From Russia, Without Love: NHL follows NFL policy in handling domestic violence cases

LA Kings
Photo Credit: Lisa Gansky, www.flickr.com/photos/gansky

By Timothy Nakajima

Breaking the Ice: Background 

The National Hockey League (“NHL”), which has been dubbed “the fastest game on earth,” apparently decides how to handle player discipline in that very manner. Swiftly.

The NHL became the latest professional sports league to encounter issues of domestic violence, when twenty-four year old Russian-born defenseman, Slava Voynov, was arrested last month for an incident involving his wife after neighbors complained of “hearing shouting and crying.”

Voynov was arrested under California Penal Code section 273.5 which states that any person who “willfully inflicts corporal injury” can be charged with a felony, punishable by state imprisonment for two to four years, confinement in the county jail for not more than one year, or a fine of $6,000.

In a similar incident last October, Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov was accused of domestic violence, but Varlamov was allowed to continue playing while the legal process unfolded. Those charges were then dropped in December because prosecutors believed that they could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in the wake of the National Football League’s myriad of disciplinary issues, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly’s decided to indefinitely suspend Voynov while the legal process runs its course.

A New Winter Classic: How the NFL’s Recent Handling of Ray Rice Influenced the NHL

This decision to suspend Voynov was influenced by the NFL’s handling of Ray Rice’s domestic violence incident. Rice was initially suspended for two (2) games as a first time offender by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. However, this punishment was viewed as too lenient by the public and media, which motivated the NFL to revamp its policy regarding domestic violence. Goodell then decided to increase the punishment for first time offenders to six (6) games or 37.5% of the NFL’s regular season. Shortly thereafter, celebrity news website TMZ (a division of Time Warner) released video evidence of Rice’s incident. Commissioner Goodell decided to suspend Rice indefinitely after witnessing the public outcry following the release of the video of Rice striking his then fiancée.

Under the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”), the NHL allows for suspensions during an ongoing criminal investigation. Section 18-A.5 of the CBA specifically states: “The League may suspend the Player pending the League’s formal review and disposition of the matter where the failure to suspend the Player during this period would create a substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interest and/or reputation of the League.” While the NHL has no official policy specifically regarding matters of domestic violence, it is clear that the NHL was careful to avoid appearing lenient in coming to its decision after seeing the turmoil and fallout in the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice situation. The NHL received word of the incident and then deliberated and handed down its suspension all within a mere six and a half hour period.

Still in the Penalty Box: Voynov’s Current Status

Voynov, a key contributor to the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup Championship run this past season is currently signed with the team through the 2018-19 season with an average salary of $4,166,667. He will continue to be paid during the league’s investigation into this matter, but he is barred from all team activities. There has been no recent announcement by the NHL to revisit its policies regarding matters of domestic violence.