Sexual Assault & the NHL: Jake Virtan

TW: Sexual Assault/Rape. I will not be sugarcoating it.

There’s no easing into this topic, so I’m just going to get it over with. In the past 24 hours, Canucks’ forward Jake Virtanen has been accused of a rape dating back to September 2017. Since then, he has been placed on leave while the Canucks and the NHL investigate this allegation.

While I err on the side of believing the victim, I’m not going to write a 500-word essay on why Virtanen is guilty of being a POS. I’m not going to jump to any conclusions. What I am going to do is give you the account of the victim, how hockey culture is partially to blame, and why you should care.

The Allegation

There’s an Instagram account that posts the stories of sexual assault victims anonymously. That account inspired another anonymous victim, now going by “Emily,” to come forward with her own account of an encounter with Jake Virtanen. (“Encounter” is a word I reluctantly use to avoid being sued for slander, as this account has not been proven.) Here is Emily’s full account.

It’s important for everyone to know and remember that rape isn’t always someone holding a knife to your throat. Rape can happen in a variety of ways. Rape happens whenever consent is coerced, taken back, or not given at all. The US Department of Justice defines rape as, “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

And let’s get something absolutely crystal clear: This is NOT “sexual misconduct.” This is, at least, sexual assault, if not rape. This isn’t a trivial matter and should not be spoken about with flowery words. Too many articles have addressed it incorrectly.

My Stance

Briefly, I want to give a little reasoning as to why I believe Emily. (Aside from that I believe all victims until concrete evidence proves otherwise.) Virtanen has a certain reputation off the ice. I don’t mean he’s going around raping girls left and right. But, from things I’ve read on social media about interactions with him, I’m of the impression he’s not one to take “no” for an answer. And I don’t mean social media in the last 48 hours, I mean tumblr posts from as far back as 2016. While those accounts were also anonymous, it speaks to a pattern of behavior when it is multiple stories with similar veins throughout.

Take a look at all the comments on Instagram saying they’re not surprised and mentioning his reputation around Vancouver.

How Hockey Culture Influences

I’ve been saying since I started writing here that hockey culture is what needs to change in order to grow the game. The comment section of any post about Jake Virtanen today is exactly what I’m talking about. There are keyboard cowards claiming this (anonymous, may I remind you) victim is just looking for fame and money. Some say there’s no way it could be true because they “just know”. Some just don’t believe her.

Tell me how those types of comments encourage real survivors of sexual assault to come forward. Tell me how accepting vulgar, degrading, and sexist remarks as “locker room talk” is welcoming to any woman interested in hockey. Those opinions and actions alienate a whole gender. You cannot dream of growing the game by cutting off 50% of your potential audience. It’s also incredibly immature to make a sport exclusive to other genders just because you want to feel superior.

That all being said, I have seen evidence of the change in culture that has happened just in the last 5 years. As many gross comments on Twitter and Instagram there were, there were also many positive comments. There were a lot acknowledging her coming forward with the story while also acknowledging “innocent until proven guilty” and while that may not be the most satisfying response to some people, it’s leaps and bounds above denying any allegations altogether. There were also many supportive comments for the survivor. It’s heartening, but there’s clearly more work to be done.

Why It Matters

The NHL is the only major sport without a sexual assault and domestic violence policy. So far, the Canucks have put him on leave to launch an investigation into the allegation, and the NHL is doing its own investigation as well. But there’s no precedent.

Back in 2015 when Patrick Kane was accused of sexual assault, the NHL chose not to suspend him. Obviously, these two instances are wildly different, so comparing the two is a little unfair. What I’m getting at, though, is that the NHL has had 6 years to write policy about player conduct in the context of sexual assault and domestic violence, and yet it still does not exist. So who’s to say that Kane got the benefit of the doubt as a superstar with a Stanley Cup while Virtanen is getting the short straw because he’s just average? And what happens when someone is found guilty of sexual assault or domestic violence?

The lack of policy sends the message that the League doesn’t care about what players do off the ice or how those players negatively impact those around them. It sends the message that the NHL doesn’t care about the safety of anyone other than its players, not even their significant others.

It comes back to growing the game. With the seemingly indifferent message this sends, how can women possibly want to be a part of a game when its largest organization doesn’t care about them? How can anyone condone this blase attitude when teaching kids what it means to be in the NHL? If the League waits until a situation like Ray Rice in the NFL, it means nothing but bad publicity for the game of hockey. The overwhelming majority of people don’t want their kids involved with a sport that seemingly overlooks violence outside of the arena.

Final Thoughts

I have a feeling that Virtanen will be out for the rest of the season. It will be months before we hear anything definitive, if this investigation, whether by the team, the NHL, or the police, is taken as seriously as Kane’s was. I hope it is. This is a microcosm of how society is dealing with sexual assault; it would behoove the NHL to handle it with poise and grace. It’s not just hockey fans who will be watching to see how things turn out.

In the meantime, it’s the NHL’s responsibility to create a policy on how to respond to these kinds of allegations. Only good can come from it.

For resources on sexual violence, please visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center or the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network.

-Heidi Thomas (@DamselOnDrums)

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Heidi Thomas

Washington Capitals fan, casual gamer, hiking enthusiast. Ask me about my Greyhound. I also wrote a book once.

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