“How about some insight into how NHL contracts address issues of morality,” one reader wrote in the comments section of our post on Wednesday, about how Chicago may end up with little choice but to suspend Kane. “It would be interesting to understand what rights the Blackhawks have and, further, how this would affect the team's cap situation.”
It’s well worth noting that no charges have yet been filed against Kane. Finding the truth about what happened and ensuring that both he and the alleged victim are treated fairly are the most pressing concerns as the investigation goes forward. But it also is fair to wonder how this could affect Kane’s ability to contribute to Chicago’s championship defense, especially in light of recent moves made by teams and the league against players who have been involved in criminal investigations.
The Hawks could circle the wagons and allow Kane to maintain a full relationship with the team, much like the Avalanche did when goaltender Semyon Varlamov was facing allegations of domestic violence in 2013. At the time, both the team and the league said they had information that made them comfortable with their decisions to take no disciplinary action against Varlamov. The laissez-faire stances were vindicated when prosecutors eventually declined to press charges (the alleged victim, Varlamov’s ex-girlfriend, has since filed a civil lawsuit).
Of course, that situation played out in the pre–Ray Rice era. The “boys will be boys” attitude that too often glossed over grossly unacceptable behavior by athletes became a relic after video surfaced showing the Baltimore Ravens running back punching his then fiancée in a hotel elevator. The NFL’s soft response—a two-game suspension—fueled a firestorm of public anger that resulted in a new level of accountability from athletes.
That's why Chicago could also choose to suspend Kane via what’s euphemistically known as the “morality clause” of the Standard Player Contract (SPC). A team can terminate a deal with a player who breaches the SPC with “conduct detrimental to the best interest of the Club.”
Consider what happened to former Kings center Mike Richards after he was held at a border crossing in Manitoba, Canada, in June for the alleged unlawful possession of prescription painkillers. The incident, while embarrassing, was something of a gift for cap-crunched L.A. (though the team would never admit it). The Kings had been looking to rid themselves of the underperforming Richards and his bloated contract (average annual value, $5.75 million) all season, going so far as to bury the veteran in the minors while they explored trade options. So when he apparently ran afoul of the law, he handed the team a pretext for dumping him and the final five years of his deal under terms of the morality clause.
The NHLPA recently announced that it would file a grievance on behalf of Richards, and it’s entirely possible that, given the absence of criminal charges, the termination of his contract will be overturned. That possibility would likely prevent the Blackhawks from following a similar route with Kane. But more to the point, Kane is not Richards. The 26-year-old winger is Chicago’s second-most important player, behind only captain Jonathan Toews, and his new eight-year, $84 million contract, which kicks in this season, reflects that. Removing a world-class player in his prime from a Stanley Cup-contending roster is the absolute last thing that the Hawks want to do. And with training camp a month away and the investigation still ongoing, there’s no immediate need for the team to take drastic action.
If Kane is eventually charged, Chicago could pursue the nuclear option. By then, though, the decision on his NHL fate may not even be up to the team.
Consider the league’s reaction when Los Angeles defenseman Slava Voynov was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence last October, after the furor over Rice had fundamentally changed the way pro leagues dealt with such issues. The NHL, not the team, suspended Voynov indefinitely with pay that same day while it initiated a formal investigation into the arrest.
With the legal process slow to play out, the decision effectively ended Voynov’s season. It may yet end his NHL career. When he finally pleaded no contest to a reduced charge in July, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that the league was aware of the development, but that Voynov’s status would remain unchanged.
“At an appropriate time, I am sure we will be in touch with Mr. Voynov and the NHLPA with respect to next steps regarding the league’s review and further handling of the events at issue.” Daly said.
The suspension of Voynov was imposed under Section 18-A.5 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which relates to commissioner discipline for off-ice conduct. The section grants fairly sweeping powers to Gary Bettman with regards to “conduct (whether during or outside the playing season) that is detrimental to or against the welfare of the League or the game of hockey.”
Specifically, subsection 5 states that the league may suspend a player “subject to a criminal investigation by any governmental authority, or in the event of an ongoing civil proceeding where the Player has been named as a defendant ... pending the League’s formal review and disposition of the matter where the failure to suspend the Player during this period would create a substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interests and/or reputation of the League.”
No doubt the reputation of the league would take a serious hit if one of its marquee stars was charged with a crime as heinous as rape. If charges are filed against Kane, the NHL would be forced to treat him as swiftly and harshly as it did Voynov.
Losing a player of Kane’s stature wouldn’t be the Blackhawks’ only concern. Like the Kings, Chicago would also have to deal with severe salary cap implications.
Because Voynov’s suspension was essentially the first of its kind, there were no protocols in place for how to deal with its impact on the team’s salary cap. It wasn’t until late November that the league finally acted to remove the burden of his $4.166 million hit via the Long-Term Injury Exception of the CBA, freeing room for Los Angeles to pursue a replacement player.
Daly, in an email to SI.com, said that the league still has “no set policy” regarding the use of the LTI Exception and would review future situations “on a case-by-case” basis. That said, it seems reasonable to assume the league would use it again if Kane eventually is charged—and likely in a more timely manner. That would allow the Blackhawks greater freedom to pursue their options.
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