Hockey, like any sport, is for those who have played their entire lives and for those who have never tried. Hockey, like any sport, is a means to escape from the "real" world into a place of emotional investment. Hockey, like any sport, has fans from all walks of life.
Hockey, like any sport, has its problems. It’s time to stop pretending they don’t exist.
I started seriously following hockey in the shortened season of 2013. Off the top of my head, there are nine incidents that have involved NHL players and the law since then. Semyon Varlamov. Slava Voynov. Mike Richards. Ryan O’Reilly. Jarret Stoll. Claude Giroux. Ryan Malone. Mike Ribeiro. Patrick Kane.
Drug charges. Domestic abuse. Drunk driving (or cop-groping). Rape accusations.
These have all happened in the last two and a half seasons. Go back further and you’ll find countless others.
Patrick Roy. Nikolai Khabiboulin. Ed Belfour. Dany Heatley. Bobby Hull. Theo Fleury. Dustin Byfuglien. Riley Sheahan.
But the NHL doesn’t have the same problems other major sports leagues do, right? That’s what the widely-accepted idea is, anyway. I read it from players, writers, and fans often enough that I’m starting to wonder if they think they’ll believe it if they keep repeating it.
There’s something to be said about wanting to uphold the sanctity of the NHL’s image. The players believe in that and they strive for it on a daily basis. There’s something to be said about teaching players on what it means to be a good professional. It’s a noble cause, to be sure. But it’s a false standard to live up to, and the league isn’t doing a good job of accelerating change.
Pierre LeBrun, one of hockey’s more prominent talking heads, recently published an article through ESPN that suggests the moral superiority of the league he primarily covers in only its second line: "Suddenly, hockey is sharing some of the same dubious headlines normally reserved for other sports and leagues."
Nearly a year ago, when the Ray Rice fiasco was blowing up, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman declared that in the NHL, "our players know what's right and wrong." Since making this incredibly short-sighted comment, Voynov, O’Reilly, Richards, Stoll, Ribeiro, and Kane have all been at least investigated for alleged criminal activity. Sure, Voynov was suspended indefinitely after he was arrested, but we can't kid ourselves into thinking it was for any other reason than brand protection after seeing what happened to the NFL with their slow response.
Voynov has since been convicted, served time, and has left for Russia. His NHL rights will still be held by the Los Angeles Kings, and he will avoid punishment by the league unless he decides he wants to return to play here again. Stoll has earned another NHL contract. So has Ribeiro, along with high praise for his contributions on the ice in Nashville. O’Reilly appears like he’ll be playing in Buffalo this season, with only the "embarrassment" of his actions hanging over him. The jury seems to still be out on Richards.
One of the biggest problems is the failure to take responsibility in these cases. Here’s an example quote from Tyler Seguin in LeBrun’s ESPN article:
"You have to be so careful of other people," Seguin said this week. "It's changing to the point of where it was cool to see a celebrity athlete out, to 'How can I get money?' or 'How can I hurt this person?' It's sad. It started in the other leagues, now it's coming to our league.
"You just have to be careful. You have to know when to be a pro athlete and when you can just hang out and be a kid."
Contrast that with quotes from Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, who is only a couple of months younger than Seguin, from the same piece:
"You don't like the negative image on the league," said Team USA Olympian Justin Faulk, of the Carolina Hurricanes. "But it is a little bit of a reminder that you need to be careful with everything you do. You don't want to jeopardize something in your life, let alone someone else's. You don't want to hurt your team, the league, or have an affect on someone else's life that can be bad."
Emphasis mine. Is the difference clear?
What I love about Faulk's words here is that he recognizes that his actions have consequences beyond himself. His mentality is of one who takes responsibility rather than pushes blame on others, or makes it someone else's fault that they got caught and now have to reap what they've sown. And Faulk recognizes that his actions can have effects beyond the persons involved - the reputations of individual teams and the collective league hang in part on the conduct of their players.
One might think that Seguin, if anyone, would understand this. His career-altering trade to the Dallas Stars in 2013 was cited by management to be in part because of excessive partying and behavior problems. Backlash over his social media gaffes should have been loud and clear. And yet in his quote above, he laments not being able to be a kid, which is striking. Kids do not have responsibilities in the real world. Kids have someone else to look after them and tell them right from wrong. Kids do not play in the National Hockey League.
And then there’s the Kane situation. The Chicago Blackhawks and the NHL have so far failed to take any action to suspend Kane, despite the former being a very appearance-conscious organization and the latter vowing to not follow the same route as the NFL. He has received support in quotes from his teammates, including the belief that he can still be a leader for the Blackhawks and that off-ice issues do not exist in the locker room. It's not exactly fair for these leading questions to be asked, but when a "no comment" answer is more than understandable, the responses received are telling.
Let’s make one thing clear here: everyone in that Chicago dressing room benefits from pretending the on-ice talents are the only thing that matters. They are a better team for having Patrick Kane in their nightly lineup. But it is a cop-out of having to deal with real-world consequences by saying it doesn’t matter in the realm of the NHL. It is especially so because the NHL exists in a realm where rape happens, and rape destroys people's lives.
The NHL and those who cover it benefit from believing these things do not happen in Their League. They get to cling to their place as a niche sport in North American culture and pretend that all the Big Problems belong to the Big Leagues. They can continue to sell the idea of golden boys to the fans, of role models and dreams come true (and as fans, we want to believe it as part of our escapism into this sport). They write off these incidents as isolated, yet they continue to happen.
Greg Wyshinski of Puck Daddy took a look at player education on difficult issues. There is a set of classes every preseason in which all players are spoken to by specialists on a range of topics. A lot of attention is paid to financial management, because it’s difficult to give young adults more money than they know what to do with and expect them to spend it responsibly. They are lectured on substance abuse and offered CBA-guaranteed counseling for problems they may develop in these areas.
There is admittedly not a lot said about domestic violence and sexual assault in these discussions. The conversations are "wishy-washy" and "don’t really go into depth with the actual repercussions" stemming from these actions. They do not hear from persons who have experienced and survived abuse, though some players recognize that it might drive home the point harder than doctors barely touching on the subject.
This is the kind of "proactive" action you get when the league doesn’t believe the problems exist. The more they have to talk about not doing bad things, the more obvious it becomes that the way they are currently talking about it isn’t working. And until the NHL realizes that what they are doing isn’t working, their league of privileged, wealthy players will continue to benefit from their ignorance of these issues, and these things will continue to happen.
It’s difficult to say what we as fans can do. The NHL is a massively profitable organization and it is not likely these words or the words of others will reach the ears and change the insulated minds of those who run the league, and that is a frustrating truth that we have to accept. But we can try and change the hockey culture for fellow fans. We can stop perpetuating the idea of this supposed moral superiority among ourselves and get rid of the perception of the players as infallible heroes. We can instead make it known that this behavior should never be excused in the name of athletic ability. And especially in times like these, we need to remember the human element in every distasteful situation with which the NHL finds itself faced.