League moving to educate players, curb off-ice issues

TORONTO -- For a sport so accustomed to a clean image, the past 12 months have been a tough to handle for the NHL and its players.

Suddenly, hockey is sharing some of the same dubious headlines normally reserved for other sports and leagues. Slava Voynov, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Ryan O'Reilly have all been in the news for the wrong reasons over the last year.

And while we can debate whether several disconnected arrests or incidents present a trend or just an unlucky year, all of it has perhaps served to raise awareness among the rest of the player membership about one's conduct off the ice and the pitfalls that exist.

"I think as players we're all aware of it," superstar center Sidney Crosby told ESPN.com this week at the Player Tour event. "The league and players' association do a good job of informing us and making us well aware of certain situations and consequences, things like that. I think it's something that everyone, whether you're a professional hockey player or a professional athlete, in general everyone is trying to educate each other in terms of situations you could be put in and making the right decisions.

"Obviously, when you're a professional athlete the expectations are a little bit higher, that's something we all understand. It doesn't mean we're above making mistakes or that we won't experience challenging situations. At that point, it's about making the right decision."

Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf echoed Crosby's comments, saying his peers "take pride in being role models," he told ESPN.com this week.

"And it's been a tough summer for the National Hockey League," added Phaneuf. "But it does raise awareness for guys, and it should raise awareness, about how we conduct ourselves as professionals. I'm not going to talk about any one incident, that's not fair for me to say, but as professionals and representing the National Hockey League, I feel that we have a very good reputation and we want to uphold that."

As it stands, the NHL routinely educates players each season both through a presentation to all 30 teams by NHL security staff, and Behavioral Health Program doctors also make yearly presentations to the players about key issues to be aware of.

On top of that, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr is expected during his annual fall tour of the 30 dressing rooms to make this past year's uncharacteristic set of arrests part of his talking points with players. The NHL, with consultation from the NHLPA, wants to do even more.

"We're considering an additional educational program this year which could be up and running as early as this year, it's a domestic violence/sexual abuse-type focus program," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com this week.

The league will talk to the NHLPA about the possible program to get their feelings on it, and it could perhaps be rolled out this year to all clubs and players.

The Los Angeles Kings, who saw three of their players arrested in a span of nine months, have also taken steps to address off-ice issues. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Kings recently hired former NHL player Brantt Myhres to be the team's player assistance director.

Myhres -- who struggled with substance abuse during his career, but has been clean for more than seven years -- will be in training camp with the Kings and will be a resource for coaches and players during the season.

In the end, though, commissioner Gary Bettman cautioned Wednesday that despite the off-ice headlines this past year, it's not what his league is about.

"We, meaning the players' association and the league, have a number of programs and counseling and educational forms in place to hopefully make sure players are focused on doing the right things, which they do overwhelmingly," Bettman told reporters. "When you get a situation where there is this type of attention and focus, we believe you deal with it on a case-by-case basis, because rarely are two of these circumstances identical."

Asked if the NHL has learned anything from what's transpired in the NFL over the past year, Bettman didn't want to comment on another league.

"What I've said is we have over 700 players, and overwhelmingly they conduct themselves in a magnificent, appropriate way that reflects well on each other, and on their teams, the league and the game," said Bettman. "As I've said as well, we've had a variety of programs in place, we're constantly looking at what we can do to make sure that the programs are touching the right bases and are effective, but we focus on what we think is best for our players and our game. As I've said, overwhelmingly our players do the right things."

Another dynamic at play here is that never before has every action by a pro athlete been more under the spotlight. Social media's 24/7 glare is a reality that players are very much aware of.

"I think the technology has changed so much, even just in the past five years, with [social media] and everything else, it's changed so much, everything you do is magnified," Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter told ESPN.com this week. "It's a good wakeup call for everybody to realize that we're supposed to be role models for kids and everything you do, someone is going to see."

Star center Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars says he's still learning how to deal with these realities. He was recently called out on Twitter by former Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO Richard Peddie, who tweeted this in early September: "Tyler Seguin now behaving himself? Yorkville neighbours sure don't think so. Lots of loud noisy parties to 6am Lots of garbage left behind."

Seguin told ESPN The Magazine he was out of town when Peddie made those comments.

"You have to be so careful of other people," Seguin said this week. "It's changing to the point of where it was cool to see a celebrity athlete out, to 'How can I get money?' or 'How can I hurt this person?' It's sad. It started in the other leagues, now it's coming to our league.

"You just have to be careful. You have to know when to be a pro athlete and when you can just hang out and be a kid."

How do you walk that line?

"You just learn," said Seguin. "I have a difficult time not being myself. That's how I am. I'm an outgoing person. I'm interacting with social media and fans. That's the person I am. There's a fine line you learn over time -- it does take time, it took me time -- when you have to be a pro athlete and when you can be a pro athlete being yourself as well."

It's been a bad few months for the NHL but perhaps the silver lining is the wake-up call it has served to many players.

"You don't like the negative image on the league," said Team USA Olympian Justin Faulk, of the Carolina Hurricanes. "But it is a little bit of a reminder that you need to be careful with everything you do. You don't want to jeopardize something in your life, let alone someone else's. You don't want to hurt your team, the league, or have an affect on someone else's life that can be bad."

Wise words, indeed.