Khabi bull

Oiler goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin’s trial for the offence of “extreme” impaired driving was the talk of the town in Edmonton yesterday. Khabibulin, 37, may seem a little old to be horning in on the extreme sports craze, but that’s what Arizona charges you with when you’re caught going 70 in a 45 mph zone and you have a blood alcohol content of 0.16%. The Russian, pulled over in February, was found guilty late last week and was sentenced Tuesday to 30 days in jail, the mandatory minimum. He had the bad luck to be busted in Maricopa County, home to the demented Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his “tent city” justice.

Khabibulin’s lawyer immediately announced an appeal—which wrong-footed the Oilers, who are becoming notorious for their cluelessness about personnel matters. GM Steve Tambellini had announced after the verdict that “Both Nikolai and the Oilers organization recognize the severity of what has transpired”; despite having an observer in the courtroom, Tambellini obviously didn’t anticipate that Khabi would essentially say “Screw this, I’m not done fighting yet.”

Khabibulin’s arrest came shortly after a back surgery that curtailed his first season with the Oilers. Their Plan B was Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, who played as if the league had suddenly changed the size and shape of the goal behind him without warning, and this helped condemn the team to the last-place finish that netted them the draft rights to wunderkind Taylor Hall. Ordinarily a mass front-office bloodletting would follow such a catastrophe, but team owner Daryl Katz is averse to the notion, and the local excitement over the Hall pick has enabled his organization’s architects to benefit from, even thrive on, a perverse triumph. At one and the same time, they plead unforeseen difficulties—our ancient, injury-prone goalie got hurt! Who could see that coming?—while basking in Hall’s glow (and pricing the game tickets accordingly) as if it were part of the plan all along.

Khabibulin’s four-year $15M contract was widely criticized before the ink was dry. Its size and duration seemed incomprehensibly enormous in a buyer’s market for goaltender labour. It seems more so now, with the market having chased the starter for the reigning league champions off to Europe. And because of the rules regarding contracts signed with players over 35, Khabi can’t come completely off the Oiler salary cap in the event of retirement, injury, or even death. The possibilities for significant relief, assuming the team is interested at all, boil down to trade or contract annulment.

This array of facts has thrown Edmonton sportswriters into a bizarre maelstrom—one that is instructive, for nobody represents popular moral prejudices quite like a sportswriter; it is, as most of them see it, nine-tenths of their job. Tyler Dellow has already bombarded the lot with a daunting barrage of scorn, but I promised David Staples, the star investigative reporter who blogs about hockey for the Journal, that I would devote some particular attention to his piece reacting to the Khabi verdict. If nothing else, it’s a display of the infernal complexity of being a sports fan in the 21st century.

My own take is that Khabibulin richly deserves the jail sentence he is about to receive for his crimes. If he was taking lightly drinking and driving, jail will help end that dangerous line of thinking.

That said, even if the Oilers could void Khabibulin’s contract, the team would be wrong to do so.

An Arizona court will decide what debt Khabibulin rightly owes. His offence will be treated seriously and he will pay a hefty price. Afterwards he will be on probation and will likely face ongoing hassles crossing the border, as Derek Zona reports at Copper & Blue.

Isn’t that enough here?

All kinds of people have serious troubles in life not related to their job performance. Sometimes those problems are related to moral issues, sometimes to various addictions. Unless the circumstances of an offence are exceedingly grave, a man or woman shouldn’t lose his job because of such matters.

The two proposed avenues by which the Oilers might be able to squirrel out of Khabibulin’s contract are (1) the morals clause in the collective bargaining agreement and (2) any problems he might have appearing in Oiler games because of his jail time or border troubles. The goalie’s appeal has delayed the start of his jail term; he can abandon that appeal at any convenient moment, and reports indicate (remarkably enough) that he is eligible to leave the United States in the meantime. But it is not certain that he will be allowed to enter Canada, and it may not even be possible to obtain a definitive answer, given the wide discretion possessed by frontline Customs officials.

There is a huge ethical difference, a difference that Staples overlooks, between voiding Khabibulin’s contract on moral grounds and voiding it because he has missed work. The former is probably not practical even if it made any sense; morals clauses are rarely invoked and Staples is right when he says that “troubles…not related to…job performance” shouldn’t have any effect on how Khabibulin is treated by his employer. Professional sport is, by definition, an environment devoted as purely as possible to competition; it is, and exists to be, a place where victory is sacred and “character” is of value only as it relates to victory. (What’s more, the Edmonton pantheon is already pretty crowded with substance abusers.) But if Khabibulin has to disappear for 30 days in mid-season, or is unable to accompany the team on road trips, we certainly have a performance-relevant issue.

There is, at best, only circumstantial evidence that Khabibulin has an addiction problem per se. Nothing about his prolonged, unbending legal battle suggests humility or an acceptance of the need to seize an occasion for change. There are people who like to drink heavily (many of whom, as it happens, have ten-letter Russian surnames), and some of them are pretty irresponsible about it. They’re not necessarily alcoholics. You’ve probably known some of these people. And, after all, a drunk driver could get pulled over the first time he drinks, or for that matter the first time he drives.

But Staples thinks that getting caught driving drunk logically implies an illness and a need for treatment. Very well: if that were the case, then how could it be reasonable for Arizona to punish anyone for driving drunk, and in what sense could Khabibulin “richly deserve” a prison sentence that is purely a consequence of an illness? Why is Staples holding the Oilers—who have an essential moral obligation to the fans and their other players to put competitiveness first—to a higher standard of mercy than the state? He writes:

He didn’t throw any games here, so there’s no integrity of the game issue to consider. Nor did he intentionally harm another person.

Instead, he is a man with a serious enough drinking problem that he ended up in court and will soon be in jail.

A humane employer—and that’s what all employers, not just the Edmonton Oilers, should strive to be—will take reasonable steps to help such an individual try to deal with that problem before firing him.

It’s fatuous to observe that Khabibulin “didn’t intentionally harm another person”, since the whole crux of our social and legal approach to drunk driving is to treat it as ethically equivalent to the infliction of harm. It’s another argument that, if accepted as binding on the Oilers, makes it impossible to explain how or why Khabibulin “richly deserves” jail time.

As for the “humane employer” argument, what you make of it will depend partly on whether you see Khabibulin as a member of some warm, fuzzy social-democratic extended family, or as a contractor who has ruthlessly extracted an enormous fee for services he may not now be able to provide in full. Which view do the last five years of NHL activity suggest is the sensible one? Which view do the examples of Chris Pronger and Dany Heatley urge upon us? Either way, the argument is certainly much more convincing when an individual has sought help freely. The “drunk driving equals addiction problem” equation, unjustified by evidence or reason here, makes it impossible to take any ethical view of drunk driving at all; it turns it into a self-absolving offence, perhaps provided that the offender, once caught, is willing to make some rote declaration of contrition.

Khabi bull

  1. I'm always surprised when rich people get caught driving drunk. Hire a driver! (I know I'm making an assumption that Khabi hasn't pissed/drank his money away).

    That being said, it does irk me when people link drunk driving and addiction. Driving drunk is a choice. Many who are not alcoholics make that choice, and even if you are addicted, that doesn't make you drive.

    • "I know I'm making an assumption that Khabi hasn't pissed/drank his money away"

      If that's the case, he would first drank, then pissed his money away.

    • "I'm always surprised when rich people get caught driving drunk. Hire a driver! (I know I'm making an assumption that Khabi hasn't pissed/drank his money away). "

      Heh. I've often wondered that too. What I've heard is that athletes and actors are often leery of drivers witnessing their drunken and/or drug-addled behaviour. These drivers can later be subpoenaed as witnesses in a trial or bought by tabloid news outlets to spill the beans.

  2. Khabibulin, no alcohol problem. Thanks for that update.

    Who knew?

    Just a driving slip up, eh, not a booze problem, not at all. Just a 37-year-old man, twice the legal limit, twice the speed limit, and the court is wrong to be pushing addictions treatment, as is the namby pamby NHL and NHLPA with its mandated talk with the addictions doctor.

    Leave the guy be already.

    Except, of course, you can fire his ass if he misses one week of work because of this slip up.

    • Beware when Colby promises attention, David: that's the lesson here.

    • But, of course, he richly deserves to go to jail. Even though "he didn't intentionally harm another person."

      • I don't know about anyone else, but my snark-o-meter needle is hitting the red zone for both David Staples and for Colby. Assuming the meter is properly calibrated and accurate, Colby's (presumed by me) snark implies he doesn't believe jail time is warranted for impaired driving.

        I beg to differ with that (presumed) implication. He did not intentionally harm another person because he did not harm another person. But his conduct was criminally reckless, and deserves punishment. This is not a parking violation. This is not using a lawn sprinkler on Wednesday when his side of the street gets Tuesdays and Fridays. This is not a principled refusal to complete the long form census.

        • No, I think you've perhaps got Colby wrong. (recalibrartion may be in order)

          Colby's pointing out that in one section of Staples' column Staples says that Khabi richly deserves to go to jail, and then in another part of the column he says that it would be wrong to fire him, because, hey, it's not like he intentionally harmed another person.

          I'm not sure Colby actually comes down on either side of the "does he deserve to go to jail" argument, he's just reacting with snark to the seeming disconnect between "Khabibulin richly deserves the jail sentence he is about to receive" and "A humane employer… will take reasonable steps to help such an individual try to deal with that problem before firing him". Either the courts were inhumane for just throwing a jail sentence at him (in which case, the Oilers would also be inhumane for just firing his butt), or he "richly deserves" to get thrown in the clinker, in which case, aren't the Oilers perfectly justified in firing his butt? Doesn't he "richly deserve" that?

          I do see how there's actually a middle ground, and there's certainly a point to be made that what the justice system does to him doesn't necessarily dictate what his employers do to him, but I don't think Colby's at all implying that Khabi doesn't deserve to go to jail, simply that if he "richly deserves" being thrown in jail, he probably "richly deserves" getting fired too, so it makes little sense to relish his jail sentence while simultaneously arguing that his employers should treat him with kid gloves.

          • Fair enough. Thanks for the alternate interpretation. I will work at recalibrating the snark-o-meter this evening. Is Mercer on tonight?

          • The recalibration is correct. With the caveat that "getting fired", in this case, means "having to find work for perhaps $2.5M/yr instead of nearly $4M/yr".

    • "Just a driving slip up, eh, not a booze problem, not at all. Just a 37-year-old man, twice the legal limit, twice the speed limit"

      Being twice the legal limit while driving, and doing so at twice the speed limit aren't drinking problems they're driving problems. He wasn't arrested for a substance offense (like possession, say) he was arrested for a DRIVING offense. As Colby says, plenty of alcoholics don't drive drunk. Plenty of people who drive drunk aren't alcoholics. I've probably been twice the legal limit DOZENS of times (though I never drove in such a state). At what blood alcohol level am I considered to have an "alcohol problem"? If I hit that limit once, and never again, am I an alcoholic?

      And yes, firing a person for missing work makes infinitely more sense than forcing them into some sort of addiction program because they got drunk (though I think firing someone for breaking the law might be acceptable in a case like the NHL, where there are clearly morals clauses in their contracts). Maybe Khabi needs help. If so, I hope he gets help. Maybe he doesn't need help. FORCING help upon him seems pretty silly to me though. How many people have ever been cured of alcoholism because someone forced them to talk to a doctor against their will?

      • "FORCING help upon him seems pretty silly to me though. How many people have ever been cured of alcoholism because someone forced them to talk to a doctor against their will?"

        Excellent point. A major complaint from addictions counsellors who work in rehab centres is that people who are forced into rehab (court order, probation requirements, angry spouse, fed-up parents, etc.) are significantly more likely to go back to their old behaviour patterns than people who voluntarily check themselves into detox/rehab. However, people who are forced to undergo these kinds of things probably do benefit at least somewhat.

  3. Yes, Khabibulin deserves to go to jail, as he committed a crime. People go to jail all the time for crimes where intent can't be proven, but a wrong has still been done.

    • Isn't Cosh's point more that it's silly for you to say that he "richly deserves" to go to jail, while simultaneously arguing that it would be wrong to fire him for this mere "slip up"?

  4. He had the bad luck to be busted in Maricopa County, home to the demented Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his “tent city” justice.

    Seventy in a forty-five zone? Miles per hour? Point-one-six?

    He had the very good luck of not killing anybody, least of all (and I mean "least" completely literally) himself. The rest is just details.

  5. even here in the land of the 2010-11 Stanley Cup champion Vancouver Canucks….

    LOL

    Commentary on a "disgruntled, bitter Oilers fan" of today from a "disgruntled bitter Canucks fan" of tomorrow.

  6. So this is what a brawl looks like between two professional writers. hmm

    • Not to pile snark on top of snark, but to me, this feels less like a brawl and more like somebody beating up their little sister.

  7. Wow. Congratulations to the Canucks. Guess we won't need to play out the season, then…

    • In fact, as a Canuck fan, please don't play the season at all. I'll just bronze my copy of The Hockey News and we can all agree that the season was a darn good one.

  8. The Oiler Media maybe the stimulus behind the significant amount of Oiler BLOGS

    Here is my Robin Brownlee impression:

    LISTEN HERE KID, I HAVE BEEN GODAMN BUSINESS FOR 30 YEARS!!! (that would be the business of watching hockey games)

    • David Staples is a honest journalist though; I don't read his BLOG; but he is good journalist.

  9. There was a time when opinion-based journalism was considered sub-par, and real journalists were out in the field finding stories. A talented writer like yourself should think about that.

  10. JMac, you're out to lunch. Cosh wasn't espousing his ideal of sport, he was describing it as it really is. Your "league- and team-funded substance abuse counseling, second chances, community values, role modeling and all the rest" are PR wallpaper over the real biz. I understand that acknowledging all this would mean facing up to total identity crisis; maybe you should Get The Help You Need.

    • The "real biz," as you so presumptuously call it, is something you misapprehend and distort, and from a great distance, relying on third- and fourth-hand information. So, for that matter, does Cosh. His version of how "it really is" is a smug, vicious caricature, as it must be, since, like you, he has spent next to no time immersed in it.
      So, he's reduced to directing his withering gaze at reporters like Staples and others, deconstructing their work line by line, attacking their sentence structure, logic, syntax, on and on.
      It is true that pro sports can be a ruthless business, as you so helpfully suggest. But it's also a profoundly human milieu.
      But how would you or Cosh know that?

      • Hey, man… all I know about this profoundly human milieu is what you and your colleagues tell me, refracted through what I know of the reality of precious "access"… if that's third- or fourth-hand information, what's that say about you?

      • Indeed, how would David Staples know it? When it comes to this issue, and I think he'd agree with me here, he has no relevant claim to superior expertise or gnostic knowledge gained through "immersion" which would forbid criticism of his views or his logic. This is an open ethical debate on a public controversy involving mutually agreed facts; we're not arguing over how much Sudafed NHL players eat between periods. It's not at all relevant which one of us blogs about sports from a nicer basement, so spare us the obnoxious crypto-credentialism. I'm sure it is no more appetizing to Dave when it's used to defend him as it is when he's on the other end (as he has been).

      • All this from a "reporter" who, with all his colleagues and their combined access, immersion, etc., couldn't ever quite get to the bottom of the story of Chris Pronger leaving town.

        • Wait, we're assuming that's the actual sportswriter John MacKinnon up there and not some random internet commenter who thought it would be funny to use his name? I think I'll presume that that was just some crank without evidence to the contrary.

          An actual professional who gets paid to write for newspapers couldn't POSSIBLY have missed Cosh' point by such a wide margin. Or am I being naive?

          • You're being naive. As Colby notes in his piece, David doesn't actually cover the Oilers. I was counting the other day though and I think he's broken as many, if not more, stories about the Oilers in the past twenty years (breaking in the sense of reporting something that wasn't necessarily coming out, like Fuhr's coke problem) as s anyone who does cover the Oilers. MacKinnon's access seems to mostly provide the reader with the comfort of knowing he has a nice spot to watch the game.

          • It's more than assuming. I know it's an actual professional who gets paid to write for newspapers from how much space he takes up TELLING us about the superiority of their work, as opposed to SHOWING us the superiority of their work.

  11. Driving while drunk does not mean that one is an alcoholic however, it does mean that they have a PROBLEM. If alcohol alters one's decision making ability to the point that it allows them to CHOOSE to commit a crime, then there is obviously a problem…. a problem that treatment can fix.

    Life is about choices. We all know the risks involved in the choices we make. If you weigh those risks and choose to take them, and it has a negative result in your life, you have to choose to live with the consequences.

    He chose to drink and drive, knowing the risks involved, got caught, and now has to go to jail. If that jail time affects his ability to fullfil his contract then yes, it should be voided. Life is about choices. If he fixes his problem, maybe he can then sign a new contract with the team and start over fresh like normal people do.

  12. You can't fool us, burlivespipe – we know you're secretly praying for Khabibulin to flip his Ferrari and a case of Glenlivet to Luongo.

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