Is the NHL’s “strongly-held policy” on Domestic Violence just empty words?

It looks like Slava Voynov wants back in the NHL.

Just one day after the League suspended the former Los Angeles Kings defenseman for the entire 2019-2020 NHL season, a spokesperson for the NHL Player’s Association announced they would be filing an appeal on Voynov’s behalf.

Voynov was indefinitely suspended in October of 2014—immediately after he was arrested and accused of punching, choking, kicking his wife and slamming her head into a television.  The following off-season, Voynov pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor domestic assault charge and served 90-days in jail. Instead of risking formal deportation proceedings, Voynov then returned to Russia where he played for the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg.  Last July, when Voynov’s probation expired, his conviction was dismissed.

Now, according to the three-paragraph statement from the League, Voynov would be eligible to resume his NHL career “no later than July 1, 2020” and “assuming good behavior.”

Voynov’s official punishment was handed down under Article 18-A of the League’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which grants the commissioner authority to impose discipline on a player who “has been or is guilty of [off-ice] conduct (whether during or outside the playing season) that is detrimental to or against the welfare of the League or the game of hockey[.]”

Procedurally, Article 18-A requires the league to conduct an investigation into a situation that could result in Commissioner Discipline for Off-Ice Conduct. That investigation can include interviews with the accused player as well as non-players.  Every player has a right to a hearing before discipline is imposed.  However, a player facing a criminal investigation (or investigation by another governmental authority) risks being in professional punishment limbo, as the League can suspend a player pending a formal review and final disposition, if failure to suspend the player would “create a substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interests and/or reputation of the League.”

This is likely where Voynov sat for the more than 1,600 days it took the NHL to make a final determination on his eventual punishment.

So, what’s next for Voynov?  Barring any immigration limitations, the league’s decision opens the door for that return.  The Los Angeles Kings still hold Voynov’s rights, as he was placed on their voluntary retired list as part of the fallout from his arrest. As of yesterday, the Kings said it was “premature” to comment.  That was confirmed by Wednesday’s announcement that the NHLPA plans to appeal the suspension. The NHL should brace for bad PR and more questions about its lack of a firm domestic violence policy.

In describing his reasoning behind Voynov’s one-year ban, Commissioner Bettman said the ruling was “tailored to the specific facts of this case and the individuals involved,” but also “necessary and consistent with the NHL’s strongly-held policy that it cannot and will not tolerate this and similar types of conduct, particularly as directed at a spouse, domestic partner or family member.”

The league says it has a “strongly-held policy,” but it doesn’t.  The NHL is the only one of North America’s big four sports leagues without a domestic violence policy; instead, it reviews domestic violence situations on a case-by-case basis.  This empowers the commissioner to levy punishments in domestic violence situations, but it also puts him, and the League, at risk for having more punitive punishments struck down by an arbitrator who disagrees with the league’s findings of fact and/or disagrees on whether the penalty was proportionate.

Take the recent example of Austin Watson—a matter which may very well have forced the NHL to finally address the Voynov situation. In June, Watson was arrested following an altercation with his girlfriend. The following month he pleaded no contest to a domestic assault charge. In September, the NHL suspended Watson for 27 games. The NHLPA appealed Watson’s suspension and an arbitrator reduced his ban to 18 games. The league was quick to express its disappointment with the reduced suspension, stating “the right of appeal to an arbitrator of League discipline was never intended to substitute the arbitrator’s judgment for that of the Commissioner, particularly on matters of important League policy and the articulation of acceptable standards of conduct for individuals involved in the National Hockey League.” Again, the League is throwing around this policy word.

With an appeal pending, the League’s final decision on punishment for Voynov is not “case closed” for the NHL. The possibility of a reduced suspension is very real. Right now, the league is in a position where it can continue to react with righteous indignation about punishments that are reduced—or it can enact an actual policy that could implement a standard punishment as well as domestic violence support for the player and the victim.

Photo Courtesy: Mark Boster /Los Angeles Times/TNS

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