Now that the dust has settled from a nightmarish summer and autumn for NHL fans, we've all been able to focus on the events on the ice. The spectacular goals, big hits and players performing at the top of their ability every single night (well, unless you're in Columbus, perhaps). As the Christmas decorations go up and we're looking forward to the holiday traditions of NHL hockey and the glorious international hockey spectacle that is the World Juniors (oh, and a little game called the Winter Classic, too)...NHL fandom can finally move on from the traumatic experiences and relentless blows to our fandom caused by events like the Patrick Kane case, and enjoy the game for what it is.
Or at least that's what the NHL would like us to do.
Recently, the league has sought to promote itself through the feats of an individual they like to present as representing all the "best" qualities about hockey. Speed, skill, hard work. Goalscoring ability and talent the likes of which few player in the world possess. A player who scored a point in 26 consecutive games.
The trouble is, that same player was recently the subject of a very public, very nasty and convoluted investigation for sexual assault (and at this point, let's state a) that the case was indeed not taken to trial and b) no trial does not definitively equal no guilt.) That same player and the way he was treated as a victim by the vast majority of the NHL media has caused many fans to question whether or not they can continue to support the NHL as a league.
The trouble is, that player is Patrick Kane. And Patrick Kane, however talented he is, however skilled he is, whatever talents he may possess on the ice, whatever he does when he steps through those bench doors, has forfeited his right to be a role model by what has happened off it.
The media rush to support Kane during this case has been unseemly and at times frankly sickening - but not as sickening as the language used and rhetoric applied around the case. Rather than spend most of this article focusing on that, though, we'll point you to this superb recent piece over at Pension Plan Puppets, which explains in great detail how the media have chosen to frame this whole affair as some sort of personal redemption and turn a rich, privileged millionaire accused of sexual assault into a martyr, and why this is a bad thing. We've written in the past on Chowder about how the Kane case is perhaps the most virulent example of the tendency in NHL media to marginalize and even openly attack its female fans and issues important to them, too.
But this article isn't addressing that question. It's asking why the NHL is persisting on pushing as its face a player with myriad disciplinary, behavioral and documented legal issues, however good a player he is with a stick and puck. It's asking why the NHL media is so desperate to welcome Kane back into the fold, defend him against all questions, and present being accused and investigated but not actually prosecuted for rape as some sort of vindication.
In short-why is the NHL and the media trying to make a role model and brand face out of one of the last players in the NHL who should deserve it?
People will say it's because of his skill and play on the ice...which then leads to the obvious question - if Patrick Kane wasn't as good at hockey as he is, would he still be protected/lionized/valued by a league that often still looks like it's desperately struggling for a solid foothold in a crowded sports market?
Would he hell. It's entirely the fact that he's a superstar that's keeping him protected.
This isn't just a trend we've seen in the NHL, mind you. Witness the NFL with Greg Hardy, for example.
But the real mystery in the NHL is...why? Why is the league still determined to act like all manner of problematic things - things that have caused pain, distress and hurt to many in their fanbase through personal experience - aren't an issue even worth considering?
And why is the NHL (and specifically the media circus around it) seemingly more willing to push someone like Patrick Kane as its face while players like Evander Kane (who has spent his time in Buffalo contributing to local children's causes and regularly visiting/sending gifts to young fans who are going through tough times) or PK Subban (who, in case you forgot, donated $10 million THIS YEAR to Montreal Children's Hospital) are treated much more ambivalently?
Ask yourself this - if you were running the NHL, and needed to pick one player as the "face" of your league - would your instant choice be a player who is gregarious, personable, happy, with a history of contributing to good causes around his teams and with a spotless off-ice record (and a really, really good one on the ice as well)?
Or would it be a player who's brought the league into disrepute on several occasions, been accused (though not convicted) of one of the most vile crimes imaginable, but happens to be able to play really well on a dynastic team?
The NHL has, for some unfathomable reason, picked the second one. And in doing so it's perpetuating the cycle that is driving a large number of people away from the sport. It's saying that any misdeed will be forgiven as long as you're good with a stick and a puck and keep scoring...but aren't too "different" to a self-imposed media-defined stereotype of what a hockey player "should be" while doing it.
It's scoring own goals like they're going out of fashion - and in the NHL media world, it's sending the truly dangerous message to players that as long as you're good enough on the ice, anything can be forgiven off it.
And that is a very dangerous path to tread indeed.