It was well before noon when I noticed a push notification from my NHL app light up my cell phone screen. Typically, they say things like “Team X has placed so-and-so on injured reserve,” or who the NHL’s three stars of the week were this last week. This one was different. This one made my eyes grow wide and moisten. It told me Slava Voynov of the Los Angeles Kings was suspended indefinitely due to domestic abuse charges being filed against him.
I clicked link after link to snake through all the information available about the suspension, almost expecting my heart to be shattered. It had been just weeks since the domestic abuse catastrophe shook the NFL, and I was preparing myself to lose hockey… because of a player on my team. The home team I loved as if we hung out on weekends and had family barbecues together. I dug through articles, muscles tightened in fear, and finally I cried. But not from my loss of faith in humanity, but the exact opposite. I couldn’t picture a more pro-active response by the League and it was being whole-heartedly supported by the Kings and the club’s owners. My heart’s beat slowed and warmed.
The Voynov situation came to light in the still turbulent wake of the Ray Rice incident. I don’t want to paint a picture that re-imagines the NHL as a golden child who has never done wrong. Just one year prior, a very different response to a very similar situation in the Colorado Avalanche club was genuinely what I expected as I read statement after statement from officials regarding the Voynov suspension. But this time around, the League came down hard on Voynov, making a clear example of him that domestic abuse charges might be dismissed by insensitive ears elsewhere, but certainly not the NHL. Weeks after the story of Ray Rice’s abuse and the NFL’s blind eye blew through the media, professional hockey made it perfectly clear they were no longer on the same page as the NFL, nor NBA for that matter. The King’s owner, Dean Lombardi, responded to questions about the situation the day after the suspension was made public.
“I think it’s pretty self-evident,” he said. “The biggest issue you’ve got, there’s always that line between innocent until proven guilty, right? So that’s where the rub is. ‘Are you surprised by what they did, particularly, obviously in this climate?’ No. Then the issue of ‘Well, is it appropriate considering he hadn’t [been charged], because in the old days, before this, you saw the other cases, the leagues would always say, ‘Well, wait a minute, there’s a criminal process that has to take place before they can react.’ Even in the NBA, they had nine cases in the last three years. You saw that in baseball at times with Albert Belle, Canseco. So it was always that was the way it was handled, that there’s a criminal thing, let it play out, even the players played because we were going under the premise of innocent until proven guilty. That now has obviously changed from the old days, which, I get it. So to say ‘I’m surprised’ that they acted that way, no. And do I think it’s inappropriate? No. And the danger is saying, ‘Well, he hasn’t been proven guilty.’ But that’s clearly the way leagues are headed right now, that the charge itself is enough to take action, whereas in the past it wasn’t.”
At the time of his suspension, Slava Voynov only had charges pressed against him. The investigation was about to begin, but there was no case built against him yet. No video of him punching his fiancee in an elevator, no lie detector tests, nothing. But the NHL stood on the side of his accuser. With his immediate, indefinite suspension, The League chose to believe her until the evidence was collected. To see a sport (that so many see as being excessively violent ) choose to support the female accuser and not their money-generating athlete was comforting to say the least given the septic pool of victim-blaming in which we currently wade.
While I do strongly believe in due process and the right to innocence until proven guilty, it is difficult to see that belief in black and white. I don’t believe someone should be punished for a crime before there is evidence that undeniably directs the legal system to them, but in the case of something so sensitive as domestic abuse (as well as sexual abuse), it is so much more important to show the accuser they have support as opposed to the accused. Though I don’t know anything about who Voynov’s partner is, I can assume she anticipated a backlash after reporting the crime. He is a young player (almost still a kid at just 24) and his rookie year on the team was the first season the Kings ever won the Stanley Cup in 2012. Fans loved him for what he did on the team, and she stood as a potential risk to his place on the roster. She was immensely brave and reported the abuse anyway, just to find out that the League, owners, and club were indefinitely in support of her, too.
Just a year ago, the NHL made mistakes in their handling of abuse charges. Big mistakes. But with the response they made to the charges pressed against Voynov, they demonstrated that unwavering support of the accused is no longer the norm. They are taking the steps our country needs to take as a whole in order to reconstruct a system that tears the accuser’s character apart in order to find potential flaws while raising the possible abuser up as the true victim. I am proud that the sport I love is (hopefully) setting the precedent in how abuse charges are handled in professional sports tomorrow.