“Character” and “leadership” are terms thrown around a lot in professional hockey. Hockey culture expects players to fit into a specific mold of physical and mental toughness, applauding those who play through pain and injuries. Unfortunately, these expectations can condone violent, harmful behaviour while castigating players for things outside of their control. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the NHL doesn’t have a clue what good character is.
“I’m not sure for us there is any need for any code of conduct other than our players, who overwhelmingly conduct themselves magnificently off the ice,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a press conference last October. “We deal with it on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think we need to formalize anything more. Our players know what’s right and wrong.”
Recent events, however, contradict Bettman’s statement. In an interview with newspaper Södertälje this off-season, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Viktor Lööv said that, “In the NHL, there is a lot of cocaine […] if you have money ,you probably have easy access.” A couple weeks later, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly admitted that cocaine use is on the rise in the league; New York Rangers centre Jarrett Stoll was charged for cocaine possession in April. Former Los Angeles Kings centre Mike Richards was arrested at the Canadian border for possession of oxycodone in June. Ryan O’Reilly, centre for the Buffalo Sabres, drunkenly drove his car into a Tim Horton’s in July. Most recently, Montreal Canadiens winger Zack Kassian was involved in a car crash and admitted into Stage Two of the NHL Players Association’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. In the aftermath, Habs General Manager (GM) Marc Bergevin said that Kassian showed a “lack of character” when talking about the car accident.
The media in particular like to use “character” to explain team success or failure. Prior to last season, for example, many were quick to praise the Los Angeles Kings for their great leadership. That was before defenceman Slava Voynov was arrested after hitting his wife at a team party. Following this, he was allowed to skate with the team while still being investigated by Los Angeles police for domestic violence. They said the same things about the Chicago Blackhawks—but that was before the Buffalo police investigated winger Patrick Kane for sexual assault; Kane was welcomed back into the team with open arms, even before the investigation ended.
In contrast, players like Evander Kane of the Buffalo Sabres and Phil Kessel of the Pittsburgh Penguins have had their character questioned by media for years. Evander was blasted for posting a picture of himself posing with a large stack of money in Las Vegas during the lockout. Kessel was called lazy and out of shape when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs by the press for years because he doesn’t have the physique you’d expect of a world class athlete. He was called a ‘locker room cancer’ because he wasn’t able to turn the Leafs into a good team on his own.
This is what these words really boil down to: Teams that win have good character and leadership, and teams that lose don’t. It’s not surprising that the criticism of Evander and Kessel came when they were playing for awful teams in Winnipeg and Toronto. It’s a shallow definition that puts winning above all else.
Kings GM Dean Lombardi said that Richards’ substance abuse problems were “traumatic”—for Lombardi. Lombardi ended up using Richards’ arrest to justify terminating one of the worst contracts in the league. Meanwhile, O’Reilly, a first-line centre in Buffalo, does not seem to have faced any consequences for his drunk driving. The way teams and the league respond to substance abuse and addiction should not depend on how skilled a hockey player is.
It’s become clear that the league’s attitude of valuing wins above all else needs to change. The term “character” has become worse than meaningless—its used to condone and encourage harmful behaviour from hockey players.
In the year since Bettman’s comments, multiple players have been accused and/or convicted of crimes against women. Multiple players have run into problems with substance abuse. GMs have been unequipped with handling either situation, seemingly unconcerned with crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence, missing the point when it comes to issues of substance abuse and addiction. The NHL needs to do better.