The National Hockey League and Mitchell Miller could have helped young people learn from a youthful mistake. They did not.

It was painful watching the Boston Bruins and the National Hockey League stumble as they tried to address the hiring and firing of Mitchell Miller, the talented 20-year-old defenseman with an ugly history. The episode reminded me of another hockey player who made some terrible, life-altering decisions a few decades back. His name was Craig MacTavish and he went on to win three Stanley Cup championships.

Miller was 14 years old when he pleaded guilty to the actions that have come back to haunt him; MacTavish was 10 years older and already playing for the Bruins. As I watch Miller’s career prospects dry up, I can’t help but consider how differently things turned out for MacTavish.  

The two men’s stories have little in common beyond the fact that they both caused grievous harm to other people.  I am not certain if MacTavish would have been given another chance today.  But if Miller had behaved after his crime the way MacTavish did, then his hockey prospects would look different. 

Juvenile records are supposed to be sealed, but the Mitchell Miller case shows the facts may well become public.

The Bruins drafted MacTavish, an Ontario teenager who was playing for the University of Lowell hockey team, in the late 1970s. He was a talented player. But like Miller, he made a terrible decision. One night, MacTavish got behind the wheel after drinking too much. His car rear-ended another vehicle, causing it to flip. A young woman named Kim Radley was driving the other car; she died from injuries sustained in the accident. 

MacTavish, 24 at the time, pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and vehicular homicide. He was sentenced to a year in jail in Essex County, Mass., a far lighter sentence than he would have received today.  But MacTavish expressed deep remorse for his crime.  He met more than once with the parents of Kim Radley, who publicly stated that they had forgiven him.  Once his sentence was over, MacTavish frequently spoke to teen-agers about the dangers of drinking and driving.  

Miller was 14 when he and a schoolmate were arrested for routinely tormenting Isaiah Meyers-Crothers, a developmentally disabled African American classmate.  It had been going on for years. Miller and his friend were charged as juveniles with assault and violating the Ohio Safe schools Act.  The guilty pleas were sealed, but two years ago, after the Arizona Coyotes drafted Miller, Meyers-Crothers talked to the The Arizona Republic about what Miller had done to him, and the Coyotes dropped him. Recently, the Bruins signed a contract with Miller, but rescinded it amid intense criticism. 

Unlike MacTavish, Miller never met with the family

In an interview with The Arizona Republic, Isaiah Meyers-Crothers’ mother said that Mitchell never personally apologized to her son, sending only a court-ordered letter that the family considered impersonal. It was a far cry from the contrition exhibited by Craig MacTavish. Miller didn’t help himself when he reached out to Meyers-Crothers through social media to smooth things over when the Bruins were offering to sign him. 

When possible, own your mistakes

My company works with teenagers and young adults, among them athletes, who make serious, public-facing mistakes. They, along with their families, seek us out because they wish to move forward with their lives.

When possible, I believe young people whose lives are just starting should own their mistakes and try to make amends for them.  In most cases, the public may be willing to give them a second chance. Had Miller personally reached out to the Meyers-Crothers family and sincerely expressed remorse, it is possible that he could have moved on with his hockey career.  As it is, his apologies were perceived as self-serving, and just gave oxygen to a media culture designed to stoke outrage.  

If this were my case – and it is not – I would have advised Miller’s parents, coaches, and agents to encourage him to address his past with real humility early on.  The second defendant in this case did just that. He showed up at the Meyers-Crothers home and issued a tearful apology. It was a simple act of contrition that allowed both parties to move forward.

MacTavish acknowledged his tragic mistake privately to the Radley family, and publicly. He had a hard time facing the parents of the young woman he killed, but he did it.  “Sure, I was nervous. But I knew it was something I had to do. I wanted to do it.”

“It’s not over and it’s not behind me.”

When he emerged from jail, Boston Bruins’ General Manager Harry Sinden called in a favor and traded MacTavish to the Edmonton Oilers, where he won three Stanley Cups.  “It’s not over and it’s not behind me,” MacTavish said at the time. “So many things remind me of what happened in my terrible mistake, my fatal mistake.”