NHL fans pressuring teams on sexual assault, domestic violence

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/1933/" data-ylk="slk:Mike Ribeiro">Mike Ribeiro</a>, Slava Voynov, Semyon Varlamov, Ben Johnson
Mike Ribeiro, Slava Voynov, Semyon Varlamov, Ben Johnson

During the last three years of Melissa Geschwind’s crusade for better policies on sexual assault and domestic violence in the National Hockey League, there have been times when her voice has been acknowledged.

Her online petition, created in the aftermath of the Chicago Blackhawks’ handling of the Patrick Kane case in 2015, has grown to over 37,500 fans that support her call for “a clear, comprehensive policy of zero tolerance for players who commit acts of intimate partner violence or sexual assault.”

She felt the petition was a necessity. “The Patrick Kane saga was a case study in how not to handle allegations against a player. The Hawks almost seemed determined to do the wrong thing every step of the way. The Kings were cartoonishly terrible in how they handled Slava Voynov, too,” said Geschwind, a hockey fan and freelance writer from New Jersey.

“Unfortunately, it’s nothing new. The only difference is it’s a little harder to sweep these things under the rug in the Internet age. Now people actually notice.”

The NHL eventually took notice of her efforts. She earned an audience with League officials, including Vice President for Special Projects and Corporate Social Responsibility Jessica Berman. Later, she had an audience with Commissioner Gary Bettman, asking him about the League’s policies on these issues and about the “casual sexism that contributes to a culture that views violence against women as inevitable and, to some extent, acceptable.”

There aren’t many people, without the backing of an organization, that get that kind of access to Bettman. Geschwind’s efforts allowed her to sit in a room with the NHL’s most powerful individual and ask him, face to face, if he acknowledged that when fans refer to Corey Perry as “Katy Perry,” it’s a gender-based insult.

(Bettman, who previously pushed back on the notion, agreed that it was.)

But there have also been times during this crusade when Geschwind felt like she was screaming into the void, and doing it alone. So last summer, she decided it was time for others to join the effort, and target the NHL’s teams about their sexual assault and domestic violence policies.

“After it became clear that my meeting with Gary Bettman was a one-off and I wasn’t going to get anywhere with the League, I figured the best way forward was to help teams hear directly from their fans. I put out a call on Twitter and in a petition update, and fans from across the League took the time to write letters urging their teams to take an active role in the fight against domestic violence and sexual assault,” she said.

She received 43 letters from fans, representing 25 teams.

They were sent out. Follow-ups were made.

On March 20, 2017, about 18 months after Geschwind’s campaign started, the Maple Leafs announced they were partnering with the White Ribbon campaign, which is billed as “the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls and promoting gender equity, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity.”

“The Maple Leafs were amazingly responsive,” said Geschwind. “Lou Lamoriello called me directly and ultimately put me in touch with Brendan Shanahan, who was already involved with Sanctuary for Families in New York. He wanted the Leafs to be leaders in this area and the letters showed him that there was fan support for it, too. The letters played a real role in encouraging the Leafs’ partnership with White Ribbon.”

Sometimes her voice was heard. Sometimes it felt like no one was listening. The Maple Leafs showed they were not only listening to their fans but were willing to do something tangible about domestic violence and sexual assault.

It was a start. And it was more than many NHL teams have shown a willingness to do on these issues, despite the fans’ best efforts.

***

In 2014, Bettman said the NHL didn’t have a domestic violence problem.

“So I’m not sure for us there is any need for any code of conduct other than our players, who overwhelming conduct themselves magnificently off the ice — we deal with it on a case by case basis. I don’t think we need to formalize anything more. Our players know what’s right and wrong, and as I said, we have the mechanisms in place to hopefully not get to that point,” he said.

The NHL has had several high-profile cases of sexual assault and domestic violence against women in recent years.

Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov was arrested for a domestic violence incident involving his girlfriend in 2013, but wasn’t suspended by the NHL. The charges were later dropped due to “reasonable doubt.”

In July 2015, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov pled “no contest” to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge involving his wife, did jail time and was suspended indefinitely by the NHL before leaving for Russia. This was after the Kings allowed him to practice with the team after his suspension and arrest, a move that earned the franchise a $100,000 fine. (Russia attempted to put him on its World Cup of Hockey team, but the NHL rejected the request, fearing a backlash.)

In July 2015, Nashville Predators center Mike Ribeiro settled a sexual assault suit with a former nanny, a case that saw horrific details of that abuse reported in the press. The Predators handed him a two-year contract extension at the start of the month.

Also in July 2015, Evander Kane of the Buffalo Sabres was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a Buffalo hotel. Buffalo police concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him, but he’s since been hit with a civil suit over the incident.

In July 2016, Kane was again involved in a physical incident with a woman at a Buffalo bar, with police alleging he “yanked the hair and grabbed the throat of a woman while trying to push her into his car.” A judge promised the charges would be dropped if Kane stayed out of trouble.

In Sept. 2015, Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks was investigated but never charged after a woman accused him of sexual assault in Erie County, N.Y.. There were calls for the NHL and the Blackhawks to suspended Kane during the preseason; neither of them did.

In March 2016, prosecutors dropped a felony revenge porn charge against Chicago Blackhawks prospect Garrett Ross “after investigators determined the incident happened while Ross was in Michigan.” His AHL team waited weeks to suspend him. “What bothered me the most was that it took the Blackhawks 40 days after Ross was booked and charged to suspend him, but less than 10 hours to reinstate him,” said the woman who accused him.

In Sept. 2016, New Jersey Devils draft pick Ben Johnson was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in the bathroom of a Windsor nightclub in March 2013 when he was 18. Johnson had his contract terminated by the team.

For some fans of these teams, it was difficult to stomach how they reacted to their players’ actions.

Jenn Walsh is a Sabres fan that has volunteered at the St. John’s Status of Women Council/Women’s Centre, which cares for women and victims of domestic violence. She said the Evander Kane incidents were in the forefront of her mind when she saw Geschwind’s call for fans to write letters on sexual assault and domestic violence.

“I know firsthand just how devastating the impact DV/SA can be on women and children. Anything I can do to promote awareness of this issue and call for support is the very least I can do,” she said.

“The League and its teams need to do more to communicate to its players and staff just how real the problem of domestic violence and sexual abuse is right now. I’m aware that most teams have a presentation during training camp or at the beginning of the season. But they need to focus more on the effects of DV/SA on its victims and less on how these men shouldn’t ‘put themselves in a bad spot.’”

The Sabres were the first team to complete the NHL’s mandatory “domestic violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment training” in January 2016. It was a program designed by the NHL and the NHLPA to provide hour-long training sessions for teams, based on the same training that happens at the league’s rookie camps. It was a welcome change for the NHL, which used to have training sessions for players for things like identity theft and fraud, but not sexual assault.

The program is run in part by “A Call To Men,” an organization that’s partnered with other leagues like the NFL. It’s an organization that attempts to relate to the athletes by having former athletes running the session. 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.

“My only real gripe is that ACTM doesn’t get enough time with players and coaches to really drive the message home. I believe at that point the league mandated a one-hour session with each team with no follow-up. ACTM is a great asset that the NHL is underutilizing. But it’s a good start,” said Geschwind.

A Call To Men has earned praise for its efforts, but Katie Hnida believes there needs to be another facet to the education beyond guy talk: There needs to be acknowledgement of the victims. Their voices need to be added to the mix.

“Because this type of violence disproportionately affects women, I also think it’s incredibly important to have a woman’s voice and perspective incorporated into any policymaking, trainings, etc.,” said Hnida, a former D-1 NCAA football player who has become a prominent voice on sexual assault and harassment in sports.

“A survivor’s voice can be incredibly powerful.”

(The NHL declined comment for this story.)

***

It’s all about changing the culture among players, and changing the way teams handle these incidents.

Melisa Bergeson is a Predators fan that was disgusted by the way Mike Ribeiro’s case was handled by the team and the NHL. So she wrote letters for Geschwind’s initiative.

What would she like to see happen as a result of the campaign?

“First, take accusations seriously and suspend players with pay while they’re being investigated. Second, address casual sexism within the NHL by nixing things like ice girls and condescending ‘Hockey and Heels’ nights. Third, in the same vein as the NHL’s You Can Play partnership, publicly partner with charitable groups who address issues of sexism, violence, and sexual assault,” she said.

The partnership with “You Can Play” has been a successful one of the NHL, as the league and teams partnered together in an effort to promote understanding and punish homophobia in hockey. Sometimes it’s as symbolic as rainbow tape around a stick blade, and sometimes it’s something more tangible.

Geschwind doesn’t understand why that progressive partnership couldn’t exist to help eradicate misogyny in hockey. Symbolic gestures and changes in behavior would do wonders for changing attitudes about sexual assault and domestic violence in the League, she said.

“I’d like to see the League approach misogyny with the same outward contempt it now shows homophobia. Obviously the NHL still has a long way to go in that area but the fact that they explicitly denounce homophobia is huge. Use You Can Play as a template and work to eliminate casual misogyny in game ops, commercials, broadcasts and general player/management behavior,” she said.

“The first step to being part of the solution is to stop being part of the problem.”

Beyond a culture change, the petition and the fans’ letters call for something more tangible. Among the requests for teams:

  • Do not draft, sign, trade for, or re-sign players with a history of sexual assault or domestic violence

  • Suspend any player under police investigation for committing an act of off-ice violence 

  • Sever all ties with anyone who is convicted of these crimes

  • Establish a relationship with local charities and shelters that serve victims of these crimes

  • Urge the NHL to take a public stance against these crimes, because silence is a statement in itself

She’s met her share of silence since the letter-writing campaign started. As of this week, 16 teams that received letters and follow-ups had yet to respond. They’re listed here. (The Nashville Predators didn’t respond initially, but Nashville recently pledged a donation and released a PSA with their local YWCA for a campaign called “Unsilence the Violence.” The Predators also have a longer-standing relationship with a DV/SA organization locally.)

Among the teams that didn’t respond to Geschwind’s outreach: The Chicago Blackhawks, the Colorado Avalanche and the Los Angeles Kings.

“It’s always easier to do nothing than to do something. I’m sure some of it has to do with the Old Boys’ way of looking at the world, but mostly I suspect this is about teams insulating themselves from responsibility,” said Geschwind. “A lot of PR people in the NHL seem to view it as their job to shield management from the outside world rather than alert the front office to what fans are saying.”

Some teams have been cooperative. The Calgary Flames detailed their charitable contributions to charities that address domestic violence and/or sexual assault. Jarmo Kekalainen, general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets, sent Geschwind an email. New Jersey Devils president Hugh Weber called her and, in subsequent conversations, has indicated the team is working towards some sort of SA/DV policy.

But from many of the teams she’s reached out to … silence.

“It would be easiest if we would shut up, but if we won’t then they want to maintain some level of plausible deniability. What they don’t realize is that plausible deniability doesn’t exist here: Even if you never read your fans’ letters you still can’t expect anyone to believe that you don’t know SA/DV is a problem in the league, in hockey, in sports and in society,” said Geschwind.

“The most benign interpretation of their continued silence is that they’re just plain lazy.”

***

Curtis Morrison wrote letters for Geschwind. He’s a Maple Leafs fan who took pride in the way his team answered the call on domestic violence and sexual assault, but feels there needs to be more work done.

“As the largest and most popular professional hockey league in North America, the NHL and its teams have a responsibility to North American hockey in general to fight against sexual violence committed by its players, and to provide progressive and woman-led education about violence against women to players in NHL organizations on a yearly basis,” he told us.

“The end goal of the NHL should be to institute a policy which significantly penalizes players who are accused of violence against women and significantly penalizes teams that do not have strong policies on the same situation.”

Major League Baseball’s policy on domestic violence was made public last year. A player accused of domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse can be placed on paid “administrative leave” for up to seven days before a decision is rendered by the commissioner. It’s not automatic, but the option is there.

Geschwind and her letter writers believe they’ve simply asked for that kind of common sense from the NHL and the NHLPA, who need to collectively bargain on increased penalties for teams and players, but with a little more immediate action than the MLB policy.

“More than anything, I’d like to see teams stop asking fans to cheer for abusers. Don’t draft Ben Johnson. Don’t sign Mike Ribeiro. And if someone already on the roster is accused, don’t act as his personal PR machine. Take him off the ice and out of the dressing room while he goes through the legal progress, and treat the situation with the gravity it deserves,” she said.

The instant suspension of a player accused of, rather than found guilty of, sexual assault or domestic violence is a polarizing stance. That was never more evident during the Patrick Kane investigation. (Larry Brooks argued against it in the Slava Voynov case, in a column that hasn’t aged well.)

It’s a topic that came up in Geschwind’s sit-down with Bettman. His defense of the League’s policy was that it won’t suspend players unless “the league has specific information that clearly points to a player’s guilt.” (Like the physical evidence in the Voynov case, for example.) Bettman cited legal roadblocks, including labor laws, that would prevent him from suspending accused players.

It was a sentiment shared by Calgary Flames president Brian Burke, at the time of the Patrick Kane investigation:

“If you were accused but not charged of sexual assault, would you be allowed to go work tomorrow? Yes, you would. And if your employer tried to prevent you from doing so, you would win the grievance,” said Burke. “People say they want cookie-cutter justice but it’s not possible. It’s like a shoe store. You don’t walk in and they just hand you a pair of shoes. You have to get measured and talk about style and colour etc. You have to take into account the severity of the crime, the evidence that’s available and any number of issues. The player has the right to due process. Cookie-cutter is impossible.”

Geschwind believes the problem with that approach is that its starting point is inactivity.

“I’d like to see the League start by taking the allegation seriously, which means temporarily suspending the accused. To do otherwise tacitly calls the accuser a liar, which is incredibly harmful both to the person and to the community,” she said.

“Once the league — and law enforcement, if applicable — have investigated, THEN determine what to do on the merits of the individual case. It’s not a perfect solution by any means, but I believe it’s better than what we have now.”

Hnida feels there are significant drawbacks to a “suspend first” policy.

“The zero tolerance policy is a complicated one. It seems like it would be the best choice, but actually can put victims more at risk. If there is a one-and-done policy, chances of homicide go up exponentially with that first 911 call,” she said. “Anytime an abuser loses a job or money, it can agitate the abuser and put the victim more at risk, so it’s a fine line we have to walk very carefully. You never, ever want a victim to feel like they can’t call for help.”

She favors an approach that tries to prevent future behavior. “One other thing about zero-tolerance is that it punishes the abuser, but doesn’t get them help. Being able to get offenders treatment is a better scenario for everyone involved. Otherwise, the violence will usually end up rearing its head again at some point,” said Hnida.

***

Determining the punishment for players involved in sexual assault and domestic violence cases will be a point of much debate. But the debate doesn’t happen if the NHL and its teams don’t see the issue as a front-burner one.

That, ultimately, has been Melissa Geschwind’s crusade: Let the teams know that the status quo isn’t acceptable, and let the teams know that their fans care deeply about changing it.

Any fans interested in working on the NHL domestic violence and sexual assault policy campaign can email hockeypetition@gmail.com. For more about the letters campaign, visit here. Geschwind said she hopes to encourage fans to reach out to their local beat writers and hockey media to “very politely tell him or her that this is an issue that matters to fans.”

To keep the pressure on. To let the NHL and the NHLPA know that it matters.

“My hope is that they are working on something, and taking the time to get it right. It doesn’t make sense for anyone – the league, teams, players, families – not to have something in place regarding this incredibly serious issue,” said Hnida of the NHL. “The more dialogue we have, the more we can move forward.”

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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