What I Learned This Off-season

The NHL doesn’t care about women.

Is that an inflammatory statement? Probably. But I know I’m not the only one who feels like this right now. I love hockey, and I love the on-ice product of the NHL, but right now I’m tired of feeling like I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Does anyone remember last year, when Voynov was arrested and suspended, and the hockey world applauded the NHL for their swift action? In the wake of Ray Rice, we were smug and self-congratulatory about the handling of Voynov’s domestic violence case, never mind that the year before Semyon Varlamov of the Avalanche had been arrested under similar circumstances with nary a suspension or even a whisper of one from the NHL. For a while, we pretended the NHL was somehow superior to other leagues in how they handle violence against women.

Oh, how we learned.

When it was announced that Patrick Kane was under investigation for rape, I knew it would be a landmark case for the NHL’s handling of players accused of crimes in the modern age. Kane is not the first, nor the last, high profile hockey player to be investigated for sexual assault or violence against women, but it seems hard to imagine someone whose star was higher than Kane’s at the end of last season. My own longstanding dislike of him aside (which I feel I should own up to for fairness’s sake), he had just come off his third Cup win in five years, and the popular media story was about how former party boy (who, let’s remember, was arrested for assault in 2011) Patrick Kane had turned his life around.

He is also, along with Jonathan Toews, the owner of the largest cap hit in the NHL, a whopping $10.5 million that set the bar for future contracts last summer. So how were the Blackhawks and the NHL going to handle the situation?

Some of the responses were good. EA Sports took Kane off the cover of NHL16. The London Knights, his former OHL team, took his name off a training camp team. Yet those of us waiting to hear if the NHL would suspend Kane were to be disappointed, even though it seems that the CBA gives them the room to do so.

The first hint that anything from the organization would be unsatisfactory, at best, was when Jonathan Toews said, “I think you just have to have confidence that things like that will resolve themselves over time. For the time being you stay together as a team. You support your teammate, uh teammates that are maybe going through a rough patch.” He then goes on to compare the difficulties of having a teammate accused of rape — a felony — to the annoyance of having people spread rumors of infidelity on social media.

Though he wasn’t directly asked about Kane, there’s no doubt to what he’s referring to. If you want me to believe he was speaking off the cuff, that he hadn’t at least considered what his answer to that question would be, I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it. He has to know that he’ll be asked; he also has to know that what he says matters. People will take his word as law, and even though he’s pretending to stay out of it, statements like this can influence both the courts and public opinion. If Patrick Kane is “innocent until proven guilty,” as people keep yelling on Twitter, then his accuser is truthful until proven otherwise.

(Another choice quote from the Blackhawks: “Owner Rocky Wirtz telling Chicago Tribune reporters that he was “disappointed, but hopeful” about the Kane investigation.”)

During Media Day, Pierre LeBrun asked a number of NHL Players ranging from Sidney Crosby to Tyler Seguin about off-ice issues. Again, even though they weren’t directly asked about Kane, they had to know the subtext of the question. Of the players asked, only Justin Faulk even mentioned not wanting to hurt another person, saying, “You don’t want to jeopardize something in your life, let alone someone else’s. You don’t want to hurt your team, the league, or have an affect on someone else’s life that can be bad.” In this entire media circus, the concern seems to be entirely on the effect this may have on the Blackhawks or Patrick Kane’s career, forgetting that there is a real, live person who believes she was grievously wronged.

The cherry on top of the entire shitty sundae was today’s press conference at Notre Dame, where in addition to lingering camera shots of crucifixes, the Blackhawks organization decided to a) announce that Patrick Kane would be at training camp and b) allow Patrick Kane to read out a statement and answer questions.

In Kane’s entire statement, there did not seem to be one morsel of awareness of the situation he was in. His statement in full:

This has been an incredibly difficult time for many people. I cannot apologize enough for the distraction this has caused my family, my teammates, this incredible organization, and of course, our fans. While I have too much respect for the legal process to comment on an ongoing matter, I am confident that once all the facts are brought to light, I will be absolved of having done nothing wrong. [Deadspin]

A rape allegation is more than a “distraction,” and I wish the media narrative would stop encouraging that description. His statement, too, is exactly the kind of poisonous wording that lets him turn the spotlight back on his accuser. When he took questions, he dodged most of them, insisting that he only wanted to talk hockey. But that’s not why he was there, and we all knew that.

This summer we also saw the re-signing of Mike Ribeiro after settling a civil sexual assault case with former nanny, and Nashville Predators GM David Poile praise him as a family man. We saw Voynov serve jail time for domestic violence before facing deportation and eventually leaving the country. We saw the Kings essentially waving it off as, We totally planed on negating his contract like we did Mike Richards’, we swear, ignoring the fact that last December he was allowed to practice with the team in violation of his suspension from the league. Dean Lombardi at least acknowledged that they need to do better work when it comes to violence against women. You know who said not one word about that? The Blackhawks.

Here is what we had at that conference: Blackhawks management talking about their Cup win; Duncan Keith saying “I think so” when asked if Kane can still be a leader on the team; Jonathan Toews saying, “Anything else that’s being talked about away from the rink is a non-factor for us.”

Here’s what we didn’t have at the conference: an acknowledgement that this is a serious crime, one with deep roots in sports culture; any discussion of team-led education regarding sexual assault and domestic violence; any suggestion that this is something they take seriously at all aside from being a “distraction” during the season.

I don’t know if Patrick Kane is innocent or guilty. Here’s what I do know: I know that the number of false rape accusations is much lower than some would have you believe. I know that consent is under-taught, but that ignorance doesn’t excuse harming another person. I know that the Blackhawks have a statue of known domestic abuser Bobby Hull outside their arena. I know that Patrick Kane has been arrested for assault in the past, and I know there is anecdotal evidence of past violence against women. I know that the Blackhawks said not a single word about preventing future cases, and that the entire team seems to have taken a “stand by our man” line. I know that no one knows what happened in that house except for Kane and his accuser, and no one should pretend they have privileged knowledge.

I know that whatever education NHL teams are giving their players about sexual assault, it isn’t enough. I know that no matter how this is resolved, Patrick Kane will probably continue to be a face in the National Hockey League, that they will continue promoting him, that people will continue wearing his jersey to games, and that every woman who sees it will have to remember that when the NHL had the chance to suspend him, when the Blackhawks had a chance to say, “We take sexual violence seriously and seek to educate our players about consent,” they chose not to. I know that it feels like they don’t care about me, or my safety, or the safety of my friends. It feels like the NHL doesn’t care about women. I expect better. I demand better. So should you.

Resources & Places I Suggest For Donations

RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline

Hockey Fights DV

List of DV organizations in Chicago and Illinois

New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence

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