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Fans ask Leafs to lead on domestic violence and sexual assault

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Disgruntled hockey fans have sent 44 letters to NHL teams, pleading with them to take stronger stances on domestic violence and sexual assault. I chatted with the five who wrote the Leafs.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

In October of 2015, concerned hockey fan Melissa Geschwind started a petition that asked the NHL to take a stronger, harder stance against domestic violence and sexual assault among their players. Since, the petition has garnered more than 36,000 signatures and attention from the NHL which led to a meeting between Geschwind and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in New York in April.

And while Geschwind admits she left the meeting feeling "very hopeful," she has since been disappointed by the league's silence and inaction, even as other problems have resurfaced around the league. That's why she and other fans from around the NHL have written to their organizations to plead for change.

In a letter to Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, and the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, Geschwind presents several concrete steps she believes the team can take to become a strong voice for change. Her message asks the Leafs to take action in five ways: refuse to draft, sign, or trade for players with a history of sexual assault or domestic violence; suspend any player under police investigation for committing an act of off-ice violence; sever ties with anyone who is convicted of those crimes; establish a relationship with Toronto-area charities and shelters that serve victims; and urge the NHL to take a public stance against these crimes.

"Silence is a statement in itself," Geschwind wrote in her cover letter, which precursed the 44 letters that were sent to every NHL team with their fans' writings at the top.

Four others joined her in writing to the Leafs, as did fans of every other NHL team -- including survivors, named and anonymous.

Curtis Morrison, a student at Brock University and longtime Leafs fan, decided to write the Leafs after a sexual assault scandal rocked his school last year.

The league's inaction on sexual assault has pushed Morrison away from the game he loves.

"It's been something weighing on my mind heavily, to the point where I've been struggling to actually enjoy the NHL in any way," Morrison said of the league's silence on domestic violence and sexual assault in the wake of recent cases, including accusations levelled against Patrick Kane.

Brian Palmer, a Leafs fan since childhood, doesn't think it is too much to ask of the Leafs to take a hard-line stance on sexual assault.

"While I'm certainly not naive enough to expect hockey players to be saints, it's important to me that they don't employ horrible people who do reprehensible things," Palmer said of why he wrote the team he has always been loyal to. "There's a standard that athletes should be held accountable to, and I sincerely hope that the Leafs enforce this going forward."

Like Morrison, Palmer has found himself disillusioned with the NHL and reluctant to dedicate his time and money to the league.

"I think that a stronger stance against domestic violence would help me get past my reluctance to spend more money on NHL-related products," Palmer said.

So far, Geschwind has had mixed reactions from the teams that have responded.

"I've started getting responses from some teams, ranging from brush-offs to much more encouraging, thoughtful replies," she said.

This offseason, the Arizona Coyotes signed Garret Ross after he was charged with a felony for revenge porn, although the charges were dropped because he was in his home in Michigan when the video was sent, giving the the state of Illinois -- where the victim lived -- no jurisdiction.

This came after the Chicago Blackhawks, who had previously signed Ross, reinstated the 24-year-old immediately after charges were dropped despite knowing that it was a jurisdiction hang-up, and after they had previously played him for more than a dozen games with their AHL affiliate after he was charged.

Elyse McKenzie, an Australian, wrote the Leafs because she believes the NHL's silence in these cases has put sports ahead of much larger issues.

"It is saying that the points in a game, any game, matter more than women’s lives," McKenzie said of the NHL's failure to lead. "[It says] that violence against women is completely okay, as long as the person committing the offence is playing well. There is the belief that these games are worth more than anything and that naturally, the only reason a woman would ever accuse a player of anything is because of personal gain to bring someone down."

She believe Geschwind has given a voice to victims who have otherwise been kept silent by the NHL.

"Trying to silence victims doesn’t mean victims stop existing and I think that’s important," McKenzie, who lives in Sydney and also finds it hard to spend money on the NHL, added. "I think it is important that as fans we tell the story, that it isn’t okay, that there should be consequences, and that is what inspired me to write to the Leafs. Because even as a voice on the other side of the world, I think it matters enough that something needs to be said."

For Mike Denyszyn, a former law school classmate of Geschwind's sister and longtime Leafs fan, the Leafs haven't been immune to problematic sexism in the sport. He was disappointed to see the prominence of cheerleaders, despite criticism of the use of 'ice girls' around the NHL, when he brought his son to a Sunday afternoon family-oriented Marlies game.

Cheerleading, which in other contexts is a sport in its own right, is presented in professional hockey as one of the few representations of women's involvement -- as a sideshow to male athletes.

"I don't know if the cheerleaders were more or less present than they usually are but I was a little embarrassed. I really don't understand what the cheerleaders at Marlies games add to the situation," Denyszyn said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "I think that's an embarrassment. I really don't understand who isn't going to fall in love with NHL hockey without an ice girl there, but I do on the other hand see a number of situations where fans could be alienated from the game."

In other professional sports, Denyszyn points to the suspensions of players such as MLB relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman -- who was suspended 30 games for violating the league's new domestic violence policy -- as indications of how seriously domestic violence ought to be taken.

"One thing that baseball does is they investigate domestic violence and take league disciplinary action even irrespective of whether it rises to the level of a criminal investigation," he said. "You might have a situation where an alleged victim might not want to press charges but baseball isn't proposing to put this person in jail and take away his liberty where we have to deal with 'beyond a reasonable doubt' as a prerequisite to do that."

Denyszyn believes professional sports don't have to take action against their players only after they're found guilty in a court of law.

"Playing baseball is a privilege and playing hockey should be too," he added. "One thing that the league could do is just demonstrate with a reasonable amount of effort that domestic violence is being taken seriously and that it's not something players can do in their spare time. Hockey players are important and I think there's a bit of a public trust involved with being a hockey player in the NHL."

Geschwind's recommendations could help the league and the Leafs reach more fans, Denyszyn believes.

"I really admire her (Geschwind's) efforts as a persistent voice for the inclusion of the female fan, which doesn't include a pink jersey or puck, but actually respecting gender equality when attending a hockey game and watching a hockey game and following a hockey team," Denyszyn said. "I think her concerns with domestic violence and the way it has been treated and the way some fans respond to it is well-founded. When she pushed for more grassroots motivations to inspire all 30 teams plus Las Vegas fans, as opposed to constantly beating your head against the NHL brick wall, I felt I should write as a Leafs fan because they're an important and influential franchise and I share her concerns."

Now it's up to the Leafs, who have yet to answer Geschwind, McKenzie, Morrison, Palmer and Denysyn's concerns, to respond.

Note: You can find each of the four letters (shared with the authors' consent) sent to Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, and the Toronto Maple Leafs organization below.

For: The Toronto Maple Leafs

I'm a loyal NHL and Maple Leafs fans. Your team's actions in your front office within the last few years have made me incredibly optimistic about where the team is heading in the future. However, it's incredibly hard for me to enjoy any NHL news or games, live or on television, when there is a dark cloud hanging over many players and teams in the game. The Leafs have not been involved in any cases of sexual assault or domestic violence in the past couple years, when this has become a much larger topic of discussion among NHL fans - especially when cases like Patrick Kane and Mike Ribeiro enter the news cycle in their horrendous details.

HOWEVER, despite the fact the team has not been involved, the NHL's lack of action as a league has made it harder for me and other fans to enjoy the Toronto product. I've spent considerably less money on Leafs tickets, Leafs merchandise, and other NHL-related products in the past year or two than I would have, because my enjoyment has waned considerably in light of the NHL's lax stance on sexual assault and domestic violence.

I'm pleading with the Toronto Maple Leafs and your front office to take a public stance on sexual assault and domestic violence among your players and staff, AND publicly announce and discuss your current (and new) policies and protocol when it comes to accusations, rumours, and/or convictions stemming from sexual assault and domestic violence. I'm also pleading with you that you take the concerns of Maple Leafs fans to the NHL front office, and tell them that they must also take action league-wide for the sake of hockey and for the sake of the fans.

- Curtis Morrison

To: Brendan Shanahan, President and Alternate Governor, Toronto Maple Leafs

Mr. Shanahan,

I am writing to you as a third generation passionate Leafs fan (and as a father who is raising a fourth generation passionate Leafs fan).  I am also writing to you as a longtime friend of Melissa Geschwind, and I am delighted to support her efforts to bring about real, effective change to the National Hockey League and how it addresses sexism, domestic violence and sexual violence.

Like many in our city and around the world, I am excited to celebrate the Leafs' centennial season.  To me, there is no better occasion to call attention to women's issues than when the spotlight of the League is on our franchise, particularly at a time when our Prime Minister has successfully established equal representation for women in the federal Cabinet and when our neighbours to the south have just nominated their first woman to be a major party candidate for the presidency.

I have been impressed with the charitable efforts and community outreach of the MLSE Foundation. I do not hesitate to encourage the Leafs organization to take its own steps to be a force for women's rights.  But as the League's most valuable and profitable franchise, I think the team's efforts would be even better spent in deploying MLSE's prestige and financial pressure to encourage the League itself to strongly address domestic and sexual violence by players and staff, and to end demeaning practices around the League like "Ice Girl" squads that add nothing to the in-game experience but alienation to female (and fair-minded male) fans.

I also note that other major sports leagues are taking action on these issues.  MLB's new domestic violence policy and the NBA's "Lean In" campaign are both making a positive impact, and there is no reason why the NHL can't meet and exceed these efforts by taking its own active steps to address gender-based violence and inequality.  The Leafs are uniquely positioned to take a leading role in making that change happen.

We both know, without exaggeration, that there are millions of women in the world who cheer for the Leafs.  Making them aware that the franchise respects them as fans and as people isn't just good business -- it's a moral imperative.  I urge you and your MLSE colleagues to join the vanguard of gender equality, and to ensure that the franchise employs players and staff of character and integrity as we enter our exciting new era of youth, talent and possibility.

Mike Denyszyn

In recent years the issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and general misogyny has come to the forefront of the sports world. While great strides have been made, professional sports leagues and individual franchises still have a ways to go before many women will feel that being a sports fan is a safe space for them. Petitions like Melissa Geschwind’s on change.org illustrate that both male and female sports fans want to see prominent sports organizations, in this case the National Hockey League, take a stand and work to end violence against women.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have long played an important role in the community and have shown in the past a willingness to push social issues, such as inclusion of LGBT people in the hockey world. I would like to ask today that you continue with that forward thinking and take a strong stand against domestic violence and sexual assault in all it’s forms, and pledge to not employ abusers.

This is an important issue for many hockey fans. I am confident that the Maple Leafs will recognize that they can play an important part in this, and make their female fans feel comfortable and proud to cheer for them.

Thank you,

Brian Palmer

To the Toronto Maple Leafs,

It is often said that it is tough to be a Leafs fan, how hard it is to watch a team tank in the playoffs or not make the playoffs.

And that can be tough, but it is frequently so tough to be a female sports fan, to watch so many teams turn a blind eye to domestic abuse, or sexual assault victims, all while the perpetrators are free to continue to play free of any kind of consequences.

There is frequently a call of innocent until proven guilty, but the NHL is not a court of law. The burden of proof is not the same. By allowing players who are under investigation for any kind of violence towards women to continue to play without any suspension or penalty, it shows that the league and the teams are participating in further violence to women.

When teams don't stand up and say enough is enough, that all players are accountable for their off-ice actions, no matter how many goals they score or what they contribute on the ice, it just contributes to the problem.

We expect better.

We deserve better.

And it's time that that all teams make a stand and say enough is enough, that violence against women is not acceptable and that a policy is in place to support such a thing.

Now is the time for action.

It is hard to be a Leafs fan, but it is a lot harder to watch the casual dismissal of the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Elyse McKenzie