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N.H.L. Team Drops a Drafted Player Over a Court Case Tied to Racist Bullying

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The Arizona Coyotes said on Thursday that they had renounced the rights to their top pick in this year’s N.H.L. draft after a published report described the player’s 2016 conviction in a juvenile-court case related to bullying of a Black classmate who has a developmental disability.

The Coyotes knew about the abusive history when they chose Mitchell Miller, an 18-year-old defenseman, in the fourth round, 111th over all, this month. According to the report in The Arizona Republic, Miller, a freshman at the University of North Dakota who is now a free agent, provided all 31 N.H.L. teams with a letter before the draft, saying he regretted what he had done and providing character references.

The revelation and the Coyotes’ decision followed a season in which the N.H.L., a mostly white league, was forced to confront several acts of bigotry.

“In junior high, I got beat up by him,” Miller’s victim, Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, told The Republic. “Everyone thinks he’s so cool that he gets to go to the N.H.L., but I don’t see how someone can be cool when you pick on someone and bully someone your entire life.”

Miller and Meyer-Crothers knew each other growing up in Sylvania, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo along the state’s border with Michigan. The Republic said that a police report on the abuse stated that Miller, who was 14 at the time, and another student had forced Meyer-Crothers to eat candy that had been wiped in a bathroom urinal. The Republic said that, according to the police report, Meyer-Crothers had to be tested for hepatitis, H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases, but the tests came back negative.

Meyer-Crothers, now 18, told The Republic that Miller had taunted him for years while they were growing up and had used a racist slur while hitting him. He said it “hurt my heart” when he saw that the Coyotes had selected Miller in the draft. His mother, Joni Meyer-Crothers, has also said that the taunting of her son was still happening as recently as two years ago.

Miller and the other student were charged with two misdemeanors, one for violating Ohio’s Safe Schools Act and one for assault. They were sentenced to 25 hours of community service and ordered to write an apology through the court system to Isaiah Meyer-Crothers; to participate in counseling; and to pay court costs. Miller has not personally apologized to Meyer-Crothers, the family told The Republic.

Meyer-Crothers and his mother also told The Republic that the Coyotes had never contacted their family before the draft.

On Thursday night, Joni Meyer-Crothers told The New York Times that the Coyotes had called her earlier in the day. “The CEO and GM apologized, and it was heartfelt,” she said in a text message. “My only comment is the whole situation is very sad.”

“Prior to selecting Mitchell in the N.H.L. draft, we were aware that a bullying incident took place in 2016,” Xavier Gutierrez, the Coyotes’ president and chief executive, said in a statement on Thursday. “We do not condone this type of behavior but embraced this as a teachable moment to work with Mitchell to make him accountable for his actions and provide him with an opportunity to be a leader on anti-bullying and antiracism efforts.”

Gutierrez said the club had decided to cut ties with Miller after digging more deeply into the matter and learning about the effects of the bullying on Meyer-Crothers and his family.

“On behalf of the Arizona Coyotes ownership and our entire organization, I would like to apologize to Isaiah and the Meyer-Crothers family,” Gutierrez said.

Bill Armstrong, the new general manager for the Coyotes, was not allowed to participate in the 2020 draft process with Arizona because of an agreement with his former team, the St. Louis Blues.

“Mitchell is a good hockey player, but we need to do the right thing as an organization and not just as a hockey team,” Armstrong said in a statement.

After The Republic published its report, the Hockey Diversity Alliance, a group of current and former N.H.L. players working independently of the league to stamp out systemic racism and intolerance in hockey, issued a statement urging the Coyotes and the N.H.L. to act.

In addition to his role with the Coyotes, Gutierrez has a place on the league’s Executive Inclusion Council, a group of owners, team presidents, former players and general managers dedicated to ensuring diversity and inclusion within the league’s organizations. In June, Gutierrez became the first Latino team president and chief executive in the N.H.L.’s history, and Alex Meruelo became the first league’s first Hispanic team owner when he became the Coyotes’ majority owner in 2019.

North Dakota, where Miller remains part of the hockey program, has acknowledged it knew about the assault charge.

In a statement to The Grand Forks Herald, North Dakota Coach Brad Berry said: “We were aware of an unfortunate incident that occurred with Mitchell in eighth grade. We made a decision that our program could provide him the necessary infrastructure and culture to hone not only his hockey abilities, but most importantly assist him in his continuing growth as a human being, which will last him the remainder of his life.”

Several incidents within hockey in the past year, as well as the Black Lives Matter protests that started in the spring, have increased pressure on leaders to confront racism within the game.

In January, the American Hockey League suspended Brandon Manning of the Bakersfield Condors for using racist insults against Bokondji Imama of the Ontario Reign.

Late in 2019, the former N.H.L. player Akim Aliu went public about a series of racist incidents that he believes cut short his career. Among other things, he said, a minor league staff member wore blackface to mock him, and a coach used a racial slur.

Aliu’s first revelations came just weeks after Don Cherry, the veteran Canadian hockey commentator, was forced to leave his widely popular “Coach’s Corner” segment on the Sportsnet hockey broadcast after an on-air rant against immigrants.

Brian Burke, a former general manager who is now a Sportsnet analyst, said the Coyotes should not have drafted Miller.

“I was sickened when I read the story,” Burke said in an interview. “I think the league has made great strides to make things right on diversity and racism, but the league still has work to do.”


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