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After Ray Rice scandal, NHL must be careful with domestic abuse cases

In the wake of the NFL's Ray Rice domestic violence scandal, the NHL must be careful with its approach to a case like Semyon Varlamov's 2013 incident.

If there's one thing we know about commissioner Gary Bettman, it's this: The man hates dealing with hypotheticals. So there's no point asking him how the NHL would deal with a situation similar to the NFL's Ray Rice scandal because the league doesn't have a Ray Rice situation.

But it could one day.

It's hard to imagine another event as shocking or as despicable as Rice's videotaped assault on his then fiancée in an Atlantic City casino elevator, but given how frighteningly common domestic violence is in the U.S.—according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nearly one-third of women in this country have been physically abused by an intimate partner at some point in their lives—a hockey league that employs nearly 900 players during the course of a season seems destined to deal with one. And there have been cases in which reports of domestic violence allegedly committed by NHL players came to light.

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Given the public outrage over the Rice incident and the NFL's mishandling of it, the NHL would probably be wise to react differently than it did the last time it faced this sort of thing.

It was just last October that Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov was arrested and charged with assault after his visibly bruised girlfriend filed a complaint with the Denver Police. Her report to them was sickening: “He grabbed my hands and twisted me. When I tried to close the door to the room and get him out of the room, he kicked me in the chest with his leg. Twice I fell on the ground, and it hurt me a lot. After that we had a small fight between the kitchen and the lobby. At this moment, he was laughing.”

The team's response to the charges? Colorado gave the star goaltender its “full support” and started him in the very next game, against the Stars. Presumption of innocence or not, it was a stunningly tone deaf decision that now seems unthinkable.

The NHL followed with a reaction that would, presumably, not go over well now that public awareness of domestic abuse, in all its ugly brutality, has been raised and so many people are outraged.

Responding to requests from reporters to address the Varlamov case, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly simply said the league was “monitoring the developing legal situation and [did] not intend to intervene in that process.”

That wait-and-see approach was right out of the NHL's playbook for whenever a player has potentially serious off-ice brush with the law (see: Patrick Roy's domestic dispute arrest in 2000; the Mike Danton murder for hire case;Ryan Malone's 2014 DUI/cocaine possession bust, among others), but during the Varlamov incident it came off as callous. That is not to say that the league was unconcerned about the alleged crime or the victim's condition. There was just not enough concrete evidence for it to take action until law enforcement sorted things out. But optics matter.

In the future such caution in the face of domestic violence charges could carry a significant PR cost. Fair or not, a wait-and-see approach might make it seem as though the league didn't take the issue seriously enough.

As it was, Roy defended his decision to let Varlamov play by telling the Denver Post, "Why wait? We're all aware of what happened, but we just feel that he's our guy. We have confidence in him and feel that it's good for him to play tonight." (The criminal mischief charges against Roy were dropped back in 2000 in part because his wife, Michèle, refused to testify against him.)

And the Toronto Sun ran a story in which Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin, a Russian (as is Varlamov) was quoted as saying, “It’s just American laws are on the women’s side, that’s why they can go to the police for any little thing, complain and bring a lot of problems to men."

How does that sound now?

At least the NHL caught a break with Varlamov. The charges were ultimately dismissed because prosecutors said they could not prove the case against him beyond a reasonable doubt. But as the Rice incident proves, the legal system's response—based on, among other things, evidence and precedent—can be frustratingly out of synch with the perceived severity of an incident. 

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To the credit of both the NHL and the NHLPA, there are mechanisms within the league's behavioral health program to help deal with the issue of domestic violence.As part of that program doctors address each team about a variety of issues, including substance abuse and domestic violence. There's also an 800 number that players, wives or family members can call to request counseling on a variety of matters.

It's a start, but there's more that can be done. The NHL and the NHLPA are justifiably proud of the leadership role they have taken in promoting equal rights for LGBT athletes at all levels of the sport. The Rice situation creates an opportunity for another unified and very public stand in support of the rights of women to live their lives without fear of their partners.

Better to take that stand now than in the aftermath of an ugly incident.