DENVER — When Alex Ovechkin smacked a 30-foot shot toward the net and Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov swallowed it whole, the crowd finally erupted, pleased with the home team’s third-period power-play stop. Chants of “Var-ly! Var-ly!” circled Pepsi Center.
In any other arena and in any other circumstances, it’s just another night of NHL action. But in addition to being one of the night’s top performers — not to mention one of the league’s best goaltenders this season — Varlamov, a former first-round draft pick by the Washington Capitals, is a player facing legal uncertainty. He’s continuing to play despite accusations that he beat his girlfriend, which have forced both Avalanche brass and the team’s fan base to wrestle with difficult questions, even as Colorado has raced to the best start in franchise history.
Avalanche Coach Patrick Roy made the decision last month to continue to play his goaltender, waiting for the investigation to run its course. For his part, Varlamov contends his innocence and is trying not to dwell on his off-ice troubles.
“Life is life. You got to stay focused on your job,” he said following Colorado’s 4-1 win over the Capitals on Sunday. “You got to stay focused on what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in life.”
Varlamov continues to mind the net with the support of his coaches and teammates — but to the consternation of some.
“You’d hope that organizations in position to influence a lot of people’s thinking would take a hard stand around that violence,” said Barbara Paradiso, the director of the Center and Program on Domestic Violence at the University of Colorado Denver. “There’s a little bit of disappointment that the Avalanche haven’t stepped up and said this is behavior that’s unbecoming.”
Varlamov, 25, was arrested on Oct. 30 after his girlfriend told police he kicked her to the ground and stomped on her chest. The woman, Evgeniya Vavrinyuk, has repeated her complaints in media interviews and said it wasn’t the first time the Russian-born goaltender abused her. The allegations have been of particular interest back in Russia, where Varlamov is expected to be a key figure in next year’s Olympics run — but also where the nuances of Colorado law might be particularly tough to parse.
The state passed a law in 1994 that calls on officers to make an arrest on domestic violence calls when they find probable cause. Varlamov spent the night in jail on suspicion of second-degree kidnapping and third-degree assault, but a prosecutor will ultimately decide whether there’s enough evidence to pursue charges.
“Just like anybody else who is arrested but not yet tried, they have the right to go back to work,” said Ellen Stein Wallace, the interim executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “If and when Varlamov is convicted, that’s the time we’d hope the Avs will use it as an opportunity to speak out against domestic violence and send a message that domestic violence will not be tolerated.”
In Roy’s first year as head coach, the Avalanche’s hot start — the team has won 14 of 17 games — had made waves across the league before the accusations surfaced. The Varlamov headlines have sparked lively discussions about the way athletes are treated, particularly among Avalanche faithful.
“What happened to innocent until proven guilty,” one fan posted on the team’s Facebook page. “For the court and lawyers to figure out, not the fans.”
“NONE of you know what happened that night,” said another. “I don’t either but if he did do the crime he should go to jail. If she’s lying she should be punished. The fact that he’s a great goalie should have no bearing on the situation.”
“Varly is our goalie and we gotta support him!! Go Avs Go!” said a third.
Varlamov has appeared in three games since the accusations surfaced, and most fans seem to support Roy’s decision to keep Varlamov in skates, says Cheryl Bradley, who runs the popular fan site MileHighHockey.com.
“People remained level-headed and had these conversations with an open mind. It did take a couple days, but I think in the end most people think it was a good thing they started him so quickly after the allegations and the team got back to a normal routine,” she said.
Bradley points out that this isn’t the first time Colorado hockey fans have had to explore domestic violence issues. Roy was similarly arrested during his playing days. Police took Roy into custody in October 2000 after responding to a 911 call at his home. Three days later he was back in net for the Avalanche, and three months later a judge dismissed the case.
While the investigation plays out, both past and current teammates have lined up to praise Varlamov, who was the 23rd overall pick in the 2006 draft and remained with Washington until the Caps traded him to Colorado following the 2010-11 season.
“I have nothing but good things to say about him,” said Washington left wing Jason Chimera.
The Avalanche has similarly rallied around its star goaltender. “We’re a family,” Roy said following Varlamov’s first game back. “We stick together.”
Said center Matt Duchene: “He’s a huge part of our team. He’s a great guy. We’re supporting him and it’s great to see the fans supporting him as well.”
Roy, the Hockey Hall of Fame member who also holds the title of vice president of hockey operations for the Avalanche, has stressed the importance of continuity. But last week, Varlamov posted his worst outing of the season, allowing five goals against Nashville. While fans murmured about whether their star goaltender was distracted, Varlamov, who has a 2.00 goals against average in his first 12 starts this season, bounced back in helping Colorado top the Caps on Sunday.
“I knew that he’s mentally strong,” said defenseman Jan Hejda. “He’s not a young kid anymore. He can handle the pressure.”
Barry Svrluga contributed to this report from Washington.