Coyotes had no choice in cutting ties with Mitchell Miller, but it was still the right choice

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Coyotes fourth-round draft pick Mitchell Miller addresses reporters on a Zoom call after the NHL Draft on Nov. 7. The Coyotes renounced the rights to Miller on Thursday amid a firestorm of national criticism.

The Coyotes’ self-made offseason from hell descended even further into the abyss on Thursday when the team announced that it had renounced the rights to 2020 fourth-round draft pick Mitchell Miller, leaving them without a first-, second-, third-, or fourth-round pick in this year’s draft. Miller, now a defenseman at the University of North Dakota, and the Coyotes were the focus of heavy national criticism this week, including a scathing statement from the Hockey Diversity Alliance.

As a 14-year-old, Miller and and a friend, Hunter McKie, were sentenced to court supervision, 25 hours of community service and they were forced to write apology letters to their victim and Sylvania Schools while participating in counseling and paying court costs after the two admitted to assaulting Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, an African-American classmate with developmental disabilities.

The disturbing details of the incident were first reported by Kyle Rowland of the Toledo Blade in 2016. Some of those details were known by NHL teams and they were even known by numerous media outlets before the draft. I wrote about it on Oct. 8, the day after the Coyotes drafted Miller, citing that Blade report which guided multiple other media outlets, whose reports oddly only began to surface this week instead of before the draft or in the immediate aftermath of the draft.

In the statement announcing their decision to cut ties with Miller, the Coyotes cited their priority of acting as a leader on diversity, inclusion and equity.

“Prior to selecting Mitchell in the NHL Draft, we were aware that a bullying incident took place in 2016,” wrote team president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez, who sits on the NHL's Executive Inclusion Council, a group geared toward ensuring diversity and inclusion within the league's organizations. “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 anti-racism efforts.

“We have learned more about the entire matter, and more importantly, the impact it has had on Isaiah and the Meyer-Crothers family. What we learned does not align with the core values and vision for our organization and leads to our decision to renounce our draft rights. On behalf of the Arizona Coyotes ownership and our entire organization, I would like to apologize to Isaiah and the Meyer-Crothers family. We are building a model franchise on and off the ice and will do the right thing for Isaiah and the Meyer-Crothers family, our fans and our partners. Mr. Miller is now a free agent and can pursue his dream of becoming an NHL player elsewhere.”

There are many troubling aspects to this story so let’s address them one by one.

How did the Coyotes make such a careless decision?

Gutierrez’s statement suggests that the Coyotes did not know the extent of Miller’s actions when they drafted him. If not, why not? The information was already out there via the Blade story and court records. Minutes after Miller was drafted, I Googled his name and found the Blade report and other information about the incident.

Teams often tout the exhaustive amount of due diligence they conduct on prospects before the draft to be certain that they are not about to hand millions of dollars to problematic players. That due diligence includes character assessment. How then did the Coyotes miss readily available information on Miller unless they simply didn’t dig deep enough?

Why didn’t they call Isaiah’s mother, Joni Meyer-Crothers?

It’s a question that should be asked of a lot of teams.

Several teams told Elite Prospects’ J.D. Burke before the draft that they would not select Miller based on his history (this was also in my story the day after the draft), but you can bet that had Miller continued to fall, other teams would have selected him.

Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong told me after the draft that he had not spoken to the mother. In fact, Joni Meyer-Crothers told The Athletic that not a single team contacted her about the incident. The Coyotes did speak with other people in Miller’s life, along with Miller.

“He was very open about it,” Armstrong said in a phone interview the day of the draft. “He actually wrote every NHL team about it and admitted that he made a big mistake. I liked the fact that he didn’t hide from it. It was impressive.”

Again, if you’re going to tout your exhaustive exploratory process on prospects, how do you not call the mother of the victim of a crime committed by a player you may select? There is no credible excuse. It is simply a failure of the process and one from which all teams should learn.

It’s impossible to say where this failure of the process originated with the Coyotes. Armstrong was not in the draft war room because a previous agreement with the Blues kept him from participating. Did someone else convince associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski, assistant GM Steve Sullivan and special assistant to the GM Scott Walker to take a flier on Miller? Sources said the Coyotes will conduct an internal review to find out where the process went so horribly wrong.

In the meantime, Armstrong and Gutierrez both called Meyer-Crothers on Thursday to apologize. The call came one day after the team made the decision to cut ties with Miller.

How did Miller end up on the Coyotes’ draft board at all?

Per multiple sources, Miller was not on the Coyotes’ draft board before Armstrong was hired from St. Louis and Jankowski arrived in Arizona to run the Coyotes draft after his most recent post with Buffalo. But sources also said that Miller was not on the Blues’ draft board or the Sabres’ draft board. We may never know the truth on this one, or the internal review may provide some answers.

“It was a unique situation for me not being able to participate in this year’s draft and we were going through a transition with our scouting department,” Armstrong said in a statement on Thursday. “Mitchell is a good hockey player, but we need to do the right thing as an organization and not just as a hockey team. I’d like to apologize to Isaiah and the Meyer-Crothers family for everything they have dealt with the past few months. I wish them all the best in the future.”

Why have so many other teams and organizations been willing to overlook Miller’s past?

As The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell noted, the Detroit HoneyBaked Hockey Club permitted Miller to play for its U16 team for two seasons after he was convicted. USA Hockey allowed Miller to play in two World Jr. Hockey Challenges and the U18 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup. The OHL’s Sarnia Sting drafted him, the USHL’s Cedar Rapids and Tri-City both allowed Miller to play for their teams and now he is playing at North Dakota. To date, the Coyotes are the only team to distance itself from Miller.

UPDATE:

This is another example of why critics point to pervasive issues of inclusion and racism in hockey.

Is it fair to punish Miller for crimes he committed as a 14-year-old?

Miller’s coach in Tr-City (USHL), Anthony Noreen, offered an important perspective on this question when I reached him for that same story the day after the draft.

“If we want things to change, we’ve got to allow for people to change,” Noreen said. “We can’t let something that happened in the past define who they are now if we want people to grow and change and get better. I think all of us need to be way more open to that; to allowing for that to be a possibility, and especially when you’re talking about a 14-year-old.”

There is merit in allowing a 14-year-old to move past his mistakes, but this was an especially egregious and long-running mistake by Miller. He committed a crime and Joni Meyer-Crothers told The Arizona Republic’s Craig Harris that he did it over several years. Most 14-year-olds know better than to commit such heinous acts.

Meyer-Crothers was upset that Miller never personally apologized beyond the court order, but a pair of legal analysts that I contacted suggested that Miller may have simply been doing what he was asked by the court and that’s understandable as a teenager if he was simply following the rules to a T after such an egregious mistake.

What is troubling is that Miller hasn’t truly embraced the magnitude of what he did in other ways beyond what was simply required by the courts, or expedient to keep his draft status from plummeting further. Miller’s actions are not ordinary actions and there is no rule in society that says that once your legal debts are paid you should no longer face the consequences of your actions.

Nobody has ruined Mitchell Miller’s future. Playing in the NHL is a privilege, not a right. He has a chance to redeem himself through legitimate, vocal and visible efforts to fight racism and bullying. Nobody owes him a pro hockey future until he genuinely, not just legally repays that debt. If he embraces that challenge, his story could be one of redemption and example for others.

Should the Coyotes be criticized for cutting ties with Miller?

No. It’s fair to argue that the Coyotes should have known better than to draft him. It’s fair to argue that they should have seen this firestorm of criticism coming and they should have been more thorough in their exploratory process, but part of being a responsible community member means being responsive to your community.

The Mitchell Miller draft decision brought a whirlwind of local, national and international criticism the Coyotes’ way. The Coyotes responded to it in the only appropriate way left them. If they did not care about their community, they would not have made this move, but they did, so at the very least they have corrected their mistake and they have no doubt learned a whole lot in the process. That’s a good thing, and maybe it can be a lesson for other teams that could just as easily have been in the media spotlight this week.

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan