After 654 National Hockey League (NHL) games split among the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes, Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota Wild, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Colorado Avalanche, three days in jail, one terminated contract from July 2023, and approximately 40 days in the NHL Player Assistance Program, American-born forward Alex Galchenyuk has signed a two-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). With his move to Europe, a unique chapter of sports law (as applied to hockey) appears to have concluded. Regardless as to whether or not this represents “game over,” let’s take a Conduct Detrimental-style skate through the last two months of Galchenyuk’s NHL tenure, some past examples of NHL jurisprudence, and what might happen going forward.
On July 1, 2023, Galchenyuk became an unrestricted free agent. He signed a one-year, $775,000 (seven hundred seventy-five thousand dollars) contract with the Arizona Coyotes, with whom he was projected to play for the third separate time in his career. On July 9, Galchenyuk was arrested for a drunken hit-and-run causing property damage in Scottsdale, Arizona. At that stop, Galchenyuk invoked racial slurs towards one Black police officer on the scene, and threatened another police officer by stating that “One phone call and you’re all dead, your whole family, your bloodline is dead.” On July 14 (approximately two weeks after signing), the Coyotes announced that they placed Galchenyuk on unconditional waivers for terminating his contract. On July 18, Galchenyuk published an open letter on social media, apologizing for his behavior and announcing his enrollment in the NHL Player Assistance Program.
On August 12, Galchenyuk pled guilty to one misdemeanor charge of threatening a police officer, but the other charges against him (private property hit-and-run, disorderly conduct, failure to obey, resisting arrest) were dropped. Pursuant to the guilty plea, Galchenyuk was sentenced to 30 days in jail–3 days of time served, and the remainder suspended on the condition of successfully completing an alcohol recovery program, as well as one year with neither consuming nor possessing alcohol. Finally, on August 25, Galchenyuk signed his current contract in the KHL.
As a preliminary matter, when the Coyotes terminated Galchenyuk’s NHL contract, there were some rumblings that the NHLPA planned to investigate this maneuver. Even though teams have previously placed players on unconditional waivers for terminating contracts on numerous other occasions, contracts are usually terminated upon mutual agreement. A small minority of contracts have been terminated due to heinous off-ice conduct (and presumably without the player’s consent), but this Galchenyuk situation appears to be the first time that a NHL team terminated a contract before the player played any games under that contract.
Under similar circumstances, in May 2020 (during the indefinite suspension of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the Washington Capitals terminated the contract of Brendan Leipsic. He had played 61 games for the Capitals during the 2019-20 season, pursuant to his one-year contract that he had signed with the Capitals. Like Galchenyuk, Leipsic’s contract was terminated for off-ice behavior (for Leipsic, when social media direct messages were leaked, revealing disparaging comments towards women), but unlike Galchenyuk, Leipsic had played some games during the course of the contract.
By contrast, in October 2015, Montreal Canadiens forward Zack Kassian was hospitalized for nose and foot fractures obtained while riding as a passenger in his own truck, crashed by another person driving the truck. Kassian later admitted that he was intoxicated with alcohol and cocaine prior to the car crash. As of Kassian’s car crash, he had participated in preseason games with the Montreal Canadiens, but the regular season had not yet started. Under terms of the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, Kassian would not have been eligible to have been placed on waivers while injured; instead, Kassian immediately enrolled in the NHL Player Assistance Program. Upon Kassian’s completion of criteria and his getting cleared to play, he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers. Like Galchenyuk, Kassian entered the NHL Player Assistance Program shortly after infamous conduct, but unlike Galchenyuk, Kassian never had his contract terminated due to that specific conduct.
Assuming Alex Galchenyuk has any remaining future in the NHL, what might it look like? One fair analogy might be of former Los Angeles Kings defenseman Vyacheslav “Slava” Voynov. On October 20, 2014, he was arrested for domestic violence against his wife, Marta Varlamova. He was immediately placed on indefinite suspension with pay while his case developed. In July 2015, Voynov pled no lo contendere a reduced misdemeanor charge, for which he was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years of probation. In September 2015, Voynov was transferred to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. Instead of undergoing deportation proceedings, Voynov elected to return to his home country of Russia, where he continues to play in the KHL. The remainder of his NHL contract was terminated due to the impossibility of Voynov being able to secure a work visa. Meanwhile, the NHL determined that Voynov was unable to play for Team Russia in their international tournament, the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. After an arbitrator’s final decision in 2019, Voynov became eligible to play in the NHL in 2020, but there has been no indication that Voynov will attempt to return to the NHL.
Between Voynov and Galchenyuk, one crucial difference is that because Galchenyuk is a natural-born citizen of the United States, he cannot be deported from the United States. As such, it is not “impossible” for Galchenyuk to perform services under a NHL contract, in the way that it was impossible for Voynov to do the same. That being said, it is fair to assume that if Galchenyuk should attempt to rejoin the NHL, he would have to (1) sign a standard player contract, (2) serve an unpaid suspension while undergoing treatment in the NHL Player Assistance Program, which he entered on July 18, 2023, but which he has presumably not completed since accepting employment in the KHL, and (3) undergo NHL discipline once cleared to play after completing the Player Assistance Program. Similarly, assuming that a WCOH takes place in 2024 as planned, Galchenyuk (who would be under contract for SKA St. Petersburg by that time) would likely be deemed ineligible for Team USA in that tournament.
Mike Engle is an associate attorney for the United States federal government. During his time at Hofstra Law School in New York, his articles were published in the Hofstra Labor & Employment Law Journal and the DePaul Journal of Sports Law & Contemporary Problems. He was also an invited guest on the now-defunct vlog Law and Batting Order.
Mike resides in Upstate New York with his wife, Gillian, and their daughter, Esther. Interact with him on Twitter @EngleLaw29, but only during off-duty hours and preferably not during Montreal Canadiens games!
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