Thanks to some poor judgement on the part of the league and the defending Stanley Cup champions, the NHL is facing a potential media maelstrom. The story begins with 24-year-old Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov, who was arrested on October 2 for domestic violence. Voynov posted $50,000 bail, but was suspended indefinitely by the NHL as the investigation unfolded.
Kudos were paid to the league and commissioner Gary Bettman for acting quickly, especially in light of the NFL's mishandling of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases. However, that would be last time the situation was handled in a transparent, forthright manner.
The NHL has fewer player arrests than MLB, the NFL, or the NBA. The league also gets an odd sort of benefit from being the least popular of the Big Four: their PR disasters can safely fly under the radar in the U.S. This has allowed the league's murky domestic abuse policy to escape public scrutiny. That luck won't last forever.
Despite protests from Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, who called the system in place "dysfunctional," the Kings spent the early part of Voynov's suspension on the hook for Voynov's salary: this means that due to cap restrictions, they were unable to call up a replacement from the minors, and were forced, briefly, to play with only 5 defensemen.
On Thursday November 20, Voynov was charged with felony domestic violence. Late on November 21, as part of a classic Friday news dump, the NHL announced that the Kings would be granted salary cap relief, thus taking them off the hook for Voynov's $4.1 million cap hit—at least from a cap perspective.
The story took yet another bizarre turn Monday morning when Voynov participated in practice with the Kings ahead of last night's 2-0 win over the Boston Bruins. As team beat writer Jon Rosen (who is a Kings employee and yet just as confused as anyone by Voynov's presence), put it on Twitter:
Uhh, Slava skating with Kings.
— Jon Rosen (@lakingsinsider)December 2, 2014
The NHL fined the Kings $100,000, stating in a press release: "Voynov skated with teammates today during a Club practice. Such activity is in direct contravention of the terms of the suspension levied Oct. 20, which permit Mr. Voynov to use club facilities and work with team personnel but prohibit his participation in any team-related functions or activities."
$100,000, of course, is hardly a slap on the wrist for a franchise that has been valued at $550 million. But it also seems like an arbitrary amount. Just as granting the Kings cap relief seemed arbitrary. Bettman and the NHL are doing nothing that indicates a well-thought-out policy, and nothing that will set a strong precedent for future instances of domestic violence. The NHL has been given a golden opportunity to prove that it is capable of handling domestic abuse cases, and it has failed to do so.
Case in point: Less than two weeks before Voynov's arrest, Bettman said that "[The league's] focus on counselling and education, and in the joint programs with the Players Association we've been counselling and educating on domestic violence for more than a decade, I don't remember the exact date."
When reached for comment on the programs and how they specifically pertain to domestic abuse, NHL spokesman Gary Meagher said, "We have a substance abuse and behavioural health program that is part of our Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Players Association which is wide-ranging in terms of the services available to the players. And that is obviously one element."
11 Days before the Voynov arrest, Bettman boiled down his own obliviousness on this issue in one painfully misguided and quickly disproved statement: "Our players know what's right and wrong."
Bettman had the luxury of making that without much reprisal partly because because the actions of his league aren't likely to garner major public backlash compared to the MLB, NFL, or NBA. But that does nothing to rectify their make-it-up-as-you-go handling of the Slava Voynov case. What is the NHL doing to help victims? What is it doing to educate players and prevent future instances?
The NHL has always been sort of anachronistic. Even with ratings and profits on the upswing, the league has proven itself oblivious to a changing cultural climate. The NHL got away relatively unscathed when Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov was arrested in October, 2013 for domestic violence. One has to wonder if as the Voynov case continues to develop, the league's mistakes will finally catch up with it.