On June 29th, the Los Angeles Kings were faced with a difficult decision. They were no longer using forward Mike Richards on a regular basis, and passed on a compliance buyout the year before. Richards was sent down to the AHL in mid-march and did not return to the team full-time.
On draft day, the Kings were given some troubling news, something they thought was too far gone to fix and they decided to terminate Richards' contract. Although the NHLPA will likely have the ruling overturned, the hockey community was baffled as to what Richards could have done for the Kings to immediately sever ties.
Kings defenseman Slava Voynov was arrested in October and charged with one count of corporal injury to a spouse with a great bodily injury. He was suspended indefinitely by the NHL while his case was examined and on July 2nd, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years probation after pleading no contest to the charges. The Kings have not yet terminated his contract and continue to receive cap relief from the NHL.
It's been a busy year for the Kings who had another arrest to deal with concerning Jarret Stoll's felony drug charge while in Las Vegas in April. Stoll was released on bail and had his felony drug charge dropped although he plead guilty to two misdemeanour charges. Stoll was in possession of cocaine and ecstasy, he became a free agent on July 1st.
Surely the Kings staying mum on the reason to terminate Richards' contract was due to terrible circumstances, at least that's what we all believed.
Soon enough, reports began to circulate that Richards was trying to cross the Canada-U.S. border with OxyContin, a brand name drug for oxycodone. And that was all it took to terminate his contract in the Kings' eyes. The problem with their decision to terminate was they stated Richards' behaviour was "a material breach of the requirements of his Standard Player's Contract" but Stoll's drug possession and Voynov's spousal abuse wasn't.
Rich Clune and Jordin Tootoo have been very open about their struggles with substance abuse, and while they sought out the help they needed they never had their contracts terminated. In a comparable situation, the Tampa Bay Lightning did not terminate Ryan Malone's contract when he was arrested due to possession of cocaine and DUI in April. He signed with the New York Rangers in September.
Mike Ribeiro struggled with addiction and is currently fighting a sexual assault lawsuit from a former nanny. Ribeiro signed a two-year contract with the Nashville Predators four months after the lawsuit became public knowledge.
There's a disconnect here that has been made crystal clear after the Kings terminated Richards' contract. There are many NHL players who have been arrested for possession and/or DUI.
There are far too many players that have a history of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment. Instead of buying out the remaining years on Richards' contract, they decided to boldly tell the league they would not tolerate illegal activity of any kind by severing ties immediately.
This was a move that shed light on how ill equipped the NHL and its members are at deciphering what "a material breach of the requirements" of the SPC are. Physical abuse is not, harassment is not, but the possession of drugs is.
Headlines all over the sports world reporting drug arrest after drug arrest don't reflect well on the league, nor on their players. You can't hide the allegations or the charges from the impressionable youth who consume the game. What's worse is the NHL's stance on the treatment of women and girls leaves much to be desired when Voynov's contract was not terminated but Richards' was.
"Hearing the Beastie Boys speak out against sexism made me feel like if these men who had once sung about getting girls to 'do the laundry' and 'clean up my room' could understand, maybe the rest of the world would follow suit. It made me hopeful in the best way." Jessica Valenti
By terminating Richards' contract, the Kings made a statement they likely didn't know or care they were making. As a team, they publicly condoned the behaviour of Voynov while vehemently refusing to accept the actions of Richards. In no way are drugs an acceptable hobby, but they have become more prevalent in the headlines the last few years. So has harassment and abuse.
With the Kings in a position to buy out Richards, they used a lame duck to create more cap space instead of thinking morally. They chose to use the "it's a business" line to make their lives easier in the future if the termination is not overturned by an arbitrator. The Kings have made clear their stance on domestic violence with this move, and if they didn't know they were making it the issue is far worse than expected.
When a woman or man is abused by their spouse or partner they are put in a position of conflict. Should they stay or go? Should they press charges? How will this affect their life moving forward? There are many decisions to be made, and knowing there is no support for you is a lonely spot to be left in.
This isn't just a growing issue in the NHL, it's all over professional sport and undoubtedly in too many homes throughout the world. Sports has the ability to set a precedent, to show others how to act in camaraderie. It can bring communities together and tear them apart, it can show everyone working as a team is always better than working alone.
There is power in numbers, and the Kings had a chance to terminate two contracts instead of the wrong one. If they were going to make a savvy business decision, terminating both Richards' and Voynov's contracts would have been the smart move.
"There are far too many silent sufferers. Not because they don't yearn to reach out, but because they've tried and found no one who cares." Richelle E. Goodrich
When the Kings make decisions like these, the NHL becomes less and less inclusive for women and girls. It doesn't care about the well-being or safety of its female contingent of fans over the business side of things. Making an ethical decision would have gone a long way in setting a new standard for player behaviour.
If the Kings terminated both Voynov and Richards it would have opened the door for other teams to do the same without hesitation in the future. Defining what acceptable behaviour is appears to be an issue for the NHL and its players.
If the NHL wants to grow the game in a positive way, it should be thinking about the young girls and women that watch the game. If their safety is not a priority, why would they have any interest in a league supporting men who have abused women? Everything is accessible these days, and children are on the internet for school and play more than they ever were.
Kids form their own opinions based on the facts presented to them by authority. If young boys are told abusing a spouse or partner is just a bad decision, they'll grow up thinking abuse and harassment is only a hurdle since their favourite players did it and look at them now.
The road the Kings are on is a slippery slope. They did not terminate Voynov's contract for domestic violence, but they terminated Richards' due to possession of OxyContin in a strictly business move. Because they failed to buy out Richards last summer, they are grasping at straws and saw an open window.
They can deny they are ignoring women's rights by terminating Richards and not Voynov, but they'd be digging an even deeper hole by admitting they didn't think it was a big deal. The NHL has a long way to go in achieving an inclusive community, and this is just another roadblock on a very long road.