NHL unveils initiatives aimed at combating abuse, improving inclusivity

MANALAPAN, Fla. -- The NHL announced sweeping initiatives to combat abuse and promote inclusivity in hockey at its board of governors meeting on Thursday.

The meeting was the first since the release of an investigation into the Chicago Blackhawks and how the team handled a former player's allegation that he was sexually assaulted by a former video coach in 2010.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman opened his news conference on Thursday by acknowledging the Blackhawks investigation, calling it "unacceptable, both in what happened and the way it was handled." He said the NHL was "sorry that it happened."

Presented under the banner "Respect Hockey," the NHL will have a mandatory 90-minute digital-training program for all executives, staff and players in the league. Created in partnership with former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy's Respect Group, the training program will be ready by the end of first quarter 2022. The league expects all its teams to have completed the program by the end of the 2021-22 season.

"The most important part of this is being realistic about the efforts that are necessary to make the change, and to ensure that those efforts aren't performative," said Kim Davis, NHL senior executive VP of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. "We can't go back, but what can we do to go forward, to ensure that these kinds of things don't happen."

Bettman said that the league's abuse hotline continues to receive tips, although nothing at the magnitude of the Blackhawks' investigation. Tips to the hotline led to the resignation of Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray in November. Murray then enrolled in an alcohol abuse program.

The league is expanding its abuse reporting system beyond the hotline, creating a system to serve non-NHL leagues, associations and governing bodies. It will be sponsored by the NHL but operated by a third party.

The league also intends to create a hockey culture center to serve non-NHL hockey leagues and associations, a portal of services and information that cover issues ranging from employee assistance programs to sexual assault and domestic abuse. Also planned is an annual "Respect Hockey Summit," which will bring together leaders in "the hockey ecosystem" to discuss workplace culture challenges and best practices with experts.

Davis also announced that the NHL is partnering with Jopwell, a diversity solutions company, to broaden its candidate base for jobs and build a pipeline for a diverse pool of future talent. Davis had previously worked with Jopwell when she was an executive at JPMorgan Chase.

"I think we all understand that there's a need, as a business and as a moral imperative, to accelerate our efforts around respect, equity and inclusion," Davis said.

The board of governors meetings are taking place on Thursday and Friday near Palm Beach, Florida. Questions from the media were limited to the topics the league covered in Thursday's session; issues such as Olympic participation and the future of the Arizona Coyotes were left for Friday.

Also discussed among the NHL owners on Thursday:

• The Pittsburgh Penguins sale to the Fenway Sports Group for a reported $900 million was approved by the board. FSG purchased a controlling interest in the team, with current owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle remaining part of the ownership group. The purchase remains subject to negotiation and execution of documentation before the transaction can be closed.

Bettman said FSG impressed the league's executive committee in their meeting Thursday. "They see a great future [for the NHL], and that's why they're making the investment," he said.

• The NHL updated the board on COVID-19 protocols and positive tests this season.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that 19 teams have "implemented enhanced measures" when there have been mini-outbreaks this season, "basically turning back the clock to the protocols that were required last year" with an extra element of testing. The enhanced measures usually last around seven days.

"The current view of our medical professionals is that it's doing what it's intended to do," said Daly. "At this point, further measures will be employed if they're deemed necessary, but at this point they're not deemed necessary."

The NHL has had to postpone five games this season due to outbreaks on the Ottawa Senators and the New York Islanders.

Daly said that the difference between this season and last season in the NHL is that vaccines are "preventing serious illness" for players.

"While we have some symptomatic players and some players under the weather, they've not getting sick like they were last year," he said. "That's a direct effect of being fully vaccinated."

Other differences include a more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, and where players are getting infected. Daly said players aren't transmitting COVID-19 within the locker room when there are clusters of cases, but that "most of the transmission this year is community-based transmission."

The league and the players are due to review COVID-19 protocols in a meeting later this month. If there are any adjustments made, Daly said, "ultimately that's going to be a decision between our medical experts and the NHLPA medical experts."