There’s an autumn breeze in the air, that’s for sure, a sense of a hockey season in the offing.
Beyond the NHL, of course, that season or on-ice preparations for the season may have already started, but Gary Bettman’s 30-team conglomerate remains at the top of the hockey pyramid, both spiritually and in terms of the industry.
So, in many ways, it is from the NHL that the sport takes its cue. The season starts when the NHL starts. It’s quite the responsibility.
It’s within that context that NHL players, more than three dozen of them, descended upon Toronto this week to promote the upcoming season, to help media develop storylines and compelling narratives, and to begin the chatter surrounding the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Drew Doughty, James van Riemsdyk and Henrik Lundqvist did a live roundtable for fans Wednesday outside the Air Canada Centre. The Sedin twins were involved in a Toronto school initiative. Zdeno Chara, Anze Kopitar, David Pastrnak and Sidney Crosby helped to hype the ’16 tournament.
There was lots of positive news, and many of the big names were here in town, well, save for one. Few wanted to openly talk about the absence of Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane, but given that he was one of three players who shared the stage with Bettman and players union chief Don Fehr when the tourney was first announced back in January, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to suggest that he wouldn’t have been here and part of this media tour if not for an issue emanating from the off-season.
A big, ugly issue.
Innocent until proven guilty, right? True enough, but it’s not so simple for Kane, or the Blackhawks, or the NHL, when it comes to allegations he sexually assaulted a women during the off-season at his lakeside mansion in Buffalo.
Details remain sketchy, or partial, and a grand jury called to deal with the matter was abruptly postponed on Tuesday, leading to another round of speculation about Kane, his accuser and where all this is heading.
Let’s be clear: Kane is at present the most high profile American player in the league. Stars like Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch and others have retired, and until the likes of Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel hit the big stage in a big way, Kane is the marquee U.S. player.
And now he may not play for a while, depending on a whole lot of variables too complicated to explain in a simple paragraph.
But this is potentially a huge problem for the NHL at a time when all leagues are having to tred very carefully each time one of their players is accused of a crime that gets its fan base upset, not to mention people outside its fan base.
A year ago, Los Angeles Kings defenceman Slava Voynov was arrested by police and charged with one count of felony domestic violence after an Oct. 19 argument/fight with his wife at their Redondo Beach apartment. He was suspended immediately by the NHL, and pleaded not guilty to the charge in early December.
Voynov didn’t play the rest of the season as he dealt with the charges, and he ultimately pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of corporal injury to a spouse. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years probation. He served 45 days of the sentence, and last week was reportedly taken into custody by U.S. immigration officials and could face deportation.
His status with the league remains unclear. The NHL has said it will launch it’s own investigation of the matter, or at the very least hold a hearing with Voynov, and at this point it’s completely unclear whether Voynov – who is also recovering from an Achilles tendon injury – will play for the Kings this season, or ever again.
So that provides some kind of a very general road map for future issues like Kane’s, although only the thin outlines of a map, as each case can be decidedly different.
Based on Voynov, the NHL’s strategy has been to sit back and let the legal system take its course while forbidding Voynov to play, even before he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to jail. That was possible in that case as the NHL became aware of the damning circumstances of the case almost immediately and was able to act swiftly.
But how does that impact the 26-year-old Kane, and his current status with the league and the Hawks? He hasn’t been charged, and may never be charged in connection with the incident. There could yet be a settlement, and time is somewhat of the essence with Chicago set to open training camp Sept. 18.
In 2013, Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov was arrested on domestic violence charges. He kept playing, the league didn’t suspend him and ultimately the charges were dropped.
That approach had its critics. Would the NHL handle this Kane issue differently?
It’s not like this is Kane’s first brush with the law or inappropriate off-ice behaviour. If he doesn’t go looking for trouble, trouble has no problem locating him.
He wasn’t invited to this week’s pre-season tour, and EA Sports has removed him from the cover of NHL ’16. But if he isn’t charged and the case is resolved, does that mean all those who have backed away from him could immediately embrace him again?
At the minimum, the league is going to want to sit down and talk to Kane, both about this incident and others. If there is no significant change in the situation by next week, you can expect the league to reach out to the union and the Blackhawks, as well as Kane and his agent Pat Brisson – who was on hand for Wednesday’s World Cup announcement – to try to find a short-term solution that would work for all involved.
That could include staying away from the Chicago camp for the time being.
Bettman likely has little appetite to be heavy-handed or act on his own, not until much more is known, and right now the NHL really doesn’t know very many of the facts or specific allegations.
The Hawks, meanwhile, made off-season moves to accommodate Kane’s new eight-year contract extension, which kicks in this year, including trading away scoring wingers Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad. In theory, they could try to move Kane, but that would be a complicated transaction, the kind that normally doesn’t happen at this time of year. That, plus the contract is a whopper.
So while the NHL would prefer people to be discussing the upcoming season, the World Cup, three-on-three play in overtime, expansion to Las Vegas or Quebec City or even the future of superstar Steven Stamkos in Tampa, a good chunk of the chatter is about Kane.
The breeze you feel may be the appealing gust of the hockey season to come, but there’s also an undeniable black cloud that’s hanging over the world’s most important hockey league right now.