FIFA and the Olympics have their corruption; The NFL has its incriminating concussion scandal; the NBA has rampant racism; and the MLB, though improving, still has doping issues. But through it all the NHL has stood on a pedestal, showing the rest of the sports world how to run a successful business along the straight and narrow, with respect and dignity.
At least, that’s what it would have you believe.
Although the NHL has done a good job of avoiding the aforementioned issues – it has no corruption to speak of, only recently has faced controversy for its handling of concussions, is racially inclusive (although NHL fans are another story) and has suspended just 17 players for doping in its existence – the reality is it is far from the example it thinks it is.
Look no further than the Patrick Kane rape accusations to see just how negligent and tone-deaf the NHL has become. It could have minimized the damage done to Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks by suspending him for the duration of the case, but instead left the decision in the hands of the ‘Hawks who paraded Kane in front of a larger-than-usual gathering of media.
Making matters worse (for all parties) was the fact Kane was less than forthcoming when the media probed him for answers about the accusations. To say the Blackhawks showed a significant lack of sensitivity to the issue would be a great understatement. They went out of their way to give their beleaguered superstar the opportunity to clear the air as best he could at his own news conference – an opportunity he squandered by choosing to remain tight-lipped.
While Kane plays a game for a living, this is no time for the NHL to play games with the media and the fans. Yes, Kane is innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, but the sports world does not work the same way. Especially in the aftermath of the NFL’s debacle last year, there is a level of sensitivity to these issues perhaps never before seen in the sports world.
It seems nonsensical neither the NHL, nor the Blackhawks organization has taken any kind of substantive action to this point. More than anything it sends a clear message – an overwhelmingly negative one – about its stance on these types of issues. Can you imagine the backlash if Kane, in the midst of a rape trial, were to appear in the Blackhawks’ opening night lineup?
Sadly, Kane’s case is just the latest in a string of recent events that have tainted the NHL’s image. In the last two years the league has dealt with domestic abuse cases involving Semyon Varlamov and Slava Voynov; drug possession charges against Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards and Ryan Malone; and Ryan O’Reilly’s DUI, plus charges for fleeing the scene of a crime. Only one of the aforementioned six players (Voynov) was suspended for his actions.
And, of course, there is the class action lawsuit former NHL players have launched against the league for failing to provide information to its players about the effects repeated concussions and head trauma, as well as failure to properly treat players upon diagnosis. The NHL hasn’t helped its case in the public’s eye by repeatedly pleading ignorance to the information at the time.
The fact former NHLers Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien each took his own life in the summer of 2011 – believed to be the result of repeated head trauma, given their violent careers – didn’t make the NHL’s defence look any better. Yet, even in the face of physical and scientific proof about the effects of repeated head trauma, the league maintained its innocence.
While dealing with a few arrests and a player health-related scandal may be a good year for some leagues, it’s uncharacteristic of the NHL (even if spaced out over a few years). It’s an especially disturbing trend for a league whose identity has, for many years, largely been based on the good behaviour of its players and its clean reputation. What’s more disturbing is the severity of the offences being committed (domestic abuse and alleged rape).
The NHL either needs to step in to buck the trend, or prepare to do some serious damage control in the coming years.