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.