The time between the end of the postseason and the beginning of offseason shenanigans is always a weird one, but this past week the hockey news cycle has taken a particularly grim turn with reports of two things I’d like to draw your attention to.
The first is the disgusting report from Elliotte Friedman that Slava Voynov is interested in returning to the NHL this season and that his interest has been reciprocated by some NHL teams. This report should be enough to make your blood boil: Voynov plead no contest to misdemeanor domestic violence charges and opted to go back to Russia rather than face potential deportation hearings in front of an immigration judge. The officer who responded to Voynov’s home described it as akin to a murder scene, and a social worker at the hospital that treated Voynov’s wife testified that he was told it wasn’t the first time. Still, Voynov has an expungement hearing set in California, that, if favorable to Voynov could clear the way for him to apply for a US work visa and return to the NHL.
The second bit of disquieting news to break in the hockey world this past week was the report that Erik Karlsson and his wife Melinda have applied for an order of protection against the fiancée of Karlsson’s teammate Mike Hoffman, Monika Caryk. The allegations here are bizarre and disturbing: the Karlssons submitted in their sworn statements to the court that Caryk has used social media to make 1000s of derogatory remarks towards them, including wishing both Melinda and her stillborn child dead, as well as hopes that someone would inflict career-ending injury upon Erik.
The Ottawa Citizen also learned that there is an ongoing criminal stalking investigation into the matter. Various partners of Karlsson’s Senators teammates came out in support of the Karlssons, and although there is the possibility that someone is using fake social media accounts to frame Caryk, based on other bits of evidence we know (which can be found in the report linked above) it seems unlikely. One way or another though, this has raised the question of whether Hoffman, whom the Senators are rumored to be hoping to trade, would fit in with his new team, or whether the mistrust sown by such toxic allegations would lead him to become a locker room pariah and ruin chemistry.
These two reports are disturbing enough in their own right, but their juxtaposition is potentially even more troubling and speaks volumes about the culture shift necessary within NHL locker rooms. The problem is this: Voynov returning to the NHL creates a massive PR issue for the league and whatever team signs him, while Caryk’s alleged harassment and behavior is an internal issue, the likes of which simply wouldn’t occur in the Voynov case. Allow me to explain.
An NHL GM decides he wants to sign Slava Voynov because he is talented, and does so knowing full well what happened in 2014. Somehow he rationalizes it to himself, and eventually passes that rationalization down on to his coach, and even if he doesn’t explain himself directly to any of the current players any coach with even the slightest inkling of how locker rooms work would feel it necessary to get out ahead of things and clear the air. The message will be clear: he’s your teammate, and that’s what matters. It doesn’t affect you or your loved ones, so why should you care?
Contrast this with the day Mike Hoffman arrives at his new rink. Questions abound about whether his fiancée will treat current teammates’ partners the way she treated Melinda Karlsson, why he didn’t say anything to Caryk, what really went down and so on. The speculation will be endless on the part of the media, the fans, and most importantly the players. The issue will inevitably ruin whatever bonding the coach and management have attempted to foster – any GM with a brain is going to stop himself before even picking up the phone to discuss a deal for Hoffman. The front office and coaching staff might try and anticipate issues before the arise, but in the backs of their minds players will be wondering, and that’s simply not a good thing for an NHL team’s on-ice performance.
But why shouldn’t Voynov’s off-ice issues affect on-ice performance? Are NHLers really less likely to let their mind wander to what kind of person their dealing with, whether they really can trust a guy like Voynov in the way they would Hoffman? I’d like to think that the answer is no, that my favorite players and even my least favorite players would refuse to play hockey with someone capable of brutalizing another human being like Voynov did, one he ostensibly loves nonetheless. I’d like to think that GMs would be so certain of the pushback that they’d get, so absolutely sure that it would cause irreparable damage to locker room chemistry and on-ice performance that they wouldn’t even consider it. Yet here we are – Friedman’s exact words on Voynov are that “there is quite a bit of interest”.
Because for whatever reason, domestic abuse is still so normalized and rationalized that unspeakable acts of harassment say more about a person than their capacity to commit horrific violence. Players might not even need to hear from their coaches or GMs to make excuses for Voynov; maybe they see it as a one time thing, maybe they figure he’s changed, maybe they think because he and his wife are still together that everything’s fine now, maybe they just won’t care. It’s all a symptom of our society’s tragically violent tendencies, and what little we can do is indirect and piecemeal. The best we can do is to is raise better children, be relentlessly questioning reporters, speak out as fans, and hope that one day locker rooms around the NHL are filled with players who have zero tolerance for domestic violence.
It’s possible that I’m being cynical, that the day has already come when players like Voynov can find no home in the National Hockey League. I fervently hope that I’m wrong, that not only the Henrik Lundqvists or Mats Zuccarellos of the world would stake their career on standing up to Slava Voynov’s sins, but that the guys we don’t think of when we think of character would too. I hope that everyone in hockey from the commissioner and ownership on down to the fans takes this week’s news as a moment to learn and grow, to come to the realization that brutal, dehumanizing behavior is brutal and dehumanizing no matter what, and that neither the targeted harassment of a player’s wife nor the vicious beating of another human being is acceptable anymore. In other words I hope that we all learn to put people first, to appreciate and guard life over ice hockey success and profit. It is, after all, just a game."Putting People First: Voynov, Hoffman, and the NHL's Locker Room Culture Problem",