It’s never easy to defend the Stanley Cup, but has any recent champion faced a more uncertain future than the Blackhawks?
Sure, Chicago has survived the scramble of post-championship reorganization before, but the Hawks have never had a summer quite like this one. Since taking the Cup for a celebratory twirl around the United Center ice back in June, Chicago has:
Traded top-six forward Patrick Sharp to the Stars.
Lost veterans Antoine Vermette, Johnny Oduya and Brad Richards to free agency and Kimmo Timonen to retirement.
GM Stan Bowman, a master of making the best of a bad hand, has imported a batch of potential roster patches that includes Artem Anisimov, Trevor Daley, Marko Dano, Viktor Tikhonov and Artemi Panarin. There’s some decent talent there, with Daley and Anisimov likely to make solid contributions in supporting roles, but taken as a whole the team seems decidedly less imposing than it did just a couple of months ago.
But the talent drain seems almost inconsequential compared to the damage that could be caused by Patrick Kane and his developing legal troubles. The superstar winger is under investigation by police in western New York after a woman filed a sexual assault complaint against him last week. While few concrete details about the case are available at this point, there’s no overstating the potential fallout should police eventually file charges. And if Kane is actually convicted? How could this team ever be the same?
Writing in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, David Haugh argued that Kane’s uncertain legal status puts the Hawks in an impossible position. With training camp less than six weeks away and the justice system moving at its own deliberate pace, Chicago may be forced to suspend Kane.
“In the post-Ray Rice era of professional sports, a first-class franchise such as the Hawks cannot allow a player facing serious allegations to represent it until more clarity about the case exists,” Haugh wrote. “The thing about setting a standard of excellence as high as the Hawks have is living up to it; no single player, not even a living legend, can compromise that commitment to integrity.”
Of course there’s a counterargument to be made that the player deserves the presumption of innocence, and that supporting him is both the ethical and moral stance for the organization to take.
That’s the position that the Avalanche took in 2013 when starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov was arrested on domestic violence charges after his girlfriend accused him of drunkenly kicking her and dragging her by her hair. The charges were later dropped because prosecutors felt that they didn’t have enough evidence to secure a conviction. But Colorado’s immediate decision to circle the wagons and allow Varlamov to remain active met with mixed reactions from the press and the public.
In the wake of the Rice assault incident in 2014, the growing outcry against domestic violence and how it was being handled by teams, leagues, colleges and other sports organizations left the Kings with little wiggle room when Slava Voynov was arrested on charges of domestic violence in October of that year. The team immediately suspended the defenseman, a key member of their ’14 championship run. L.A. paid a price for the decision—Voynov's absence contributed to the Kings’ failure to make the playoffs last spring—but the team made the morally defensible call. Voynov later pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of corporal injury to a spouse and was sentenced to 90 days in jail.
The situation with Kane is murkier because he has yet to be charged and it’s entirely possible that he never will be. But allowing Kane to participate in team activities will likely create a distraction that could disrupt camp and the total focus that Chicago will need to mount a credible Cup defense. More important, it would send a terrible message about the integrity of the organization.
One team already has made clear where it stands. On Wednesday afternoon, EA SPORTS announced that Kane “will no longer be involved as a spokesperson for the launch of ... NHL 16.” Kane had been set to appear on the cover of the popular video game with teammate Jonathan Toews.
So should the Blackhawks. At least temporarily, suspending Kane might be best for all involved.
For Kane, hockey should be the least of his concerns at the moment. He’s better served by focusing on not just this matter, but on the way he wants to lead his life moving forward. His history of unfortunate off-ice incidents is not making any of this easier for him or his team to handle.
• Score another point for Gary Bettman’s expanded U.S. footprint. The country’s next great star could be a defenseman from Texas.
• Will a series of meetings this week in Pittsburgh lead to the sale of the Penguins?
• Flyers captain Claude Giroux talks about Jake Voracek’s new contract, new coach Dave Hakstol and the takeaway from winning gold at the World Championship.
• Bridgestone Arena will be just like the Roman Coliseum on Saturday nights next season. Only with more gold.