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So You’ve Suspended Slava Voynov

What the Voynov suspension actually means for the NHL and violence against women

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(Editor’s Note: This article was originally written in April of 2019. Today, an arbitrator ruled that Slava Voynov will be eligible to return to the NHL in half a season.)

Drew Doughty in 2012. Seymon Varlamov in 2013. Slava Voynov in 2014. Patrick Kane in 2015. Evander Kane in 2015 or 2016 (this depends on first report or investigation dates). Austin Watson in 2018.

It’s an impressive list of professional hockey players who have played or are still playing in the NHL and have been investigated for violence against women. This list doesn’t even take into account incidents of historic violence against women such as that of Chicago Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull. No, this list is just the ones which garnered enough media attention in the past 10 years to be remembered when I sat down to write this article.

There are six men listed at the top of this article. Of those six men, accusations which were investigated or a conviction for violence against women has had a tangible effect on the careers of two.

Of the players listed above, five of six still have contracts with NHL teams and played in the 2018-2019 regular season. Their professional trajectories do not appear to have suffered extreme adverse effects from being publically investigated for violence against women.

For example, Drew Doughty made over six million dollars with the LA Kings in the 2018-2019 season; he won the Norris Trophy in the 2015-2016 season. Doughty is more clearly associated with his comments about his opposition than he is accusations of rape.

Seymon Varlamov played 49 games for the Colorado Avalanche in the 2018-2019 season with a salary of six million dollars. The narrative around Varlamov in late 2013 included commentary on how well he was playing despite “facing legal uncertainty” (Maesse, 2013). This type of narrative diminishes the importance of violence against women by placing it in a subordinate position to hockey performance.

Varlamov was subsequently awarded approximately $126,000 in damages in a 2016 civil suit.

Patrick Kane, who was involved in one of the most controversial sexual assault accusations in NHL history in the summer of 2015, has enjoyed several successful years with the Chicago Blackhawks. The accusation was labelled unfounded and garnered some of the most intense media attention. Kane won the Hart and Ted Lindsey trophies for the 2015-2016 season. For those playing along at home, that’s the season immediately following the rape investigation.

Evander Kane, who was accused of sexual assault in late 2015 and investigated in 2016, played 75 games with the San Jose Sharks; his contract is for six million dollars this year.

Of the six players listed to start the article, only two players (Voynov and Watson) faced sanctions from the NHL. Their suspensions are considered, for the purpose of this article, to have negatively impacted them professionally. This does not mean to imply that these suspensions have had a prolonged or substantive negative impact. They are simply used as discrete evidence of professional sanction.

Austin Watson, a forward for the Nashville Predators, was suspended for 27 games in 2018. He plead no contest to a misdemeanor domestic assault charge which occurred in July of 2018. He was sentenced to three months of probation.

The NHLPA appealed the NHL suspension and it was reduced from 27 games to 18 games. After serving his suspension, Watson played 37 games in the 2018-2019 season. He also played two games for the Predators’ AHL affiliate.

Since the summer of 2018, Watson’s narrative has been re-framed. In January 2019, Watson’s story shifted to be one of alcohol dependency and addiction which lead to out of control and out of character behaviour. With the addition of a partner struggling with alcohol issues and claiming responsibility for the event, it’s a narrative construction which limits his personal accountability. What is particularly interesting about how the NHL responds to violence against women is that Watson’s alcohol dependency earned him an indefinite suspension. The message this sends about what the NHL values is somewhat contradictory.

Finally, there is Slava Voynov. Convicted of misdemeanour corporal injury to a spouse in 2015, Voynov served three months in jail and received a three year probation sentence. The felony charge was removed in exchange for a plea of no contest. The majority Voynov’s time to be served on probation has been spent in Russia playing in the KHL; he also won an Olympic Gold medal in 2018. Recently, the charges against Voynov were dismissed allowing for a return to the NHL.

Voynov’s path back to the NHL started with the dismissal of his charges and culminated in Gary Bettman issuing a statement suspending Voynov from playing in the 2019-2020 NHL season, inclusive of playoffs, but allowing for a return to the NHL . Since then, the NHLPA has appealed the suspension. A final ruling has not been delivered.

So, you’ve reached this point and you’re maybe wondering why the hell I just spent roughly 500 words not talking about the Slava Voynov NHL suspension. It’s after all the headline here. There was significantly less coverage of the NHLPA appeal after all and those other five guys didn’t make it into the article title at all.

Shouldn’t I be lauding the NHL for taking a hardline stance against violence against women and being a progressive sports institution? After all, they suspended Voynov for a season and the playoffs. Shouldn’t I feel validated by a yearlong suspension? Shouldn’t I feel like something was done? Shouldn’t I, as a woman, feel – like Gary said -- the NHL “cannot and will not tolerate this and similar types of conduct, particularly as directed at a spouse, domestic partner or family member”?

I emphatically feel like the NHL does not care about incidents of violence against women which are perpetrated by hockey players. And by not having a consistent and enforced response, the NHL seems to send the implicit message that violence against women does not matter to them.

There has been no consistency to the NHL’s response. On areas the NHL has indicated are important (like head shots in a hockey game), there have been rules created specifically around the subject. Those rules are then revised to better enforce the NHL mandate.

At the beginning of this article are the names of six players. Googling any of those names with the terms “rape” or “assault” turns up multiple articles on what allegedly did and didn’t happen. What I did not notice was a lot of articles about how hockey, and the NHL in particular, goes about changing their culture so there’s not another name linked to violence against women in 2019.

Instead when the NHL has responded to situations where NHL players are alleged to have been involved in violence against women, it has primarily been due to significant media attention. In short, what these targeted and limited responses feel like is that the NHL cares about the optics of domestic abuse and violence against women than changing the culture going forward.

By the way, domestic violence and violence against women are not always the same thing. Violence against women is a far larger category than just domestic abuse. In his statement on the Voynov suspension, Bettman outlines a strong stance on domestic violence or domestic abuse. He fails to say anything about the NHL’s thoughts and feelings on violence women not in a domestic situation may encounter.

For me, the NHL response says, whether it means to or not, it’s okay to rape or beat her (or him) as long as you don’t get caught doing it, as long as you’re not married, or as long as it doesn’t become a large media scandal.

Finally, if you’re not convicted, we don’t care. Both players the NHL has suspended have been convicted in “no contest” pleas. And if there needs to be a conviction for the NHL to take a stance on violence against women, it will probably be a long time before the NHL has a truly progressive policy. The legal system, after all, has its own biases on the subject of violence against women.

I feel like the NHLPA cares even less than the NHL. And don’t, but “Shona, it’s their job to represent the players” me. I understand that and I hold there are ways to do your job in a manner which does not reinforce the message that violence against women is an acceptable part of society which should not be seriously penalized. The NHLPA chooses to not appeal suspensions in some cases. It could choose to do so in these cases.

Now, you may be thinking, that it’s unfair to punish players for violence against women if there’s not a conviction. After all, there’s no proof they’ve done anything wrong until the law courts decide they have. Which, one, is a very privileged way of thinking. Violence against women convictions (including rape, domestic abuse, and assault) are under reported and rarely result in convictions. A study in the United States from 2010-2015 found that

Based on Department of Justice and FBI data from 2010-2014, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) calculates that for every 1,000 rapes, 384 are reported to police, 57 result in an arrest, 11 are referred for prosecution, 7 result in a felony conviction, and 6 result in incarceration. This compares to a higher rate at every stage for similar crimes, such as robbery. Out of 1,000 incidents of assault and battery, 627 are reported to police, 255 result in an arrest, 105 are referred to prosecution, 41 result in a felony conviction, and 33 result in incarceration —

So, no I don’t feel that a conviction should be the deciding factor in whether or not the NHL levies a significant suspension. Furthermore, the NHL doesn’t work that way on substance abuse or performance enhancing drug offenses so it shouldn’t on social issues like violence against women. An NHL player can be suspended for substance abuse without a formal legal charge. In fact, Ashton (in 2014) and Schmidt (in 2018) were both suspended 20 games for substance abuse during the period from 2012 to 2018 without a formal charge being filed.

Please note that both those suspensions are longer than the one Austin Watson received after appeal. In this case, it seems clear. The NHL appears to care more about performance enhancing substances taken by players than they do violence against women.

In conclusion, the Slava Voynov suspension isn’t the progressive social stance many may view it as, but more of a carefully constructed narrative where the NHL can say they strongly oppose domestic violence and abuse. That’s not to say this suspension is a bad thing. It is something which is more than there was before it occurred, but it is not enough. It is, in some respects, a very low bar the NHL is setting.

The NHL has not been consistent, they have been narrow in their definition, and they have been reactive. If the NHL truly wants to prove that it is a progressive league which has no tolerance for violence against women, it has a lot more to do. And it doesn’t seem like they’re doing any of it.