In August of 2015, Chicago Blackhawks star right winger Patrick Kane was at the subject of a rape allegation. Police in Hamburg, New York told the Buffalo News the hockey player was accused of sexual assault after an incident in the suburb of Kane’s hometown of Buffalo. Kane, slowly becoming infamous for his off-ice incidents, denied the allegations. The player plead guilty to a noncriminal charge of disorderly conduct in 2009 shortly after he and a family member were accused of assaulting a cab driver, also in Buffalo New York. He was also not disciplined by the league in that instance either. Kane wasn’t charged with a crime and was not disciplined by the Chicago Blackhawks following the rape accusations. The accuser did not press charges.
Before the Patrick Kane allegations, another National Hockey League player faced accusations of a different sort. Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov was suspended indefinitely in late October 2014 after an arrest on misdemeanor domestic violence charges. Voynov was arrested and plead not-guilty and would later be charged with one felony count of “corporal injury to a spouse with a great bodily injury.” The team was fined $100,000 after attempting to bring Voynov to a team practice following the league’s suspension. And despite only playing six games that season, Voynov was paid a full salary. In July 2015 was sentenced to ninety days in jail with three years of probation. He has not played in the NHL since the 2014-15 season.
There have been other public relations problems with hockey players with various degrees of seriousness. Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche turned himself into police in October 2013 and was charged with second-degree kidnapping and third-degree assault. The charges against him were eventually dropped after being unable to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. While he faced felony charges, Varlamov was allowed to travel with the team and saw no suspension from the organization.
The National Hockey League is the only one of the four major sport leagues to not have a formal, written player off-ice conduct policy. This could turn into a public relations problem if the league doesn’t have a consistent and autonomous way of handling player misconduct. However, the players collective bargaining agreement (CBA) states that a player can suspended while they are part of a criminal investigation as seen with the Voynov situation. It is also important to note that the league or NHLPA does not require the suspension of the player involved, as seen with the Varlamov case.
Unpredictability cultivates dilemma in complex legal circumstances. Without a standard by which to handle negative public relation situations involving players, how would the Blackhawks handle the Patrick Kane situation if he was charged? What if he was on a different team, or less notable? The NHL has a written action plan written in the CBA about how discipline is executed and includes detailed instructions on how communication on the punishment is sent and received. What the NHL CBA does not include is specific prohibited conduct that will subject the player to discipline, or explicit guidelines the league will follow if a player violates the policy. The National Football League has all of this and more detailed in their Personal Conduct Policy. The NFL personal conduct policy also includes clear definitions for repeat offenders.
Gary Bettman once said regarding league policy, “Our code of conduct is we expect you to do the right thing, and if you don’t, we hold you accountable.” Using the Cynefin Framework, the lack of a rigid conduct policy by the National Hockey League is creating an environment that in itself is producing complex problems. If the league and players association agreed on a conduct policy similar to the NFL, or reinvented the modern policy on player conduct, the league’s conduct problems would be simplified. Currently, the league currently handles off-ice issues on a “case-by-case basis.”
The complex node of the Cynefin Framework defines the outlined system of player conduct formalities in the NHL. Not only is the problem of the lack of clarity on conduct issues a complex problem, but the ripple effects of how discipline is or isn’t established will continue to breed issues. Collaborative thought to creating a structure that can solve player conduct issues can be a solution to a rigid conduct policy.
The NHL would benefit from looking to the NFL to mirror their bulleted list of behavior deemed worthy of investigation. Written commitment on character assessment to rebuild the athlete after a public transgression would cement Gary Bettman’s and the league’s commitment to education and reform.
Reform, education, and clear guidelines for player off-ice conduct would transform into a simple “cause and effect” relationship. The consequences of violating league conduct policies would no longer be vague. Eliminating case-by-case basis for league wide problem solving creates autonomy and immediate understanding for the athlete upon signing a contract. To create simplicity, the players association would need to agree on fair consequences for player actions. It would be in the league’s best interest have a balance between on-ice conduct and off-ice conduct. Article 18 of the CBA has eight (8) pages of on-ice conduct polices. The definitions of transgressions, penalties, appeals and education are among the detailed efforts to curb on-ice injury. Off-ice conduct occupies three (3) pages.
Using the Bolman and Deal’s Frames of Reference, I would begin the process of reform with the human resource frame. There is an incalculable value to investing in the people of your organization. Outside of the organization, the human resource frame would show an empathy to those effected by a violation of the off-ice policies. The support and concern for everyone involved creates a culture of intentional education and growth. An often-undervalued element of the NFL conduct policy is the importance of reform and education. The verbiage in the policy doesn’t completely rely on punishment and penalties.
The structural frame would be vital in controlling the creation and implementation of a player conduct policy. Stressing accountability can be the cornerstone of the new expectations following new regulations. This frame also implies a strong “right or wrong” methodology. What is hurting the NHL right now is the lack of clarity and enforcement on this issue. As seen with the Varlamov accusation, past practice would say he would be suspended. Under a structural frame, options are eliminated, and a rigid structure remains.
Bringing in representatives from other leagues familiar with player conduct policies to create one for the NHL would be a first step to create a long-term plan.
Approaching the Cynefin framework as a compass for how inevitable problems can be corrected and learned from was an interesting exercise. It appears as if the NHL is built with leaders who assess issues with the political frame. Compromises and negotiations are the main tools of problem solving; indicative of the “case-by-case” off-ice conduct policy.
It became clear that not only was the lack of a player conduct policy a complex issue, it was creating further complex issues. The Cynefin framework helped digest the inconsistencies and lack of framework in the NHL’s CBA. The cases of Varlamov, Kane and Voynov indicate how the NHL can create restrictions on unfavorable conduct and facilitate initiatives that help the player.