The NHL gets a good deal of criticism from this corner, but giving the league credit where due has never been an issue. And when it came down swiftly in regard to domestic violence charges against Slava Voynov – suspending the L.A. Kings defenseman indefinitely – the NHL did exactly what was required. Voynov will have his day in court to defend himself, but the league cannot permit anyone in its employ to remain on the job while accused of such a heinous offense. And although it’s the NHL Players’ Association’s duty to represent its members, it’s difficult to envision them not working with team owners to craft more punitive measures for those players who hurt women.
That said, this new case of domestic violence should show the NHL that, contrary to what commissioner Gary Bettman said earlier this month – “our players know what’s right and wrong” – it isn’t immune from any societal ill. There’s nothing separating NHLers from any other demographic. They are not inherently better than any other group of athletes or people walking the face of the earth. And that’s why they need to be informed, in the strongest possible terms, that under no circumstances will they be permitted to strike a woman without severe consequences befalling them.
How does the league achieve that? A lifetime ban for a first convicted offense would get players’ attention and send a message to women that they are respected as equals and are deserving of basic human dignities and protections.
The NHL and NHLPA have been loathe to be so severe in delivering supplemental discipline, but the alternative – appearing too forgiving to someone convicted of indefensible behavior – has become no alternative at all. The groundswell of anger over the NFL’s bungled Ray Rice saga has demonstrated the grand majority of the general public has no appetite whatsoever for instant forgiveness or understanding of athletes who transfer their professional aggressions onto their loved ones.
To its credit, the NHL has learned that basic lesson and applied it to Voynov’s case. Unlike the manner in which the league approached Semyon Varlamov and the charges laid against him in October of 2013 – allowing the Avalanche goalie to continue playing throughout the criminal investigation – it moved swiftly and with clear purpose this time. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told THN’s Ken Campbell the circumstances in the two cases were different, but what cannot be different any longer is the response from hockey’s gatekeepers. There must be a uniform, one-size-fits all policy that leaves no room for misinterpretation.
A strict no-tolerance approach that revokes from abusers the privilege of playing in the NHL is the only answer.