The NHL on Wednesday announced that it has suspended Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson for the entire preseason and the first 27 games of the upcoming regular season after completing an investigation into a domestic violence incident involving his girlfriend.
“I have determined that Nashville Player Austin Watson engaged in a physical confrontation with his domestic partner,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a league-issued statement. “Today’s ruling, while tailored to the specific facts of this case and the individuals involved, is necessary and consistent with the NHL’s strongly held view that it cannot and will not tolerate this and similar types of conduct.”
The NHL Players Association announced that it will appeal the suspension.
Watson pleaded no contest to a domestic assault charge in July, receiving probation; he also must complete 26 weeks of a batterer intervention course. According to an arrest warrant obtained by the Tennessean, police in Franklin, Tenn., said Watson and his girlfriend got into an argument in a vehicle at a gas station about her drinking and not being able to attend a wedding. The warrant said Watson admitted to pushing his girlfriend and that a police officer noticed red marks on her chest.
Watson, 26, was one of four Predators players who participated in a 2017 domestic violence awareness campaign for the YWCA, appearing with a yellow “x” over his mouth in a video entitled “Unsilence the Violence.” The video was taken down from the YWCA’s website after his arrest this year.
“We’re not hiding from it but we are facing it,” Predators President and CEO Sean Henry said of Watson’s suspension Thursday during the AMEND Experience, which the Tennessean describes as “a gathering of Nashville and Middle Tennessee community leaders committed to ending violence against women and girls.”
“We’re not focusing on the suspension but on [Watson] and his family [as well as] the organization continuing its efforts on ending domestic violence,” said Henry, a YWCA board member.
The NHL is the only one of the four major North American sports not to have a domestic violence policy, instead judging cases on a case-by-case basis (the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players allows the NHL to suspend players who are under criminal investigation). In 2014, the NHL suspended then-Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov indefinitely over a domestic violence incident involving his wife in California. Voynov pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of corporal injury to a spouse and spent almost two months in jail before returning to his native Russia to avoid deportation. He remains suspended to this day, though ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reports that he’s seeking reinstatement.
In November 2013, police in Denver charged Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov with misdemeanor assault over an incident involving his then-girlfriend, though the charges were dropped about a month later after prosecutors announced they could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The former girlfriend, Evgeniya Vavrinyuk, later filed a lawsuit against Varlamov for loss of income, injuries and humiliation, but in February 2016 a civil jury sided with the NHL player and awarded him $126,608 in damages over his legal costs.
The league did not suspend Varlamov in that case.
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