Content Warning: The following article contains references to sexual assault.
The NHL does not have a sexual assault policy, and that is a problem. Sexual assault has been an issue in the NHL for many years, and some of those incidents have even involved organizational coverups. Not having a firm policy means that teams and players deal with every situation differently. There needs to be a streamlined process to assure every incident is handled correctly and with the care it deserves.
Players and Coaches Accused of Sexual Assault
The first issue involves when a player or coach is accused of sexual assault. Due to the NHL’s lack of a policy, every situation gets handled differently. In April 2021, Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen was accused of sexually assaulting a young woman in 2017.
On May 1, the Canucks placed Virtanen on leave. The team launched a private investigation into the incident and has stated they will not comment until the investigation concludes. On June 1, 2021, a civil lawsuit was submitted detailing the encounter.
Having a blueprint for how to handle situations like this allows teams to not only protect themselves but ensure each case receives the level of respect it deserves. It would also ensure that team statements reflect the severity of the accusation. The NHL needs to step in and ensure everyone is on the same page and every case is handled properly.
Players and Coaches Reporting Sexual Assault
The other scenario is when players or coaches report sexual assault to their organization. Due to no policy present, teams have shown they are willing to cover up these allegations. Two examples are the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks.
Pittsburgh Penguins Organization
The first incident comes from the Penguins organization back in 2019, where Jarrod Skalde, the then-assistant coach of Pittsburgh’s AHL team, accused then-AHL head coach Clark Donatelli of sexually assaulting Skalde’s wife during a road trip. Skalde claims he reported this to Penguins management and was told to keep it quiet. Donatelli was eventually let go, but the reporting also led to the Penguins firing Skalde. He’s currently in court arguing that the Penguins organization wrongfully terminated his contract due to reporting the sexual assault.
Firing someone who has reported a sexual assault within an organization makes it extremely difficult for others to come forward. They may fear a similar fate will occur rather than have faith the situation will get resolved properly. It also can lead victims or those reporting to believe that the organization either does not care or does not believe them.
Chicago Blackhawks Organization
The second incident revolves around the Blackhawks. During the team’s 2010 season, players came forward to management reporting they were sexually assaulted by then former assistant coach Bradley Aldrich. The players involved talked to Paul Vincent, who was the skills coach at the time, which led to Vincent discussing it with management. Chicago management then told Vincent to keep this quiet despite his plea to report this to the Chicago Police Department.
Aldrich later left the Blackhawks organization to coach minor hockey in Michigan. He was given a reference by the Blackhawks despite the organization allegedly knowing he had a history of sexual assault. Aldrich pled guilty in 2013 to sexual assault charges that had stemmed from his time at the University of Miami that occurred before he was a member of the Blackhawks organization. Despite that, giving a reference for someone to work with youth that you know has a history of sexual assault is a major issue and is part of the ongoing lawsuit involving the Blackhawks.
The way these two incidents played out is exactly why the NHL needs a policy. Both led to cover-ups within the organization and subsequent lawsuits. There has also been no punishment for those who helped cover up these incidents as they are still employed within the league. Having a clear-cut policy allows the league to prevent these types of situations from occurring in the future.
Using the MLB as a Template
Major League Baseball not only has a strict policy, but they actively administrate punishments. There are few key sections in the policy the NHL could use for their own. Here are four parts the NHL can incorporate:
Some may think that sexual assault is self-explanatory; however, some may have different views. By writing it out in the agreement, no one can argue that they did not know or did not understand why they are under investigation. Clear definitions are important and should be the policy.
Investigation and Leave
Once an investigation starts, a player is placed on leave for at least seven days. During that time, an investigation by the Commissioners office occurs. The player can challenge the leave within 24 hours and must prove that the allegations are false and that no credible evidence is present. As soon as the league is notified, they will also reach out to any persons affected to offer help. After seven days, the league can request an extension or conclude the investigation and issue discipline.
Training and Outreach
In order to show the public that MLB is serious about preventing assault, they run yearly training and public outreach programs. The programs could be anything from public service announcements in local media using players and staff to donations for local organizations that help survivors. A committee also reviews and updates education programs for the players and staff every year across MLB.
MLB makes it clear that an investigation is occurring and a player is on leave. The league will also make a statement if they choose not to investigate an incident. Having this transparency allows the public to know what is going on and that the league is not hiding anything.
A Policy That Works
What makes MLB’s policy so successful is that they are fast-acting and transparent through the process. They take every claim seriously and do their due diligence to ensure those who are victims are taken care of. The league also ensures that those found guilty face punishment. When the NHL designs their policy, MLB’s is one they should use as an example.
A Policy Is Needed ASAP
The NHL needs to introduce some policy. Having a policy allows victims of sexual assault to feel confident coming forward about their experiences. It also serves as a warning to those within the NHL — players and personnel alike — that the league will not tolerate this behaviour. Regardless, it is important and long overdue in the NHL.
Adam is excited to be joining The Hockey Writers as part of the Seattle Kraken team. His work can also be found at dubnetwork.ca where he covers the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League. Adam is excited to be part of the Kraken’s inaugural season and ready to bring you in depth coverage of the NHL’s 32nd team.