(AP Photo/ The Denver Post, John Leyba)
Recently, two things happened concerning Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov. The first is that he was nominated for a Vezina Trophy as a cap to his great season. This season he racked up 41 wins (the most by any NHL goaltender) and had a save percentage of .927 (the third best of any NHL goaltender). His excellent performance is most likely what made the Colorado Avalanche a playoff team at all.
The second thing that happened was that, during a playoff game against the Minnesota Wild, Varlamov was taunted by Wild fans with pictures from his arrest earlier this year after he was accused of beating his girlfriend. (Warning: description of the crime at the link is both violent and graphic.)
These two things, at the outset, are not linked. After all, Varlamov was cleared of all charges (the defense declared themselves unable to make a case proving his crime beyond all reasonable doubt), and the incident seemed largely swept under the rug, only to be brought up by opposing fans hoping to get a rise out of Varlamov. Varlamov went on to have, as previously mentioned, an excellent and possibly award-winning season.
But should that be the end of the story? Should Varlamov even be in the running for the Vezina after this incident? Should his potential crimes be, by and large, ignored?
Both the NHL and hockey media seem to largely agree that yes, Varlamov should be completely exonerated and any past indiscretions forgiven. And though it’s widely thought that he will come in second to Rask in the Vezina runnings, the NHL believes he was worthy of a nomination.
And this is an issue. Because here is the impolitic crux of the issue that everyone seems to skirt around; there is a very good chance that Varlamov was, as he was accused of being, abusive to his girlfriend.
The facts are, domestic abuse is disturbingly common. One in four women will face it in their lifetimes, according to a survey by the Department of Justice. (This is roughly the same rate as in Russia, if not a little higher, for those who would argue that the people in question are Russian, not American.) There is also evidence to suggest it happened – bruising was documented on the victim both by the police at the time and by a friend of the victim’s on other occasions. And on multiple occasions the police had been called to Varlamov’s house for domestic disturbances. It also seems unlikely the victim would falsely report abuse given that doing so caused her to both receive death threats that made her afraid to return to Russia as well as accusations that she was accusing Varlamov to weaken Russia’s Olympic roster. If she wanted attention or money, there are dozens of easier, less risky ways to go about doing so. Is this evidence enough to say that, beyond a reasonable doubt, Varlamov did it? No, the Colorado justice system was, in that sense, right to dismiss the case. But is it likely that Varlamov was in some way abusive to his girlfriend? Yes. It’s likely.
There are two ways to be guilty: in the court of law and the court of public opinion. Varlamov is not guilty in the court of law, and he probably never will be. And since the court of law requires guilt to be proved beyond all reasonable doubt, that’s probably the correct outcome.
The problem with Varlamov getting a Vezina nod is not that he shouldn’t be allowed to play. The NHL cannot and should not ban someone for a crime they, legally speaking, did not commit. It’s not even that Varlamov didn’t play well enough to warrant a nod in other circumstances. It’s that awards have a way of elevating the person who receives them, making them a hero and exonerating them of any sins they may have committed. The problem is also what this nomination represents. It’s saying that the NHL sides with talent over off-ice behavior. It’s saying that charges serious enough to lead to arrest are less important than save percentage, and that a woman’s word is not to be trusted or believed, not when good hockey player’s career is on the line. After all, player’s reputations have been tarnished for far less than what Varlamov was alleged to have done, even for things that were, strictly speaking, legal. Varlamov’s arrest should have been a moment to speak out and iterate a zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence, as the NHL has a zero-tolerance policy for so many other things, and instead the NHL remained silent, and then went one step further to choose to honor Varlamov in spite of his possible transgressions.
For a league whose fans are almost half women (and statistically speaking, many of whom are probably abuse survivors themselves), this is an extremely dangerous stance to take. The NHL grapples with a range of feminist issues – do they really need to add lauding a possible abuser to their list? And putting the question of feminism aside, doesn’t human decency dictate you shouldn’t cheer for someone who may have assaulted their partner? Shouldn’t the accusation of a crime as serious as abuse be enough to make the NHL wary of promoting Varlamov or considering him for a major award?
The NHL has shown themselves to be willing to take positions on matters of social justice before (their support of You Can Play, for example) in the name of being inclusive to all types of fans. Why is it, then, in the case of an issue as widespread and destructive as domestic abuse, have they remained silent, if not supportive, of a possible abuser?
Unless Varlamov has another domestic abuse incident, he likely has a bright future ahead of him, and this incident will largely be forgotten. But before we leave this incident to become just another footnote under the “personal life” suggestion of a Wikipedia page, it’s worth considering – when does off-ice behavior become enough of a problem that on-ice talent becomes a moot point? And, if Varlamov transgresses again (which, if he truly is guilty, it’s likely he will), will we look back at this season and wish we had come down on him harder?