By David D. Dodge
Following a recent meeting of the National Hockey League (NHL) Board of Governors, League Commissioner Gary Bettman announced new steps are being taken to combat “inappropriate, unlawful, or demonstrably abusive” behavior in the sport. This announcement came in the wake of recent incidents and revelations regarding alleged abusive behavior engaged in by certain coaches. Bettman noted that the Board of Governors was fully supportive of the League’s plans to develop a program to combat abusive behavior and the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) is a committed and willing participant.
According to Bettman’s statement, under the new rules, teams must report any troubling conduct occurring on or off the ice immediately or face “severe discipline.” The Commissioner went on to state “there will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us and in the event of such failure, the Club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline.”
The Commissioner said the League will establish a “mandatory annual training program on counseling, consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion that must be attended by all NHL coaches, assistants, general managers, and assistant general managers as well as minor league coaches under contract with an NHL team.” Bettman also said the League will work with an external organization to create the program and that the NHLPA and the NHL Coaches’ Association will be consulted. The Commissioner further reported on plans to establish a hotline to allow misconduct to be reported to the NHL anonymously when necessary. In that regard, Bettman said the League “understands the critical importance of ensuring that no one is retaliated against for raising a concern or participating in an investigation.” He further stated, “I guarantee we will take all reports seriously and follow-up.”
Under the League’s new program, reportedly any incident of inappropriate conduct will be met with discipline by either the team, the League, or both.
While the NHL’s plans to develop a program to combat abusive behavior within its ranks does not resemble a formal, comprehensive, compliance and ethics program, it could serve as the foundation for such a program. More formal programs have proven effective on countless occasions in preventing misconduct, wrongdoing, and scandals in other businesses and industries. Further, while most sports organizations have not yet established such programs, it is apparent that many are beginning to implement various components such as: 1) training programs to educate their personnel; 2) hotlines to enable individuals to report misconduct and wrongdoing; and 3) policies and procedures to protect whistle-blowers.
The below checklist could be useful for the NHL in establishing the new program, and could also be expanded to address all areas of compliance risk for the League beyond simply abusive behavior:
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Getting Started
- What keeps me up at night?
- What wrongdoing or misconduct have I observed or heard about within the NHL that I hope will not happen again?
- What could happen that would embarrass the NHL or cost me my job?
CODE OF CONDUCT
- Does our Code of Conduct make clear expectations of all NHL personnel?
- Does our Code of Conduct reflect our values and specify behavior that is unacceptable?
- Is our Code of Conduct written plainly and concisely so everyone can understand our expectations?
- Do our covered individuals attest in writing that they have received, read, and understood the Code of Conduct?
- When was the last time we updated our Code of Conduct?
POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
- Do we have a non-retribution/non-retaliation policy assuring our personnel that they will be protected to the extent possible if they report instances of misconduct, wrongdoing, or other related issues?
- Do we have any other policies related to misconduct, wrongdoing or abusive behavior?
DIVERSITY, INCLUSION, COMPLIANCE AND ETHICS OFFICER
- Have we designated an individual to head-up this program?
- Would this person have the respect of everyone in the NHL?
- Would this person report directly to the NHL Commissioner?
- Would this person have direct access to the Board of Governors?
EDUCATION AND TRAINING
- Does the NHL have the resources to conduct education and training of all personnel including online training?
- How will we make sure our personnel are aware of the opportunities to report instances of misconduct, wrongdoing, and abusive behavior?
- Will we establish an in-house hotline or outsource the hotline?
- Who will conduct unbiased investigations?
- How will we assure that our investigations will protect confidentiality, whenever possible, of those reporting misconduct, wrongdoing, or abusive behavior?
- How will we assure that corrective or disciplinary action will be administered consistently throughout the NHL?
- How will the NHL assess the effectiveness of the program?
The NHL Board of Governors and the Commissioner should be congratulated on their leadership and commitment to establishing a program designed to prevent misconduct, wrongdoing, and abusive behavior within the League. However, taking the extra step now to address all areas of compliance risk through the development of an effective, broadly-based preventive program would be even more beneficial in ensuring that the League consistently operates in an ethical and scandal-free environment.