After losing a top defenceman to an indefinite suspension, the Los Angeles Kings were hit with a further penalty by the NHL on Tuesday after allowing Slava Voynov to practice with the rest of their team.
Violence toward women is a significant issue in the news cycle right now, which is positive in that it’s an important topic and a problem that needs to be addressed but also unfortunate because it’s still so prevalent in society. Major league sports aren't immune to the problem, something that the high-profile Ray Rice incident and its subsequent mishandling by the NFL made abundantly clear.
Regrettably, hockey is no more exempt from the problem than football is. In late October, Voynov was arrested for a domestic violence incident involving his wife, Marta Varlamova. While it became clear in the aftermath that Varlamova did not want to see charges laid, ESPN.com’s Katie Strang reported that the decision to charge was in the hands of the prosecutor. Charges were ultimately filed, with Voynov pleading not guilty.
It was an awkward situation for the NHL. On the one hand, Voynov maintains his innocence, his wife stands by him and the charges against him have not been proven in court. On the other hand, this is an extremely serious matter for the league, which has both a moral obligation not to minimize the issue and an obvious self-interest in not damaging its reputation by ignoring that obligation.
So far, the NHL has done a nice job of balancing those competing factors.
By suspending Voynov indefinitely, the NHL showed it was taking the charges against him seriously, and that it wasn’t willing to simply turn a blind eye to the events. But by suspending him with pay, at the same time it didn’t penalize him financially for charges that have not been proven in court. There is obviously self-interest involved in these decisions, but that doesn’t make them any less right.
The NHL continued on that path on Tuesday by fining the Los Angeles Kings $100,000 for violating the terms of that suspension.
Voynov took part in what the organization described as an “optional” skate. Lisa Dillman, who covers the team for the Los Angeles Times, summed up the team view of the situation nicely on Twitter:
Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register noted the same view from the organization, though he also highlighted the strange coincidence of every player on the team taking part:
The Kings had previously claimed publicly that they were on the NHL’s side in all of this, saying in a statement that the charges against Voynov were “of great concern” to the organization and that they were in support of the league’s decision to suspend the player indefinitely.
Those claims ring a little hollow given that the team thought so little of the suspension that it was willing to let Voynov practice with his teammates. Considering the circumstances, Dillman’s suggestion that general manager Dean Lombardi thought it would be good for Voynov to be around the team is particularly troubling.
The team's statement following the fine didn't exactly set matters right, either. The Kings acknowledged a "mistake" and promised increased vigilance but stressed the importance of obeying the rules of the NHL's suspension rather than an appreciation for the gravity of the situation.
In contrast, the NHL’s quick intervention with a significant fine was a good way for the league to handle the team's insouciance. With its original suspension of the player, the league showed it was taking the matter seriously; by way of quick disciplinary action it made it equally clear that it expects its member clubs to do so too.
The only question is whether it's enough of a message; ultimately, $100,000 isn't that much to a team like the Kings, and a larger penalty—perhaps the loss of draft picks or a fine that counts against the NHL salary cap—would have been entirely understandable.
It is reassuring that the NHL acted so quickly, though. The league could have let the Kings off with a warning, could have suggested that the optional skate was a grey area and that the organization had been warned not to repeat the transgression. It probably could have taken such action without really harming its reputation, too; after all, there aren’t that many media organizations that are going to take note of a one-time optional skate that could have been spun as to miscommunication and a lack of time at the practice facility.
But such an approach would have undercut the gravity of the situation. Instead, the NHL is reinforcing that it is taking this issue very seriously. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston notes that by the end of this week the Voynov suspension will be one of the 10 longest in league history, and there’s no end in sight.
It’s a strong stand that reflects well on the league, the kind that other sports and businesses in general would do well to imitate. It's certainly one that the Kings should consider copying.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.