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.
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.
•Complete coverage of the Ray Rice saga
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.
GALLERY: NHL Players and the Law
NHL Players and the Law
In Aug. 2015, the Blackhawks star was accused of sexual assault by a woman who went to his home near Buffalo, NY. No charges were filed after an investigation. Kane's maturity was first called into question during the summer of 2009 when he and his cousin James got into a late night fracas with a Buffalo cab driver over 20 cents change on a $14.80 fare. After pummeling the driver, Kane, then 20, and his cousin fled but were caught by cops. Kane pleaded guilty to non-criminal disorderly conduct. All other charges were dropped.
The Kings terminated the veteran center’s contract after he was arrested at the U.S.-Canadian border in May 2015 for alleged unlawful possession of the painkiller oxycodone. Richards was reportedly detained by police and charges were later filed.
After signing a seven-year, $52 million deal with the Sabres following his trade from Colorado, the 24-year-old center was arrested in Lucan, Ontario for driving while impaired. According to police, O'Reilly crashed his pickup truck into a Tim Hortons' donut shop shortly after 4.am. on July 9, 2015 and fled the scene with his passengers. Cops later found him walking on a nearby street and his blood alcohol level was found to be over the legal limit of .08%.
Las Vegas police arrested the Kings forward in April 2015 for allegedly trying to smuggle cocaine and Molly into a pool party at the MGM Grand Hotel. He was released on $5,000 bail and the charge was later reduced from felony drug possession to two misdemeanors (trespass and breach of peace). Stoll was sentenced to 32 hours of community service.
The Kings defenseman was charged with a felony count of corporal injury to spouse with great bodily injury after assaulting his wife on Oct. 19, 2014. He was suspended indefinitely by the team and pleaded not guilty, later accepting a “no contest” plea deal that carried a jail term of 90 days and possible deportation to his native Russia. Voynov voluntarily left the U.S., effectively ending his NHL career.
The Flyers' star center was arrested in Ottawa on July 2, 2014 and spent the night in jail for allegedly repeatedly grabbing the buttocks of a male police officer, the Ottawa Sun reported. Alcohol was believed to be a factor in the incident. According to the paper, the police refused to comment directly on Giroux unless charges were filed. Giroux was later released without being charged with any crime.
Tampa police arrested the Lightning winger at 3:19 a.m. on April 12, 2004 and charged him with DUI and cocaine possession. He was also cited for driving with a suspended license and found to have seven violations within the past year, including speeding. He pleaded no contest to DUI and was given 12 months probation. After being bought out by the Lightning and entering a recovery program, he signed with the New York Rangers the following September.
On the eve of Halloween 2013, Semyon Varlamov, the starting goalie for the Colorado Avalanche, was arrested on domestic violence charges that included second-degree kidnapping and third-degree assault in connection with an incident involving his girlfriend. On Nov. 22, he was formally charged with misdemeanour assault and faced up to two years in jail, but one month later the charge was dropped by a Denver judge after prosecutors said they could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The current Avalanche coach was the team's goaltender when he was arrested after his wife called 911 during an argument about in-laws in October 2000. Mrs. Roy was unhurt and the fiery goalie admitted that he'd yanked two doors of their hinges. He was released on bail and the case was later dismissed by a county judge because it did not meet the standard misdemeanor criminal mischief during an act of domestic violence.
The Oilers' veteran goalie was busted for extreme DUI and speeding near Phoenix in February 2010 while rehabbing a back injury. He received a 30-day jail sentence.
The Stars goalie was involved in a March 2000 incident at a Dallas hotel where security was called after his female companion became frightened by Belfour's drunken belligerence. He grappled with a guard, kicked two police officers, and was blasted with pepper spray. He later offered the cops a billion dollars to not take him to jail. No dice. He ended up pleading guilty, apologizing, and being given two years probation and $3,000 fine.
In April 2004, the Blues forward, 23, was arrested at an airport in San Jose and charged with conspiring to have a man killed, a man who was said to be coming to St. Louis to murder Danton over money owed. Prosecutors contended that the man in question was David Frost, Danton's agent. Danton insisted the man was his father, Steve, and he attempted suicide in Santa Clara (Calif.) County Jail shortly after his arrest. He later reached a plea deal and was sentenced to 90 months in federal prison. The judge said, "In over 18 years on the bench, I have [never] been faced with a case as bizarre as this one." After serving 65 months, during which time he received intensive therapy, Danton was freed in the fall of 2009. He resumed his playing career at St. Mary's University in Halifax, NS, and later for teams in Austria and Slovakia. "I'm glad I went to prison," he told SI in 2011.
The former forward, then an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes, was charged by authorities in New Jersey with financing a multi-million dollar bookmaking operation that took bets from other NHL players and allegedly had mob ties. The incident caused great embarrassment for Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, whose wife, Janet Jones, and was said to have placed wagers with Tocchet, who later pleaded guilty in May 2007 and was given two years probation. He could have spent five years in prison.
The New York Rangers winger, an alternate captain and popular family man, was busted at a grimy Collinsville, Ill., motel in January 2000 for soliciting a prostitute and possessing drug paraphernalia as well as the remains of a crack eight-ball. He faced a felony drug charge and later entered the NHL's substance abuse program. After two months in rehab, the drug charge was dropped.
The NHL career of the talented but troubled forward, a sex abuse victim, all but ended in January 2003 with a drunken brawl in a Columbus, Ohio, strip club. After signing a two-year deal with Chicago the previous August, Fleury was suspended 25 games at the start of the season for violating his substance abuse aftercare program. He ended up getting sober and briefly attempted a comeback in 2009.
The late enforcer was frequently in the news for a variety of transgressions, not the least of which was a March 1989 bust on the US-Canada border during which customs officers found 14.3 grams of cocaine in his undershorts. At the time, Probert had been in and out of rehab clinics five times in the preceding three years. He became the first player in more than four decades to be banned from the NHL, serving three months in prison before later being reinstated, but the trouble never stopped. In 2004, he was Tasered during an altercation with police.
The Minnesota North Stars winger was nabbed in November 1987 when he took a stroll to fetch the newspaper outside his home in Minneapolis while wearing only a sweater. A female neighbor did not find he view to be particularly heartwarming and called the cops. He was given a year's probation and community service. In January 1988, he became the first NHL player to be arrested for an on-ice assault, after clubbing Luke Richardson of the Maple Leafs with a stick. He was found guilty, spent a day in jail and paid a $1,000 fine on top of a 10-game suspension by the league.
The Winnipeg Jets blueliner was busted for suspicion of operating a motorboat on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota while under the influence. In July 2012, he reached a pre-trial agreement: a plea of guilty to a charge carrying a $1,000 fine and a sentence of 30 days that was reduced to two, which he spent doing garbage pickup and other productive but menial jobs.
The Calgary Flames forward and son of the team's then-GM Darryl Sutter, was accused in November 2010 of being extremely drunk when he punched a cab driver in the face outside a Scottsdale, Ariz. bar from which he'd been tossed for disorderly behavior. Brett, then 23, was brought down by bouncers and faced a misdemeanor charge. He pleaded guilty and was fined $323.60.
The LA Kings blueliner was busted at a Boston eatery in November 2002 after being ejected for grabbing a woman's rump, then returning to punch and kick her. Corvo fled but was apprehended and faced a litany of assault and battery charges to which he pleaded guilty. The Kings suspended him for three games and he took anger management classes, later citing the incident as the turning point of his future.
The Kings forward was arrested in October 2003 during an investigation of domestic battery after a confrontation with his fiance in Manhattan Beach, CA. He was released on his own recognizance. The charge was dropped after the district attorney cited insufficient evidence and decided against filing it. "It's unfortunate that a personal matter had to become public but I appreciate everyone's support and I am glad that I can now put this behind me," Palffy said in a statement.
The Thrashers winger, 22, was charged with six counts in a vehicular homicide on Sept. 29, 2003 when he crashed his Ferrari while speeding in Atlanta. Friend and teammate Dan Snyder was killed in the accident and Heatley faced up to 20 years in jail. He pleaded guilty to four charges and was sentenced to three years probation after Snyder's family told the judge they did not want the remorseful Heatley imprisoned.