The Florida Panthers decided to let Joel Quenneville coach Wednesday despite “deeply troubling” information, as Bill Zito put it, coming to light about his potential involvement in the Chicago Blackhawks’ mishandling of a 2010 sexual assault allegation by a player against an assistant coach.
Then, either by the decision of the organization or Quenneville himself, the coach did not speak following the Panthers’ 4-1 win against the Boston Bruins in Sunrise. Zito instead read from a prepared statement and did not take questions before leaving the press conference room at FLA Live Arena.
“In light of this afternoon’s news, we felt it appropriate that I address you all,” the general manager said. “Joel will be meeting with commissioner [Gary] Bettman tomorrow. He has no comments prior to that meeting. As an organization, we commend Kyle Beach for his courage in coming forward this evening and bringing to light the pain he endured throughout his time in Chicago. The information that has recently become available is deeply troubling. There’s no question that the events described in yesterday’s report are serious and severe. We are working closely with the National Hockey League to assist with the ongoing process and, with respect to that, I’m not commenting further until after the commissioner’s meeting tomorrow with Joel.”
Quenneville is scheduled to meet with Bettman at 2 p.m. on Thursday in New York.
Quenneville has Florida (7-0-0) off to its best start in franchise history, and was behind the bench Wednesday just an hour after Beach outed himself as the accuser in an interview with The Sports Network’s SportsCentre and asserted Quenneville, who was coach of the Blackhawks at the time, knew about his allegation.
“There’s absolutely no way that he can deny knowing it,” Beach told the Canadian sports network. “I witnessed meetings, right after I reported it to James Gray, that were held in Joel Quenneville’s office.”
Beach’s interview came a day after Chicago law firm Jenner & Block published an extensive report detailing its investigation into Beach’s allegations against then-Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich. The report detailed a meeting of “senior club management” on the day the Chicago beat the San Jose Sharks to reach the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals and listed Quenneville as one of the attendees.
The specifics of the meeting remain murky — “accounts of the meeting vary significantly,” the report said — but the report and Beach’s comments contradict a statement Quenneville made in the summer to The Associated Press, claiming he was unaware of the allegations at the time.
“I first learned of these allegations through the media earlier this summer,” Quenneville told the AP in July after Beach filed a lawsuit against the Blackhawks. “I have contacted the Blackhawks organization to let them know I will support and participate in the independent review.”
As fallout from the investigation, Chicago general manager Stan Bowman and Blackhawks senior vice president of hockey operations Al MacIsac, both of whom were also in the meeting, left the organization. Bettman is also scheduled to meet with Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who was also in the meeting, on Monday.
In the meeting, attendees decided hockey operations personnel “should devote their exclusive attention to on-ice matters heading into the Stanley Cup Final and that other appropriate Club personnel within the organization would take responsibility for ‘handling’ the Aldrich situation.” Aldrich remained with the organization through the end of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs and even took part in Chicago’s Stanley Cup celebrations. He quietly stepped down after the season when given the choice to either resign or face an internal investigation.
“If this had been reported to someone other than John McDonough, or Joel Quenneville or Stan Bowman that didn’t have skin in the game of winning a Stanley Cup,” said Beach, who was previously unnamed, “it would have been dealt with and would have protected all of the survivors that came after me.”
Aldrich was later convicted of fourth-degree sexual assault for an incident involving a high school student in Michigan.
Beach, who was a first-round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft and now plays in Germany, praised Chicago for acknowledging past wrongdoing and cleaning house Tuesday, and said he hopes the NHL finally takes the matter seriously, too.
“The NHL is inclusive, the NHL includes everybody, and they let me down and they’ve let down others, as well,” Beach said. “But they continue to try and protect their name over the health and the well-being of the people who put their lives on the line every day to make the NHL what it is. I hope through and through that Gary Bettman takes this seriously, and that he does his due diligence, that he talks to not only them, but Stan Bowman, John McDonough and anybody else that has information to offer before he makes his decision because they already let me down. They wouldn’t investigate for me, so why would they now?”
Zito’s comments Wednesday were the first to come from the organization beyond a brief acknowledgment from Quenneville about his upcoming meeting with Bettman.
“I look forward to continuing to contribute to the process,” Quenneville said after the Panthers’ morning skate Wednesday in South Florida. “I won’t comment any further until the appropriate time after I meet with the commissioner.”
The Blackhawks fired Quenneville in 2018 and the Panthers hired him on a six-year contract in 2019. In his third season in Florida, Quenneville, who won three Cups in Chicago, has the Panthers off to the best start in franchise history after they put together their best regular season ever last year.
With Florida looking like a potential Cup favorite, its coach’s future has been cast into doubt and the Panthers have avoided giving any satisfying answers about an ugly situation.
Said star center Aleksander Barkov: “I don’t know much what’s going on, so I feel bad, obviously, for everything that happened there.”