Two years ago, it was Semyon Varlamov, arrested after allegedly having assaulted his then-girlfriend. Prosecutors eventually dropped the domestic violence charges when they couldn’t prove them beyond a reasonable doubt.
Then it was Slava Voynov, arrested and charged with a felony count of corporal injury to a spouse. He would plead “no contest” to domestic violence charges and get 90 days in jail, along with a prolonged suspension from the NHL.
Most recently it was Patrick Kane, currently under investigation by Buffalo police after being accused by a local woman of sexually assaulting her in his home.
Through the years, it’s been dozens of other players at every level of competitive hockey with similar charges and accusations. (Read the list -- it's shocking.) The words “hockey” and “rape culture” have become regrettably synonymous in the minds of many fans.
None of this is unique to hockey, and all of it seems to run counter to what we assume organized sports can, or should, accomplish with young men: Instilling discipline; preaching selflessness; establishing some semblance of morality, or at, a minimum, humanity.
The NHL and the NHLPA try to play that role with their players. They offer substance abuse rehabilitation. They offer counseling. They offer any number of support services throughout each season, and every preseason they offer guidance to players on how to conduct themselves as celebrities, role models and representatives of the league.
“A specialist will come in and speak about identity theft and fraud, and stuff like that. So, how to protect yourself,” said a current NHL player, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “A group of guys come in and talk about substance abuse, things you can do to have teammates watch out for. Things you can and can’t take.”
But what, if anything, does the league tell these players about rape? About sexual assault? About domestic violence? Does the League do enough? Does it have an effective approach?
“A lot of time, they’ll talk about social issues like that. They have a lot of research available for you,” said the player. “But that specifically – sexual abuse – there’s not a whole lot of conversation about that.”
The first time the NHL and the NHLPA address players about sexual assault and domestic abuse is during rookie orientation camps for top prospects in the summer. According to another current NHL player, that’s where the most in-depth discussions on sexual assault and violence take place.
But the glut of that orientation is dedicated to the leap they’re about to make from junior league players to millionaire pros – about the financial and security issues in front of them, as well as the services available from the league and the PA regarding substance abuse and other aspects of mental health.
Once they enter the NHL, players revisit these issues every preseason in two different seminars presented by the league and the Players’ Association. (We asked both for materials related to these briefings, and both said there weren't any to share as they're "discussions.")
The first challenge in these early season meetings: trying to engage with an audience whose minds are on other matters, or still in offseason mode.
“It’s tough. It’s one of those things that is part of the CBA. Guys, to be real honest, aren’t real excited about that. Usually it’s at the end of a practice day or between game days or at some point during the season,” said one veteran player, again speaking on the condition of anonymity. “There’s usually a whole lot of other things on your mind, it’s one of those things you know is important but at the same time it’s mandated by the league and the PA so you have to go and everybody approaches it differently. But it’s one of those things that you’re not super excited to go to.”
The NHL presentation during training camp is handled by League or team security officers – usually ex-cops, gruff and matter-of-fact about the issues at hand.
(We’ve also heard some teams bring in detectives and district attorneys to speak to the players.)
This presentation is sort of a “scared straight” thing – talking about law enforcement and consequences, and presenting the players with some common sense guidelines to life. (For example, if you’re still at the bar at 2 a.m., there’s probably no good that’ll come from it.) Many of the topics are evergreen; some are stressed more than others depending on the news of the day.
“Last year, they showed a video that talked about stuff like ‘driving while drunk and text messaging’ and all that kind of stuff,” said one current NHL player.
The subject of that 10-to-12-minute video will rotate every year. According to the NHL, it’s never been focused on domestic violence or sexual assault.
“To be fair to them, there are so many issues out there to be aware of in the world of professional athletics. So they try to get to the most relevant things for each year. But this is in the headlines right now. This season, for sure, it will be a topic that they cover probably more in depth,” said one current veteran NHL player.
CALL THE DOCTORS
The second preseason seminar involves NHL and NHLPA doctors involved with the joint Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health programs.
This seminar covers the SABH polices laid out in the CBA, including Article 47’s performance-enhancing drug provisions. It explains the services available to the players, including drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation.
According to one player, domestic violence and sexual assault are covered here, although not exactly in depth.
“The group of doctors come in, and they do a whole substance abuse, domestic violence thing. It’s tough to get guys to pay attention for very long as a group, especially at the beginning of the year for training camp. They really just skimp through it. They don’t really go into depth with the actual repercussions,” he said.
So is it basically “don’t hit women” but not much more?
“Yeah like that. It’s a little wishy-washy. I’m pretty sure they don’t really cover any horror stories. I can’t remember hearing any,” said the player.
“Some guys get a benefit from being scared straight, but it’s a pretty graphic subject. I think there could be more done to educate guys on the repercussions. Especially young guys finding themselves in situations.”
One team that plans on increasing that education is the Los Angeles Kings, in the wake of the Voynov scandal. GM Dean Lombardi told the OC Register that the team will focus on domestic violence issues this season with its players:
"We neglected to educate our players. We spend time teaching them systems, nutrition and everything else, but we missed a big step here, in terms of ensuring that they understand right and wrong. That has to be reinforced, not only as a human being but as somebody who is a representative of your community. It heightens the need for this," he said in June.
"[The Kings] have met with a number of domestic-violence groups. [We're] in the process of finalizing an arrangement where they are going to come in and educate all of us on it, quite frankly. I’m interested in some of this myself. We all need to learn about it."
HEARING FROM SURVIVORS
To increase the impact of their preseason seminars, the NHL and the NHLPA will sometimes have former players that have battled substance abuse or suffered financial ruin speak to the players.
What they’ve never had, according to the NHL and the players to whom we spoke, is a victim of domestic violence or rape speak to the players about her anguish.
Would inviting a victim to speak have a greater impact than what’s currently being taught in these seminars? Would putting a woman's voice to the issues – like the league does with drug abuse – drive home the point better?
“That would be a deep, deep … that would strike a chord with a lot of guys,” said one NHL player.
“[Having a victim speak] would likely have an impact. It has more of an impact coming from someone that has been through it for sure,” said another.
But one NHL veteran told us he didn’t believe the message would resonate because, in theory, the players are already aware of what not to do.
“I don’t know if that would help. Honestly probably not. I don’t think it would. I think every guy in the locker room knows it’s not OK and I don’t know … I don’t think it would,” he said.
One NHL official told us that players are just naturally more inclined to take advice from their own peers, or former peers, than from an outsider. And yet having a woman deliver information about sexual assault or domestic violence would, undoubtedly, reinforce the points more than having a man do so. That's the direction the Kings are taking, for example.
Another consideration: Having the spouses/girlfriends of the players attend these NHL and NHLPA briefings, which could put a greater sense of importance on them, especially if they placed a greater priority on domestic violence/sexual abuse.
AFTER THE MEETING
In a few weeks, NHL players will return to training camps after a summer of domestic violence charges, drug arrests and a rape investigation. For a couple days in September or early October, they’ll sit and they’ll listen to the advice handed out from security officials and physicians. They’ll hear what services are available if they need help. Maybe they’ll listen to a horror story or two about texting while driving.
And they’ll leave the room, to return to the gym or to head home for a nap.
It’s what they take with them that matters. And it’s what the NHL and the NHLPA can reinforce from those meetings that’s missing, according to one veteran NHL player.
“In my opinion, it should be a little more follow through, not just meetings but having the security people around to talk to if you need anything. In that sense it would help out,” he said.
The Slava Voynov situation was a landmark one for the NHL, or at least it could be one if the league remains diligent.
A month before the suspension, Gary Bettman told a luncheon crowd in Toronto that "our code of conduct is we expect you to do the right things and if you don't we hold you accountable. More important than that is I believe you need to be proactive."
So the NHL was proactive. Because, of course, the National Football League had suspended Ray Rice and thus made it OK for the NHL to be proactive against Voynov, in a way it wasn’t against Varlamov one year earlier.
Obviously, the League feels it needs someone else to take the first leap on these issues, so one wonders what the NHL reaction will be to the Major League Baseball domestic violence policy announced this month. It clearly spells out a punitive policy for domestic violence incidents involving MLB players, with the buck stopping with the commissioner.
Would the NHL do the same?
It's clear the NHL and its teams need to do more in their education of players; not only in the time spent covering domestic violence and sexual assault in the preseason but in having more women speak to the players on these issues, both from a clinical perspective and from their own experiences. And then, to reinforce it, explaining what the consequences are for their actions when it comes to their livelihood.
“It all comes down to if I’m running a business and I’m paying my athletes X amount of dollars, I think you go the extra mile to educate and protect them,” said one NHL player. “It’s just another way of protecting your assets so the team can be as focused and successful as possible.”
And almost assuredly protecting others in the process.
Additional Reporting By Josh Cooper/Yahoo Sports
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