Earlier today, I tweeted about former Chicago Blackhawks (and current Florida Panthers) head coach Joel Quenneville.
I was raised in a household that stressed the need to make spaces welcome for others. You don’t use complex words around people who struggle with education. You don’t speak quickly with people who are still learning English. You don’t make brash jokes about the number 69 in front of someone who doesn’t feel comfortable discussing sex, or get loud and aggressive when interacting with someone who is painfully shy.
That upbringing — designed to assimilate with others instead of forcing them to assimilate to me, perhaps to a fault — left me as an adult in a position rife with hyper-awareness of how comfortable I seem to make others. And it sticks with me when I go into an interview with someone in the greater NHL sphere and they appear to do the same for me; I keep it tucked away, in the back of my mind, when a coach or a player makes a space open and inclusive for me, particularly in a league that has historically been considerably hostile to women.
That coach was always very nice to me, I remember. He treated me with respect. He answered my questions thoughtfully. He made it a point to be kind.
Joel Quenneville, in my experience, had always been one of those. He wasn’t quite on the same level as Bruce Boudreau, who had stuck around after a scrum one time for a few minutes to give me — a barely-known media member with the visiting team — a bit of nuance on a goaltending question I had asked, and had checked to see if I had any other questions. He also wasn’t Peter Aubry, who had reached out to touch base with me at the start of the pandemic to see how I was holding up amongst the turmoil both in the league and the world. But he had also always been a far cry from the coaches like Darryl Sutter, who made an impression as the first coach I ever interviewed when he listened to me ask a carefully thought-out question about an up-and-coming player and gave me a flippant four-word answer before turning and walking away. Quenneville fell far closer to the first two; making eye contact, answering questions with patience and acknowledgement, and saying hello in the hallway after a game without using a “little lady” or “young missus” moniker that so very many of the slimier figureheads always seemed all-too-ready to drop into a greeting.
It was that inherent kindness from Quenneville over the years that had left me with such an especially sour taste in my mouth after the allegations against the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks started to surface. It can feel like a slap in the face, after all, when someone who made space for you at the table turns out to be someone who very explicitly took away someone else’s chair.
I firmly think that, in light of everything that we have learned about the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks, Joel Quenneville no longer has a place in the National Hockey League. Working at the highest level of the game, mentoring young men who serve as role models to millions around the world, is a privilege and is owed to no one.
But it was only after I had tweeted about that very opinion that I realized that even I had gotten it wrong. Because I, in a tweet that firmly asserted my preference to see Quenneville dismissed from the league, had done my part in taking away the seat at the table that victim Kyle Beach has been so vehemently denied.
We often hear about the phenomenon that is characteristically nice people mistreating someone in a singular, isolated incident. Meaning well, we try to rationalize the legitimacy of the victim’s perception of these “nice” people while still holding firm to our own perceptions of these people as those who treated us well. We don’t dismiss the claims made by victims, but we separate them into a distinct spot elsewhere; we tell the victim that we believe them and offer to punish the perpetrators, but we hold firm to our belief that this poor behavior isn’t a part of this person’s actual personality.
“I’ve always found Quenneville to be one of the league’s nicest coaches but ultimately, I don’t see how there’s a place for him in the league right now,” I wrote. He’s always been very nice, I’m saying, except for this time when he was not.
The problem with that kind of statement, though, is that it makes the variable the victim — not the person who committed the wrongdoing. We maintain that niceness that Quenneville possess, implying even as we offer our support to retribution that he would still be a nice person if he hadn’t done this very bad thing. The play was great, we insist to Mrs. Lincoln, but the second act — how sad!
And that’s simply not true.
Nice people don’t tell their colleagues that they don’t have time to investigate the sexual assault of one of their subordinates until a big project is finished up. They just don’t do it. The problem isn’t the existence of the victim in this nice person’s life, tarnishing their kindness by asking for help they don’t have time to give. The problem is this nice person — who is not actually a nice person at all. Nice people don’t value winning over the safety of those that answer to them. Nice people don’t dismiss allegations of traumatic assault because they are too busy to focus on them. Nice people don’t then lie about it later, pretending they had never been asked for help. Nice people aren’t tarnished by someone they mistreat — because someone who is mistreated is never the one at fault. You don’t get to keep your “nice” moniker just because you only mistreat a few people; if you do shitty things, you aren’t very nice after all.
The world is full of nuance, which makes it tricky to examine this. Sure. We can all allow this to be true.
But there’s a difference between nuance — giving a second chance to someone who acts wrongly and shows remorse, forgiving a nice person for doing a mean thing that they admit they did — and basing our evaluation of someone as a ‘flawed but good person’ on our own experience with them, just because they haven’t done a bad thing to enough people.
It’s much easier to admit that someone isn’t actually very nice when they do something wrong repeatedly, when they mistreat entire populations of people. But in hockey especially, we have a bad habit of marrying singular incidents we’ve been told of with our own history of considering this person good. When they only mistreat the lone player who blows the whistle on an organization? When they only gaslight one female reporter, or only use a racial slur against a single player in junior, or only verbally abuse one highly-ranked prospect? Time and time again, we see players and journalists and coaches and support staff rushing to marry the positive experiences they’ve had with that person with those transgressions, admitting that they’ve always seemed kind while chastising them for this specific incident. It’s not the person we’ve always understood them to be, we say, but we don’t support the behavior nonetheless. They mentored us so well, we insist, which is why we’re so disappointed that such a good person would do such a bad thing.
The problem with that mentality, though, is that it pits a victim against the people who this person has always treated well. What did they do, we wonder, that made this Very Nice Person decide they weren’t going to be nice this time? Why would they choose to be a Not Nice Person when they have always otherwise chosen the opposite? It’s a covert method of gaslighting, one that we do without even meaning to — but it’s a method of gaslighting, nonetheless.
There are dozens of different points of reckoning that are going to need some time spent under the microscope in coming weeks and months, surrounding both the scandal the Chicago Blackhawks have found themselves mired in and the disastrous way that the NHL has handled it thus far.
It’s going to be hard not to bring up the kindness that Joel Quenneville and Stan Bowman — and, very likely, a number of Blackhawks players who will come under fire for their handling of the situation — when these points of reckoning wash over the hockey world.
But these people are not good mentors. They aren’t Very Nice. They just aren’t.
If they were, we wouldn’t be here right now.