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The NHL's war against female fans, and the media's complicity in it

The Patrick Kane case, the latest in a long line of NHL players getting into trouble, has seen the NHL media defence machine crank up again-a machine that's contributing dangerously to the lack of change in NHL culture. It's a machine driven by journalistic self opinion that needs to be broken apart, because it's destroying the game for much of the fanbase, PR disaster by PR disaster. Paul Wheeler looks at why and how.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Hey, NHL and NHL media. We need to talk. Come over here, detune your ears from the buzz of training camp and teams telling you the same old quotes about how they're "excited to be back" and listen. There's some stuff you need to know.

It's not been the easiest year for you, what with domestic violence cases, drug busts, arguments over NHL pass codes, sexual assault cases, and of course the minor matter of one of the NHL's marquee players being placed under investigation for sexual assault.

But here's something, NHL and NHL media: Your handling and reporting of these cases has been irresponsible rabble-rousing, and in many cases you have directly contributed to the alienation of thousands of hockey fans. Amongst other things, It's given a platform to potential abusers, defended abhorrent behavior, made it quite clear that an NHL player can act in absolutely unconscionable ways and he'll still have the resources and power of a national media machine to defend him.

And most of all, you, as a league and the media covering it, have failed in your duties. Under the guise of "objectivity" and "fairness", you've in fact created and propagated an environment where abuse is tolerated (if not encouraged).

Then, of course, there's the fact that you'll bare-faced claim that your reporting and actions aren't, in fact, reprehensible, to the point where you'll try to rewrite history.

Take the Slava Voynov deportation case. In case you forgot, LA King Slava Voynov was arrested, charged and then pleaded no contest to domestic abuse of his wife. Throughout the whole 330+ day process, the LA Kings refused to actually cut ties with Voynov, to the point where they allowed him to skate with the team in defiance of a league-mandated ban before being fined. Oh yes, and GM Dean Lombardi famously worried about the effect it would have on his player -- the same player who is now having to leave the US after domestic violence proceedings.

And yet, as Voynov (voluntarily) heads back to Russia (to avoid being deported by US Immigration) the Kings still refuse to actually cut ties with him completely. Whilst he is now officially suspended with pay (and thus doesn't count against the cap, the Kings' insistence that "this is what they were always planning" seems pretty damn close to a rewriting of history. You can almost imagine the Kings front office throwing the vast majority of articles and statements they've made into the memory hole they must have hidden deep in the bowels of Staples Center.

Then, of course (and this is where the media begins to come in) we move to the Mike Ribeiro case. Here's what I wrote about the media treatment of Ribeiro in this piece back in March:

As an example, take this recent Scott Burnside piece on Nashville's Mike Ribeiro for ESPN. At first glance, it looks like your standard "player finds redemption after tough road" tale. It talks about Ribeiro's battles with attitude, self-doubt, and how he's trying hard to turn his life around and admit the mistakes of the past. All very heartwarming.

However, when you bear in mind that this story came out barely a week after a story about the Predator being sued for a sexual assault allegedly committed during his first year in Nashville broke, it starts to take on more of an aura of "spin"...particularly when you bear in mind the allegations, which were public knowledge at the time that Burnside will be aware of being covered elsewhere on his own site, don't get mentioned or even hinted at. Not at all. Nothing.

Even more sinisterly, there are writers who are now using their platforms to either whitewash some of the more questionable stories out there or even try to blatantly re-frame public opinion in the face of them-

Look at it in that light, and it's a blatant whitewash job. The opposite of a hit piece, in fact.

Remember that this was written back in March.

Mike Ribeiro remains a Nashville Predator. As a team, they've chosen success over morality and defense of victims, in a move widely seen as a slap in the face to female fans and victims of abuse everywhere. Nobody in the mainstream media said anything, perhaps afraid of rocking the boat.

Since then, we've seen the whitewash machine in the mainstream media go to another level, kicked into overdrive by the Patrick Kane case.

In perhaps the most blatant example yet of the NHL and NHL media prioritizing protecting their asset and "brand" over actual good reporting and balance, we've seen some of the most blatant and horrendous examples of victim-blaming, ignoring of victims and moral equivocation as the NHL media machine (with very few exceptions) has fallen over itself scrambling to protect one of its crown jewels, a young hockey star who may or may not be guilty of one of the most vile crimes it's possible to commit.

Now-before we get into this section, let's not forget that there has been some incredible writing on the Kane case that's sought to promote and protect the rights of the victim and put forward their case, not least on this network with AshOnIce's "Walk A Mile", and myriad articles like this one over at Pension Plan Puppets, for example.

The trouble from a mainstream perspective is that they're going the opposite way. With the exception of a minority of writers, the hockey media at large has shown a staggering amount of tone-deafness and willingness to stand by the accuser while ignoring the victim or indeed any real balance thanks to coverage that has overwhelmingly focused on promoting the innocence of the player, whether subtly or not.

Firstly, in the days after the case, we had the Buffalo media allowing the owner of a nightclub to cast doubts on the morals and sobriety of the victim. Then, as the case has progressed, we had the likes of Pierre LeBrun focusing on social media as the cause of hockey ills and printing quotes from Tyler Séguin that came dangerously close to victim-blaming...the whole message was essentially "it's hard for NHL players because there are always people out there looking to take advantage of their position."

Jewels From The Crown wrote about just how badly that LeBrun piece was framed.

But the tone-deafness and NHL media excuse/spin machine wasn't even beginning to fire up. As training camps opened yesterday, the attention of much of the NHL was focused on Chicago - to see just how the Blackhawks would respond to their star players' continuing legal problems. This was a real chance for an NHL team to reverse the recent trend and give the fans a strong positive message that the NHL was beginning to take notice of the message its support of players involved in legal troubles showed to a large proportion of its fanbase.

We even had opinion drivers like Darren Dreger show either a staggering lack of self-awareness, or a willful lack of willingness to engage with the issues, with tweets like this:

"No reason to think he won't participate"...apart, y'know, from being the subject of an investigation that would see many, including journalists, suspended from work. The NHL CBA specifically allows for teams to exclude players from training camp if it is believed "their presence could be detrimental or harmful to team or fans." I don't know about you, but I'd imagine Kane seemingly getting off scot-free is going to be incredibly harmful/triggering to any hockey fan who's suffered sexual assault, and the statistics say there are likely to be many.

The NHL and the Hawks doubled down on their disrespect for victims and women by holding a press conference so horrendously misconceived that it was being ripped to shreds by journalists as it was taking place. It was atrocious decision to allow Kane to speak and cast doubt on his accuser and allegations (in a tone that apologized to his team-mates and fans only) but insist that no questions were asked about the case. This was only compounded by following this with the usual team talk about how Kane was "focused, excited" and all the other buzzwords. The most chilling moment? Kane referring to the ongoing investigation - one that may find out he is in fact a sexual abuser - off-handedly as a "distraction" before returning to spouting clichés about hockey preparedness. The presser was later defended by NHL's VP Bill Daly - which implies that nobody in the NHL has any idea what kind of message they're sending about their view of fans, particularly female fans, and their opinions.

On Friday, the circus continued: Kane received a rousing, roaring cheer from Hawks fans on his entry onto the ice as they showed their support. Chicago fans have responded to Kane's inclusion in training camp shows that his team think he's innocent & his inclusion strengthens public opinion against his accuser-evidence that the move is actually affecting public opinion. Toronto's Damien Cox even penned a piece that argues Kane should be allowed to train, arguing that it does not impact the Blackhawks or the league's image. This is the same Damien Cox that once argued Jiri Tlusty's intimate selfies were "disgracing his organization and he should be suspended."

What kind of screwed-up world do we live in where being late and an ill-judged photo have the media and powerful people arguing them worthy of punishment while at the same time defending the right of an alleged sex offender to continue to work even while under a police investigation? The NHL world, apparently.

The reaction on social media has been instant and violent, particularly from female fans. Many have seen this as the last straw in their alienation from the NHL as a league - a league that is sending the message, loud and clear, that it simply doesn't care about them.

Eliza Eaton-Stern of The Other Half expresses beautifully how this treatment and that like it in other sports is making it hard for women to experience sport and is indeed driving them away on Wednesday, before the Kane PR and its fallout. She expresses the fact that treatment like this in issues like the Kane case is driving female fans (and treatment like it is driving LGBTQ fans and survivors of abuse and many others) away from the sports they love. It's a trend that the mainstream media machine is choosing to ignore and indeed actively encourage in pursuit of clicks, page views or access.

In effect, the NHL and its media are combining in saying "unless you're white and male, we don't really care what you think. Your rights as a sports fan are less important than us and the industry we cover continuing to make money. We will not stand with you."

In short, the NHL and its media machine is yelling a message louder than ever to female fans recently. That message is "we don't want you here." It's a message that they need to change now, before they do irreparable damage to their sport. It might already be too late.