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NHL team yanks contract of a player who bullied a Black classmate with disabilities

The Boston Bruins have cut ties with Mitchell Miller after current players and the NHL spoke out against Miller's signing. Miller admitted to bullying a Black classmate with developmental disabilities when he was 14.
Eldon Holmes/Tri-City Storm
The Boston Bruins have cut ties with Mitchell Miller after current players and the NHL spoke out against Miller's signing. Miller admitted to bullying a Black classmate with developmental disabilities when he was 14.

The Boston Bruins have canceled plans to add defenseman Mitchell Miller to their organization, after current players and NHL officials spoke out against Miller — who was convicted of bullying a Black classmate with developmental disabilities when he was 14.

Miller has said he apologized and has portrayed his actions as a single incident.

But critics of Miller, who is now 20, say he hasn't done enough to show remorse for his actions or to prove he's now a changed person. His victim has described systemic abuse that went on for years.

The controversy has raised questions about NHL teams' vetting processes, as well as a culture around elite youth athletics that can allow bullies to avoid being held accountable.

Complaints about Miller drew national attention in 2020

It's the second time Miller's path to the NHL has been abruptly blocked. The Arizona Coyotes drafted the Ohio native in 2020, but the team renounced its rights to him days later, after Miller's former classmate, Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, spoke out about suffering years of abuse at Miller's hands that culminated in a juvenile court case.

"He pretended to be my friend and made me do things I didn't want to do," Meyer-Crothers told the Arizona Republic at the time, describing growing up alongside Miller in their hometown outside of Toledo.

The bullying ranged from racial slurs to physical attacks, Meyer-Crothers said. In a 2016 incident that led to police involvement and a court conviction, Miller and another boy made Meyer-Crothers lick a piece of candy that had been rubbed inside a urinal. They also beat him, according to a Republic report citing local records.

The two boys were charged with assault and violating the Ohio Safe Schools Act and were ordered to do 25 hours of community service, to write letters of apology, pay court costs and undergo counseling, according to the Republic.

Contacted by NPR on Monday, Meyer-Crothers' mother, Joni, said, "Our prayer is that Mitchell gets help and understands the magnitude of what he did for years to Isaiah and in the same regard that Isaiah can heal from the trauma. Both boys need healing."

Joni Meyer-Crothers has said that while the other boy in the bathroom ordeal personally apologized to her son, Miller never did so, other than writing a court-mandated letter. She also says Miller initially lied about the incident, admitting to his role only to prevent surveillance video of the assault from being released.

Last fall, Isaiah's father, Jamie Crothers, wrote an open letter to Miller, accusing him of using his status as an emerging hockey star to carry out years of abuse. The family placed their adopted son in another school to help him avoid bullying, Crothers wrote, but he alleged that the incidents resumed when he and Miller later went to the same middle school.

"Do you remember telling him, on one of those occasions, that his BLACK family didn't love him and that's why he has a WHITE family?" Crothers wrote.

The letter came in response to Miller's resumption of his junior hockey career.

Miller was (once again) on his way to the NHL

Miller's talent on the ice is not in dispute. In May, he was named the USHL's player of the year with 39 goals in 60 games for the Tri-City Storm — a record for defensemen in the junior league's top level.

That same month, Anthony Noreen, the Storm's president of hockey operations, said the team brought Miller back after the bullying reports emerged in 2020 because it had confidence in Miller's character.

"We believe in this kid," Noreen in a video recalled telling the USHL, saying he has known Miller for years. The team also created a plan to help Miller develop off the ice, he added.

Miller's success with the Storm set the stage for Friday, when the Bruins signed him to a three-year entry level contract, sending him to the Providence Bruins of the AHL. But criticisms erupted inside and outside of the organization. Just two days later, the team announced it opted to "rescind the opportunity for Mitchell Miller to represent the Boston Bruins."

The team said its signing of Miller was based on its belief that he had reformed and grown as a person following what it termed an "isolated incident."

But the day after the Bruins signed Miller, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said emphatically that Miller is not welcome in the league.

"He's not coming into the NHL. He's not eligible at this point to come into the NHL," Bettman said. "I can't tell you that he'll ever be eligible to come into the NHL."

Bettman said he has since spoken to Bruins President Cam Neely about Miller.

"Nobody should think, at this point, he is or may ever be NHL eligible," Bettman said. "And the Bruins understand that now."

As the Bruins announced their change of plans, Neely apologized to Meyer-Crothers.

"To Isaiah and his family, my deepest apologies if this signing made you and other victims feel unseen and unheard," he said. "We apologize for the deep hurt and impact we have caused."

Miller and his agent say he's been working to change

On Friday, Miller issued a statement through the Bruins that prominently mentioned his troubled history.

"When I was in eighth grade, I made an extremely poor decision and acted very immaturely," he said. "I bullied one of my classmates. I deeply regret the incident and have apologized to the individual."

But Miller's message didn't ring true for his critics, who faulted him for portraying his abuse as a one-off mistake. They also say he overstated his apology. Meyer-Crothers' parents have said their son endured years of abuse, starting in first and second grade.

In recent years, Miller said, he has gained a better understanding of the consequences of bullying. And he pledged to work in community programs to educate himself and others.

"I strive to be a better person and positively contribute to society," he said in the statement.

Miller's agent, Eustace King — a Black man who sits on the NHL's Diversity and Inclusion Committee — issued a statement Sunday saying that he grappled with the question of whether to represent Miller. In the end, he said, he opted to "counsel not cancel" the young player.

Miller has committed to working with advocacy groups that promote equity and combat bullying, King said.

"We believe in restorative justice," he said. "Mitchell and I are on that path together, and I welcome you all to join us."

Bruins players spoke out against Miller's bullying

It was good for her son, Meyer-Crothers told NPR, to hear Bruins standouts such as captain Patrice Bergeron, alternate captain Brad Marchand and forward Nick Foligno condemn Miller's past behavior as they discussed the controversial signing over the weekend.

"In this locker room, we're all about inclusion, diversity, respect," Bergeron said. "We expect guys to wear this jersey to be high-character people with integrity and respect. That's how they should be acting."

Bergeron said he disagreed with signing Miller. He and other players also said it was up to Miller to continue to develop and to show he has changed.

"If it's the same 14-year-old that would be walking into this locker room, he wouldn't be accepted and wanted and welcomed in this locker room, to be honest with you," Bergeron said.

"Isaiah would like to thank Bergeron, Foligno, and Marchand for their statements on Saturday," Meyer-Crothers told NPR, adding that their words "gave him some peace."

When asked what Isaiah's life is like today, Meyer-Crothers said that at 20, he's struggling daily. He's currently living in Detroit but is looking to move back home, she said, adding that he would like to become a barber.

"With his disability, he has always been extremely artistic," she said, "and cutting his own hair has always been good therapy for him."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.