USA Hockey formally introduced its new assistant executive director for hockey operations Friday, former NHL All-Star goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, who wasted little time in addressing the elephant in the room: His use of the N-word against then-19-year-old defenseman Trevor Daley in 2003.
“I wanted to touch on a topic from my past that has resurfaced from my announcing and my hiring,” Vanbiesbrouck told a teleconference of reporters. “And that is an incident that happened 15 years ago when I was coach and general manager at Sault Ste. Marie and it was a racial slur and I was absolutely, 100 percent wrong.
“There’s not a lot of days that go by that I don’t feel remorse for that,” he added. “I’m extremely sorry for it. It’s not who I am, it doesn’t define me as a person and I have no prejudices in me, and it will never happen again.”
Shortly after that, the hockey writers on the call proceeded ask Vanbiesbrouck questions, some of them deftly avoiding the elephant.
For the most part, the questions ranged from how Vanbiesbrouck views the future of U.S. hockey to who he’d like to coach the 2019 U.S. world junior championship team after Boston University Head Coach David Quinn – who was tapped to be the American bench boss at the worlds – signed to coach the New York Rangers in 2018-19.
Only one reporter – Craig Custance from The Athletic – directly broached the Daley racial incident, asking USA Hockey Executive Director Pat Kelleher how much he looked into the March 2003 incident that led to Vanbiesbrouck quitting as coach and GM of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and prompting the OHL to level its stiffest penalty ever – a $50,000 fine – against the team.
He asked Kelleher what he learned that made him comfortable enough to give Vanbiesbrouck a job in which he’ll focus on international men’s, women’s and sled hockey and bolster junior hockey within the United States.
“We certainly looked into it, we were aware of the situation, it’s something we had knowledge of,” Kelleher said of the N-word episode. “As John alluded to, it’s something that’s very difficult for him, it’s something he deals with all the time. He looks at it as a terrible situation, an awful mistake, something that’s helped change him for the better.”
Another hockey scribe, Chris Peters from ESPN, did ask what led USA Hockey to choose Vanbiesbrouck over other candidates.
“John’s experience in hockey, his background with us, will allow him to make the most of all the people we have because he really understands our organization and how everyone from volunteers to staff contributes to putting elite teams on ice for our men, the women, and our sled program,” Kelleher said.
Vanbiesbrouck’s hiring has been met with criticism on social media.
15 years ago John Vanbiesbrouck called 19-year-old prospect Trevor Daley the n-word multiple times and used the slur openly while other players were present.
How was there not a better candidate for this position? What kind of message does this send? https://t.co/bQuI9QzTff
— Mike Murphy (@DigDeepBSB) May 25, 2018
@usahockey Very confused about the decision to hire John Vanbiesbrouck given his history. How can we promote the game in this country with that kind of cloud hanging over? That language isn't an accident. Please reconsider.
— mattkoz (@mattkoz) May 25, 2018
But the former goalie who played parts of 20 NHL seasons with the New York Rangers, Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils also received words of encouragement online from people who say that 15 years is a long time and people can change.
— Rick Nadeau (@RickNadeau) May 23, 2018
It happened 15 years ago, it was disgusting. Can people not change or learn from mistakes? Dear god, get over it.
— Blake Meakin (@BlakeEMeakin) May 25, 2018
I had some questions for Vanbiesbrouck, but I wasn’t called on during the teleconference. I contacted USA Hockey, which put Vanbiesbrouck on the phone with me.
I asked him how he applies the lessons that he learned from the Daley incident to the way he conducts hockey business, and how he’ll apply the lessons to his USA Hockey job. Prior to landing his new post, Vanbiesbrouck served as general manager of the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL.
“First of all, I know that I’ve been forgiven and I’m strong in my faith,” Vanbiesbrouck told me. “I apply that every day because there’s a direction that comes from faith that guides you. Some people have an opinion, but I have (leaned) on that faith to know that I am forgiven, and I forgive others. So that’s important to me, and that’s probably the Number One, strongest way that I can tell you about it.”
He also told me that he applies the lessons learned through volunteerism, largely through USA Hockey. He pointed to giving speeches for Hockey Ministries International and raising funds for the Alan T. Brown Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis.
“People who are disabled are in a minority group,” he said.
I asked Vanbiesbrouck if he’s spoken with Daley in the years since the N-word episode. Both are in Michigan. Vanbiesbrouck is a native of the state and Daley finished his first season as a member of the Detroit Red Wings.
“Our paths have not crossed,” he told me. “I’m a big fan of Trevor’s – we live on the other side of the state. I’m not in a lot of the big buildings where he’s been at the pro level. I’ve been mostly in minor hockey buildings…he’s been far removed from that.”
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