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Mitchell Miller's USHL MVP award a reminder of hockey's failures

·Writer
·7-min read
Mitchell Miller was voted the USHL's Player of the Year and Defenseman of the Year. (via USHL)
Mitchell Miller was voted the USHL's Player of the Year and Defenseman of the Year. (via USHL)

When Mitchell Miller, a member of the United States Hockey League’s Tri-City Storm, was announced as the USHL Player of the Year and Defenseman of the Year, criticism followed.

Drafted by the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes in 2020, Miller’s selection was renounced by the Coyotes after it was discovered he repeatedly used racist slurs, including the N-word, toward a Black classmate and bullied the individual, who was also disabled. This bullying included tricking the student into licking candy that had been rubbed in a urinal. The acts, which included Miller physically assaulting his classmate throughout junior high, saw Miller convicted in a juvenile court.

According to the victim, Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, “In junior high, I got beat up by him. … Everyone thinks he's so cool that he gets to go to the NHL, but I don't see how someone can be cool when you pick on someone and bully someone your entire life.”

Arizona gave up Miller’s NHL rights and the University of North Dakota, to whom Miller was committed, dropped their scholarship offer, but it didn’t stop Miller from returning to one of North America’s elite junior leagues, the USHL. Nor did it stop the USHL’s 16 general managers from voting Miller as the face of the league this season.

This recognition, according to Dr. Teresa Anne Fowler, an assistant professor and sport scholar at Concordia University of Edmonton, speaks to hockey’s desire to uphold power imbalances and ignore the issues within hockey culture.

“Mitchell Miller’s USHL player of the year and defensemen of the year award reminds us what is valued within men’s ice hockey and that is preservations of power,” Dr. Fowler said via email.

“Miller’s history of bullying a Black classmate ought to serve as a moment to which the USHL could have renounced racism, bullying and behaviours. However, by rewarding Miller with these honours, the USHL is rewarding players who lean into abusive forms of power in the wake of calls to hold hockey culture to account for the ongoing legacies of racism, misogyny, and homophobia… as many players are stating is wrong with hockey.”

When the Coyotes drafted Miller, they gave him unquestioned entrance into the league and were willing to accept his actions until media criticized the selection. As Arizona president Xavier Gutierrez, a member of the NHL's inclusion council stated, "When we first learned of Mitchell's story, it would have been easy for us to dismiss him — many teams did. Instead, we felt it was our responsibility to be a part of the solution in a real way — not just saying and doing the right things ourselves but ensuring that others are too.”

It was a narrative repeated by the USHL and Tri-City Storm. The Storm went one step further by defending and promoting Miller’s character following the announcement of the awards.

“I think anyone that actually knows Mitchell and actually got to experience him in his time here… I’ve never heard anyone say anything but overly positive stuff. From the people in community outreach that he was involved in…” Anthony Noreen, Tri-City Storm coach and president of hockey operations told Local4 KSNB News. “I know this, everyone in our organization is rooting for him and we certainly believe in him.”

Noreen claimed Miller “made every one of us better” and stated he looked “forward to watching him continue to make us all proud.” The comments were echoed by Tri-City general manager Jason Keohler, who said the organization was “extremely fortunate” to have Miller. The Storm claimed Miller’s involvement in “off-ice community service, diversity training, mental health stuff for himself personally” had demonstrated change.

As Brett Pardy, senior editor of Hockey in Society clarified, however, the actions specified are not unique. Most junior hockey teams already participate in community service and diversity training, and providing mental health support is not a remedy for racist beliefs and actions. Pardy, a media and communications instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley, believes hockey’s willingness to overlook these wrongs is in part the sport’s love for a comeback or redemption story such as Miller’s, even if it’s without true change.

“I'm not sure what would be demonstratively transformative, but it seems premature to say he's redeemed,” says Pardy, who also wrote about Miller’s actions when they were first brought to light in 2020.

“I think a lot of the GMs who voted on the award liked the narrative of his "redemption" as the award doesn't usually go to an over-age player. Men's hockey as a whole seems obsessed with redemption, but not as a transformative concept, but simply as a plot device to create a compelling narrative.”

Miller is not the only player who has maintained the privilege of hockey following criminal actions. Montreal Canadiens draft pick Logan Mailloux remains involved in hockey after he was charged for filming a sexual encounter and sharing it with teammates without consent during his season in Sweden. Mailloux asked NHL teams not to select him when his actions were brought to public attention, however, the Canadiens still called his name in the first round of the 2021 draft.

That selection was made by former general manager Marc Bergevin. Montreal’s new GM Kent Hughes is taking a wait and see approach to Mailloux, who spent this season with the OHL’s London Knights.

“It’s not our intention to negotiate with him,” Hughes told media about the possibility of signing Mailloux to a contract. “Logan is still in evaluation — less so as a player and much more so as a person and a member of the community.”

Hughes did not, however, close the door on Mailloux joining the Canadiens. Similarly, the door remains open for Miller to continue through the hockey ranks. As Keohler said, Miller “has an extremely bright future at the higher levels of hockey as he moves forward from our club.”

While Miller continues to pursue his hockey career and is lauded by his team and league, his victim looks to heal. As Isaiah Meyer-Crothers’ mother questioned in a 2021 interview, “How does someone who has been bullied for years heal? He is left with lifetime scars and he struggles with healing because so many things that happen in daily life trigger those helpless feelings and puts him back at that hurt.”

Despite the pain caused to his victim, much attention has been placed on Miller’s career. “I kind of lost everything because of this… It affected them the most, but from my side, I have realized how much I lost, and it made me think about my life,” Miller said in the interview. “It goes both ways, but I think it helped me become a better person and become more mature… Hockey would be a reward if I could ever have a second chance to have that back in my life.”

Miller didn’t have to wait long, missing only the pandemic shortened season, and his path may soon take him to the NCAA and pro hockey.

The USHL’s decision to herald Miller as the league’s top player, as Pardy states, failed to address the issue and clearly demonstrates the sport’s willingness to ignore off-ice behavior in favour of on-ice performance.

“Men's hockey simply doesn't care what you do off the ice as long as you conform to the culture inside it, which Miller seems to.”

The USHL’s Tri-City Americans were contacted for comment. No reply was received to inquiries.

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