The Edmonton Journal and other media outlets reported this week that Nikolai Khabibulin will not serve hard time as a result of his extreme drunken-driving conviction.
After Khabibulin was charged with speeding with a blood-alcohol level at more than twice the legal limit in February 2010, it was believed the goaltender would not be given preferential treatment when he dropped his appeal of the conviction and would begin his 30-day sentence this Saturday. That was the belief of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-described toughest sheriff in America, until a local judge told him otherwise this week.
According to reports, the judge has moved Khabibulin into a work release program that will allow the netminder to leave the facility from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. Prison officials told The Journal that as long as he follows the rules and doesn't exhibit signs of having been drinking, Khabibulin will be allowed to spend his daytime hours as he pleases. That also means he will not have to wear the signature pink underwear that inmates of the county's famous Tent City jail wear. (Arpaio has been quoted as saying the pink duds have a calming effect on inmates, although critics say it's more about humiliation.)
Khabibulin will spend the first 48 hours of his sentence in jail, beginning Saturday; he will be under house arrest for the final 15 days of the sentence barring breach of prison rules.
For a player who put the lives of innocent people in danger, not to mention himself, it seems like a pretty easy time of it.
A source told ESPN.com this week the league has not yet decided whether to impose its own penalty on the netminder.
In the past, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has used a heavy hand to censure players that bring the game into a negative light, especially when it comes to reckless behavior.
In the fall of 2007, Mark Bell was suspended for 15 games after he was convicted of drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident after smashing into a stationary truck at a stop sign in California. That incident left the driver of the truck injured and led to an out-of-court settlement with Bell, who was then with the Toronto Maple Leafs. At the time, Bettman said it was a privilege to play in the NHL, and such a privilege comes with an expectation of exemplary conduct, on and off the ice.
Since that time, the league has had few legal incidents to deal with. Jay Bouwmeester was charged with drunk driving in Edmonton and pleaded guilty in 2007 but was not suspended by the league. There has been the occasional dust-up in a bar and there was a minor kafuffle at Eric Staal's stag that involved minor police involvement; but beyond the Khabibulin case, nothing has warranted the league's action.
For us, the reckless speed at which Khabibulin was reportedly driving (70 mph in a 45-mph speed zone) and the fact he was charged with extreme drunken driving suggests the NHL needs to send its own message even if the lawmakers in Arizona failed to do so in allowing Khabibulin to take an easy ride through his sentence.
It would be easy for Bettman to ding Khabibulin for five or even 10 games to start the upcoming season, and it would be hard to argue the penalty wasn't fair.
But why not something different given the failure of the Arizona courts to deal with the issue? Why not give Khabibulin the choice: miss 10 games of the upcoming season or commit to speak to teenage hockey players around the continent about his problems with alcohol. Surely, the NHL Players' Association wouldn't have an issue with a solution that may allow a current player to have a positive impact on young constituents. Why not try to turn something that could have been potentially tragic into something potentially life-altering?