Boston Bruins signing Mitchell Miller shows hockey culture still has a long way to go

The NHL would like you to think things are getting better and that the league is actively combating the talent-over-morality mindset and culture of racism that have permeated the sport for decades.

After the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in 2020, the NHL announced a series of initiatives to “combat racism and accelerate inclusion,” including mandatory diversity training for all league employees.

Those measures did not seem to have much of an impact on the Boston Bruins, who signed prospect Mitchell Miller to a three-year contract Friday. Miller, whose 2020 draft rights were renounced by the Arizona Coyotes after The Arizona Republic reported Miller four years earlier, at age 14, admitted in an Ohio juvenile court to bullying a Black classmate with developmental disabilities.

The classmate, Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, was tricked into licking a candy push pop that Miller and another individual wiped in a bathroom urinal.

The Bruins’ announcement of the signing included statements from Miller and team president Cam Neely.

Miller said he “made an extremely poor decision and acted very immaturely.”

Meyer-Crothers told The Republic that Miller also repeatedly used racial slurs directed at him. His mother, Joni Meyer-Crothers, told the newspaper in the 2020 report that Miller never personally apologized to her son outside of a court-mandated letter.

“Respect and integrity are foundational character traits we expect of our players and staff,” Neely said in the statement, adding that before the signing, the team engaged in an evaluation period where “Mitchell was accountable for his unacceptable behavior.”

Mitchell Miller, a freshman at North Dakota, awaits word that the Arizona Coyotes selected him in the 2020 NHL Draft.

During a Zoom call with reporters Friday, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said Miller apologized to Isaiah before the team signed him. However, Joni told WBZ Friday that Miller still had not issued an in-person apology and only reached out to her son a week ago on Instagram.

Miller’s signing is a stain on a sport already wrestling with its own lack of morality.

It’s the same sport that harbors players like Jacob Panetta, who was suspended for making a racist gesture at Jordan Subban during an ECHL game in January. Jordan’s brother, PK Subban, played 13 seasons in the NHL.

It’s the same sport where AHL forward Krystof Hrabik was suspended for a racist gesture towards Boko Imama in January.

It’s the same NHL that saw Chicago Blackhawks fans kicked out of a game for chanting racist taunts at Devante Smith-Pelly.

It’s the same league where Bill Peters stepped down as Calgary Flames coach in 2019 after former player Akim Aliu said Peters used a racial epithet while talking to him in the AHL a decade earlier.

Aliu, chairman of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, weighed in Friday on the Miller signing.

“Nothing says ‘NHL Culture’ like a coordinated Instagram apology by Mitchell Miller to ‘rehabilitate’ him back to the league after victimizing & torturing someone for their race & disability for years. Every aspect of this is unsettling, including his representation,” he tweeted.

As of June, the NHL said just 54 active players were Arab, Asian, Black, Latino or Indigenous, which would make up roughly 7% of the league.

Miller’s past does not exactly foster a welcoming environment.

“He has to earn the opportunity to play in the NHL as a player,” Sweeney said of Miller, who practiced Friday with the Bruins’ AHL affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island. “I think, more importantly, has to earn the respect of teammates — and really everywhere in society — to garner a second chance.”

The Bruins knew what they were doing. At least the Coyotes could hide behind a small shred of ignorance, only parting ways with Miller after The Republic’s full report was published and new details emerged.

The Bruins, however, had access to all the information — all the gruesome details. Sweeney even said the team debated whether this was a prudent move for the organization. Their unprincipled decision should be considered a permanent mark on this Bruins regime, which said it did not reach out to the Meyer-Crothers family before signing Miller.

Unsurprisingly, both the Bruins and Coyotes rolled out nearly identical statements in their respective decisions to onboard Miller. Both clubs said it would have been a much easier path to steer clear of the young defenseman than to endure the negative public reaction to signing him.

But just because something is easy doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.

“This has been a struggle as to what is right and what is wrong,” Sweeney said. “I can’t categorically tell you this is the absolute right decision. This is an opportunity that we’re providing for a young man who’s going to work to continue to earn trust and respect.”

Yes, Miller committed these atrocities when he was in eighth grade. He was young, and the Bruins are among those who believe he deserves a second chance.

But playing professional sports is a privilege, not a right. Miller got his second chance when a judge decided to give him 25 hours of community service and did not put him in a juvenile detention center. Miller isn’t entitled to play hockey — and he doesn’t deserve the opportunity Boston gave him to become a public figure and a role model.

The Bruins said Miller has been remorseful and praised his commitment “to work with multiple organizations and professionals to further his education and use his mistake as a teachable moment for others.”

What organizations? Which professionals? Exactly how will Miller be held accountable for his unconscionable actions and dehumanizing behavior? How can Bruins fans trust the team when it preaches the importance of “respect and integrity” but rewards a person who senselessly abused a disabled peer?

And how can anyone place their faith in a sport where this can happen?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bruins signing Mitchell Miller latest example of NHL’s broken culture

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