How NHL’s new sexual assault education changes message

Puck Daddy
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, right, and NHL Player's Association Executive Director Donald Fehr take part in announcing the return of the World Cup of Hockey in 2016 in Toronto, during a news conference at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, before the NHL All-Star hockey skills competition, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, right, and NHL Player's Association Executive Director Donald Fehr take part in announcing the return of the World Cup of Hockey in 2016 in Toronto, during a news conference at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, before the NHL All-Star hockey skills competition, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, right, and NHL Player's Association Executive Director Donald Fehr take part in announcing the return of the World Cup of Hockey in 2016 in Toronto, during a news conference at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, before the NHL All-Star hockey skills competition, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

For the last two years, the NHL has been criticized for how it reacted to alleged incidents of sexual assault and domestic violence involving its players. That includes how the League educates its players regarding those issues. 

Last August, we brought you inside that education process, spelling out what the NHL and the NHLPA tell their players about domestic violence and sexual assault.

What we found was that despite the prevalence of these incidents recently for NHL players, these topics weren’t at the forefront of the League’s preseason seminars with teams – and if they were, it was with “scared straight” messaging, stressing the possible repercussions for the players rather than the abhorrent nature of the acts.

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Much of this appears to be rectified in the NHL’s new seminars on sexual assault and domestic violence, which began recently with the Buffalo Sabres and will continue with the rest of the League’s teams this season, as first reported by Darren Dreger.

It’s a program that’s been in the works for the better part of a year – yes, even before the sexual assault investigations into Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Evander Kane of the Buffalo Sabres. It’s a seminar that focuses solely on those issues, something the League has never done before.

It took a year to put together partially because the NHL and the NHLPA wanted to find the right organization to partner with in creating these programs. They knew they wanted a different group and a different voice than they had for the preseason meetings with players.

They settled on a national, non-profit organization – the League declined to provide a name – that features “specialized, highly qualified domestic violence and sexual assault experts that do education in this area only,” according to Jessica Berman, VP, special projects and corporate social responsibility for the NHL.

(UPDATE: According to the Sabres, the group is "A Call To Men," and you can read more about that organization here. Some context: "A CALL TO MEN believes that preventing domestic and sexual violence is primarily the responsibility of men. Although historically it has been almost entirely women who have been at the forefront addressing this issue, we think it is essential that men play a primary role in the solution. To do that, well-meaning men…men who, for the most part don’t see themselves as part of the problem…need to get involved.")

The group first worked with NHL rookies last year.

The focus on these issues isn’t the only change for the NHL and the NHLPA – it’s also how these issues are being framed in the seminars.

Frustrating as it is to hear, the messenger matters for NHL players. And the messengers in this case, according to someone who attended the seminars, are “big strapping athletic looking guys” that will get the attention of professional athletes. And their message isn’t a “scared straight” one, but rather one that takes a different tact.

They talk about the society impact of domestic violence and sexual assault. They talk about the “triggers” that can lead to those incidents. They talk about how to prevent it from happening.

And they talk about how they should treat others “like they treat their own family” in regarding their emotions and safety.

Less “scared straight,” and more “this is the right thing to do," is how it was framed for us.

Look, the NHL and the NHLPA still have a very long road to go on these issues. Leagues like Major League Baseball have attempted to install domestic violence and sexual assault polices that punish players. From Julie DiCaro:

MLB seems to have learned a lesson from the NFL, which brought in several expertsnotably former prosecutor Lisa Freelto assist with domestic violence investigations. But if the transcript released from Greg Hardy’s reinstatement hearing with the league is any indication, Friel provides little more than PR cover for the league. Because the NFL’s policy was unilaterally handed down by Roger Goodell, it’s already come under attack by the players union, which filed a greivance against the new player conduct policy last January.

And since the league’s suspensions of both Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice were overturned on appeal, the NFL appears to have shied away from handing down any serious discipline outside of the league’s drug policy. Here though, MLB and the players’ association crafted the league’s new policy together, giving rise to hope that investigations and hearings under [former Asst. U.S. Attorney Brian Seeley] into domestic violence allegations will have more teeth.

The NHL has no such panel. Only Slava Voynov was suspended by the League for a domestic violence charge. 

But this educational step taken by the NHL and the NHLPA is a positive one, a promising one and, because of the continuing behavior from some of its players, a necessary one. Let's hope it makes a difference. 

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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