Burnside: League at crucial crossroads

How the NHL handles the Patrick Kane situation could have a dramatic effect on the league's popularity. Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

And so a moment of truth appears to be in the offing for the National Hockey League.

Or should we say "moments of truth."

After years of the NHL living in a kind of bubble that led many to observe that it seemed more or less immune to the criminal behavior that dogged other major pro sports leagues and their athletes, this has become the summer of the police blotter.

That summer is turning to fall, when the NHL will have to make decisions that will affect the lives of players, franchises and fans, and might forever change how it is perceived by the public at large.

Since the end of last season, the NHL has seen the following:

  • Former Los Angeles Kings forward Jarret Stoll was charged with possession of drugs at a Las Vegas resort. Stoll pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to community service and probation. He has since signed with the New York Rangers.

  • Stoll's former teammate Mike Richards was recently charged by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Manitoba with possession of a controlled substance (believed to be OxyContin) while crossing the border into Canada. His contract was subsequently terminated by the Kings.

  • Shortly after signing the most lucrative deal in Buffalo Sabres history, Ryan O'Reilly was charged with impaired driving and leaving the scene of an accident after allegedly crashing his pickup truck into a Tim Hortons near London, Ontario, in the middle of the night.

  • Minnesota Wild assistant coach Darryl Sydor was charged with impaired driving and child endangerment after producing a .30 blood alcohol level, almost four times the legal limit, while driving his 12-year-old son to a hockey game. The longtime NHLer has voluntarily checked himself into a treatment center.

Those incidents reflect poorly on the players and, to a certain extent, the teams involved and the league itself. But while problematic, these cases and the league's responses to them pale in comparison to the challenges the NHL faces in two very different cases: the future of Kings defenseman Slava Voynov and superstar Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane.

Although different in many respects, these two cases will be heavily scrutinized, and the decisions made by the league about how they will treat these two players will have a wide-reaching impact on how the league is viewed by fans and non-fans alike, given the nature of the crimes the players are accused of.

Take Voynov.

In early October 2014, Voynov was arrested and charged with domestic abuse after an incident involving his wife that sent her to hospital. The NHL immediately suspended Voynov who, in spite of persistent claims of innocence from his lawyer, ultimately pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced earlier this summer to 90 days in jail.

Voynov will serve out his term in the coming weeks, and then the NHL will have to decide whether he has paid a steep enough price to return to action with the Kings who -- unlike Richards -- has been kept on his team's roster.

But what kind of penalty has Voynov really paid?

He received his $3 million salary last season (his cap hit is a very manageable $4.166 million through 2018-19, which largely explains the team's desire to keep the talented defenseman in the fold). He could not interact with his teammates per the terms of the NHL suspension, which included granting salary-cap relief to the Kings. Even then, Voynov did stray onto ice briefly, earning the team a $100,000 fine from the league.

Commissioner Gary Bettman will likely impose further sanctions on Voynov, who remains suspended. But what kind of sanctions would make the point that domestic violence is an issue that the league takes seriously?

The last thing the NHL, riding a wave of unprecedented popularity, wants or can afford to do is to be seen as being wishy-washy on the issue of domestic violence.

So what supplemental discipline does Voynov deserve?

Thirty games? Forty? Another season?

In some ways, Voynov is the more certain of the two cases in question. You can quibble with the paltry sentence he received for a violent crime, but at least he has taken responsibility for the crimes he was accused of committing.

The case involving Patrick Kane and how its consequences will affect him and the Chicago Blackhawks is much more fluid, more uncertain.

All we know is that Kane is under investigation for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman at his lakefront home near Buffalo on the first weekend of August. The woman immediately went to a local hospital and reported the alleged incident to police. Police have gathered evidence and conducted interviews, including with Kane. He has not been charged.

If Kane is charged with a serious crime, it would seem, based on the Voynov precedent, that the league would suspend one of the its most recognizable players immediately, pending the outcome of the legal proceedings.

But what happens if the investigation drags on into the beginning of training camp, which starts Sept. 17? It's hard to imagine Kane showing up for camp and going back to work as though this was any other training camp. It's not. Not even close.

It seems much more prudent, in my view, for the league and the Blackhawks to agree that until the investigation is complete, Kane will not be involved with any team activities.

Remember, Kane has not been charged. But the nature of the allegations -- this is not hassling of a Buffalo cab driver over loose change, which was the basis of an earlier criminal investigation involving Kane in the summer of 2009, which led to him pleading guilty to a lesser charge -- is such that keeping Kane away from the team is the most prudent call if the investigation is ongoing.

What if the local authorities ultimately decide that there is no basis for a criminal charge?

What then for Kane?

Again, the league has a wide latitude in handing down supplemental discipline. Is it possible the league believes Kane put himself in a position he should have avoided, even in the absence of criminal charges, and believes he needs to be further sanctioned?

Could the Blackhawks, a team that has worked diligently to create an identity and brand that is one of the great success stories in sports over the last decade, come to a similar conclusion?


What is appropriate then?

Five games? Ten? Twenty? Zero?

What message, if any, does the league need to send to Kane, other players, franchises and, again, the public at large about such serious allegations, even if there are no criminal charges laid?

We ask because as the summer disappears into the fall, we are honestly unsure about the nature of truth and punishment and judgment.

But if there is one thing this summer has reinforced, it's how little we really know about the people we watch play the game of hockey.