The Curious Case of Jake Virtanen

The NHL has an image problem. This is not news, but it’s definitely something that we can’t really ignore anymore. In the last year, details of a number of instances of domestic violence or sexual abuse involving junior-aged and NHL players have been made public. Obviously there have been more incidents than have been reported (both past and present), and it would be naive to think that they won’t happen again.

One of the more recent incidents involves former Buffalo Sabres Vancouver Canucks player Evander Kane Jake Virtanen. At a Buffalo nightclub in June, Kane allegedly grabbed two women around the neck, pulled the hair of another, and threatened to fight a bouncer at the club. Details of the alleged assaults can be found in documents obtained by WBKW in Buffalo. In 2017, Virtanen is alleged to have picked a woman he knew up from a home in Vancouver, taken her to a hotel and raped her. An investigation was opened in 2021, with the case going to trial in 2022. During the trial, Virtanen’s attorney suggested that the woman should have faked a yeast infection if she did not want to have sex with him; the woman testified that she said no and pushed Virtanen off her.

Whether Kane is found guilty of the charges against him Despite Virtanen being found not guilty, it’s clear that there’s a pattern of behaviour that is becoming more normalized amongst some (though definitely not all) NHL players.

After the league’s botched handling of Patrick Kane’s legal issues (since dismissed due to lack of evidence), or the horrific way they handled the Kyle Beach situation, or the way the NHL is barely complying with the investigations into allegations against Hockey Canada, it’s not surprising that there is some criticism with respect to the NHL’s responses to these kinds of incidents: as long as off-ice behaviour doesn’t affect on-ice play, the league appears to have a very laissez-faire policy with respect to domestic violence and sexual abuse issues.

The (Patrick) Kane Conundrum

It’s doubly hard to justify being a fan of the NHL when it’s been made very apparent that one of the faces of the league is someone who has had aspersions cast on him for the majority of his career. There was the incident with the cab driver in 2009, for which Patrick Kane was indicted by a grand jury on misdemeanor third-degree assault and theft of services charges and a noncriminal harassment charge.

Kane pleaded out, and was released with a conditional sentence. If the news reports were to be believed, the altercation took place over 20 cents; Kane and his attorney denied that this ever took place but the die was cast, and Kane has since been seen as a figure who attracts controversy.

Months after this incident, photos of Kane and some teammates partying shirtless in Vancouver made the rounds on the internet; Kane apologized for his behaviour. In 2012, photos of Kane partying in Madison, Wisconsin durng a Cinco de Mayo celebration also made their way around the internet; Kane, once again, apologized for his behaviour. And until the summer of 2015, it looked like Kane had cleaned up his act, so to speak.

By the time the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in June of that year, Kane had been out of the media for anything other than his hockey (which is absolutely the way it should be unless the media exposure is because of charity obligations and participation). At the end of the Hawks’ Cup parade, however, Kane warned fans to “watch out for [him] the next week.” An athlete with some suspect public behaviour in his past does not and should not need to warn anyone about what is coming. The thinly veiled threat in his words seemed to be a regression from the progess he’d made.

By now, we know that on the night of August 2, Kane met a 21-year old woman at a bar and allegedly invited her back to his place. Her story, since called into question, suggests that he raped her; his defense does not. Details of the case are available all over the place but it’s important to note that Kane was never officially charged with anything and just as the optics of the investigation couldn’t get any worse for Kane, the case blew up in the accuser’s face.

While the details of the alleged assault are still quite unclear, what is unambiguous is the position of both the Blackhawks organization and the NHL itself on this issue. Instead of suspending Kane from team activities (in this case, training camp), the Blackhawks stood by their much-maligned winger as the hits kept coming.

Nothing about the way this was handled deals with the actual problem—that the NHL chose as its mouthpiece an athlete with, at the very least, character problems. In a 2016 Sports Illustrated cover story, Kane admits that he wanted to defend himself, but acknowledges that the situation is “kind of in the past,” as if he can escape the image he’s created for and of himself. (That SI story, by the way, is titled “On the ice, Patrick Kane is so good and still has so far to go” but the URL ends with patrick-kane-chicago-blackhawks-assault-case.)

While “innocent until proven guilty” theoretically works in legal circles, the court of public opinion always seems to discount that notion immediately. We may never know what actually happened, but as long as Patrick Kane is positioned as a role model and someone to look up to, the spectre of those allegations will always be there.

The Virtanen Problem

This all brings us to yesterday, and the Oilers signing Jake Virtanen to a PTO. This kind of agreement obviously does not guarantee him a spot on the team, and Virtanen isn’t exactly the same player he was before he went to the KHL and was almost invisible. However, the idea that the Oilers looked at all the players available and said “yes, we will take a flyer on that guy even though his legal troubles are just behind him and he isn’t very good anyway” says a lot about the organization, its values, and who is important enough to keep happy.

It should be said that Virtanen was a non-factor in Russia and will not do anything to make the Oilers’ top-six better, all while potentially adding an actual locker room cancer to the team, and to what end? Because he’s a “good Canadian kid” who should have a second chance?

Or is it because the Oilers—led by former Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson, the man in charge as many of the current Hockey Canada policies around assault allegations were implemented and funded and captained by Connor McDavid who couldn’t even clear the lowest bar imaginable for an answer to the question about what’s been going on at Hockey Canada—now have Evander Kane on the roster and have agreed to give Virtanen a try and have also expressed interest in Patrick Kane? It’s not a coincidence that these three players are on the radar of the same NHL club

It seems that the Oilers have decided they are going to give anyone with a pulse a second chance. A redemption arc doesn’t start with a new team, but the Oilers seem hellbent on changing that narrative as well.

Why it matters

Domestic violence and sexual abuse situations are rarely isolated and while what has been reported may not seem to be a big deal, there is a connection between gendered microaggressions and later instances of gendered violence, sexual or not. I don’t think that it is too much for me to ask that the people employed (in any capacity) by my favourite team haven’t been in trouble with the law with respect to domestic violence and sexual abuse issues.

The language used to brush aside some of these incidents is damaging: just as one does not accidentally drive while intoxicated and crash into a donut shop, one does not accidentally grab someone by the throat or mistakenly force their hand in front of someone’s face demanding a kiss, nor does one accidentally have sex with someone who has not given explicit consent.

For the most part, we don’t hear about NHL players away from the ice, and for some reason I find that comforting. What is clear, though, is that when an NHL player is in the spotlight away from the ice, it’s not often good news. The underlying problem with the NHL ignoring these issues is not that some of its players have done wrong, but that in avoiding doling out any punishment the league is complicit in the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality that underscores so much of contemporary social interaction.

It’s hard to be a fan of a team that regularly makes decisions that are antithetical to common sense and positive public perception. It’s harder to be a fan when it’s been made abundantly clear that the only part of my fandom that matters is the money I am willing to spend on the team regardless of the checkered pasts of the players they bring in.

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