did not want the dreaded "distraction" and harm to "team chemistry" in the midst of a Cup run. Michael Baumann at The Ringer exposes the idiocy of believing the team would have descended into chaos had it suspended its video coordinator. That aside, the Blackhawks' official position, borne by the actions of its top officials, was that Aldrich was essential to their championship and the team could not succeed without him. It therefore cannot rewrite history by erasing contributions that the team believed at the time were so essential to its success that leaders no choice but to overlook credible allegations of sexual assault for a month.

The team's position at the time makes the lone cited instance of erasing a name worthless as support. The Oilers should not have included Basil Pocklington in the first instance, because he played no role in the team or its championship. That is not the case with Aldrich, or so the team's actions in 2010 would have us believe. The argument that removing his name remedies an original mistake also fails. The Blackhawks won the Cup on June 10 and notified H.R. about the accusation on June 14; on June 16, H.R. gave Aldrich a choice of resigning or submitting to an investigation and he chose the latter. From the Blackhawks' standpoint, the situation was resolved--the wrongdoer was no longer with the team. I do not know when the team provided the list of names to the Cup engravers, but either undermines the "it was a mistake to submit his name" narrative. If they sent the list prior to Aldrich resigning on June 16, it was not a mistake, because Aldrich was still a team employee and still part of the championship. If they sent the list after Aldrich resigned on June 16, the immediate inference is that it was not a mistake, but was intended not to continue to avoid calling attention to Aldrich's (and the team's) misconduct by including his name on the cup but being rid of him going forward.

Wirtz's argument is immoral on its own terms. He cites his moral belief that a "convicted sex offender" does not belong on the Cup. But the Blackhawks' wrongdoing--for which this move is supposed to be penance--has nothing to do with the criminal conviction. Aldrich was convicted three years later of sexual assault involving a minor in a subsequent coaching job, having nothing to do with the Blackhawks or the assault of Beach in 2010. (The attenuated connection is that the Blackhawks' failure to sanction Aldrich and to attempt to stop him from getting other coaching jobs allowed him to get the high-school coaching job that gave him access to that later victim). But then Wirtz is not making this request because of Kyle Beach. Imagine everything unfolded as it did except Aldrich was never convicted on that later, unrelated offense. There would be no "convicted sex offender" with his name on the Stanley Cup; Wirtz's principle and moral belief would not apply to this situation or require Aldrich's name be removed solely for the assault on Kyle Beach for which he was not convicted. Maybe that is not what Wirtz intended to say. But that is the logical conclusion from his words.

Finally, Wirtz's request is, at bottom, selfish. Removing the name does not sanction Aldrich in any meaningful sense--he has larger concerns than whether his name is one of thousands on a metal cup in a museum. It does not benefit Beach. Accepting that Beach is injured by Aldrich reaping the rewards of being associate with a championship team, he watched Aldrich reap those immediate rewards in 2010--celebrating with the team in the moment, spending a day with the trophy (the greatest tradition in sports), and receiving a playoff bonus as part of his severance.

This move benefits the Blackhawks, but no one else. It allows them to erase from the historical record any connection between Aldrich and that championship team. Future generations who look at the piece of the Stanley Cup dedicated to the 2010 Blackhawks will not see the name "Brad Aldrich," so no one will ask who Brad Aldrich is and no one from the Blackhawks will have to explain that he was an assistant coach who was allowed to continue coaching after the team learned and believed he had sexually assaulted a player. The opposite should occur--the historical record should capture Brad Aldrich's connection to the Blackhawks and it should remain a written stain on the team and that season.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 29, 2021 at 05:33 PM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink

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