Jake Virtanen will look to find his way back onto an NHL roster this fall after signing a professional tryout contract with the Edmonton Oilers.
Virtanen has been out of the NHL since May of 2021 following sexual assault allegations. When the 2021 season ended the Vancouver Canucks bought out the remaining year of his contract.
While Virtanen received a not guilty verdict, a civil suit is still ongoing, and as advocates assert, a not guilty verdict does not explicitly clear Virtanen. Now, he is back within reach of the NHL despite the controversy his signing sparked.
Why Oilers signed Virtanen to a PTO
Last season, the 26-year-old forward played 36 games in the KHL with Spartak Moscow. Statistically, it was not a successful season as Virtanen collected only nine goals and 16 points. The Oilers, however, are hoping the 2014 sixth-overall draft pick can find the on-ice potential that followed him into the NHL during his first tenure. That hope has the Oilers’ staff defending their newest signing.
“You’ve gotta believe in the legal system, the jury found him not guilty,” Oilers general manager Ken Holland said.
Holland, however, did acknowledge the ongoing issues that are unresolved with Virtanen.
“I have to sort out the moral issue in my own mind over the next two weeks.”
In his 317 NHL games to date, Virtanen has 55 goals and 45 assists. It’s not the kind of scoring, especially given his output last season in the KHL, that screams of an upgrade for the Oilers. Edmonton returns a potent offence featuring Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, and another player with a history of allegations involving violence against women in Evander Kane, who the Oilers re-signed this offseason to a new four-year contract.
Holland most likely envisions Virtanen as a potential solution to Edmonton’s lack of depth at right wing. With a strong camp, and assuming Holland sorts out the "moral issue,” Virtanen could slot into a bottom-six checking role.
Jake Virtanen’s sexual assault case
Charged in January 2022 following an alleged 2017 assault at a hotel in downtown Vancouver, Virtanen received a not guilty verdict in late July. While the verdict ends the criminal case, the fact Virtanen ended up charged, demonstrating a prosecutor saw fit to lay charges, and went to trial, demonstrating the Crown believed there was a reasonable prospect of conviction based on the evidence provided by police, speaks to the controversial nature of Virtanen’s signing.
The plaintiff said during testimony that she repeatedly told Virtanen “no” and that she did not want to have sex with him before he pinned her to the hotel bed. Virtanen claimed the victim was an “enthusiastic participant” on the night in question.
In April 2021, news broke on the incident after the plaintiff posted her story to an Instagram account devoted to victims of sexual assault. Following five days of testimony at trial, a not guilty verdict was entered.
The case however, has moved to a civil suit between the parties.
With the severity of the alleged crimes, the issue has not disappeared from the courts, nor from the mind of advocates.
“It speaks to me that the Oilers are sending a message that they are taking the verdict at face value, regardless of what the allegations were — which were very, very serious,” said Mary Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton.
"It is sending a horrible message to our community of what they prioritize. They prioritize their chances of having a successful team over the horrible message of having someone on their team who's been accused of such a horrific crime."
Why people are upset with the move
During the trial, Virtanen’s lawyer Brock Martland was criticized for victim blaming after suggesting the plaintiff should have invented an excuse to not have sex with Virtanen, ignoring the issues of consent and violence involved.
“You didn’t invent an excuse to him, whether it’s ‘I have a yeast infection,’ ‘I’m menstruating,’ ‘I can’t.’ You didn’t come up with something?” Martland asked in front of the jury. The victim in the case responded by saying, "What more do you have to say? Do I have to write it out for him, saying ‘I’ve said no, I’m saying no?' I don’t know what else to do.”
Despite the courtroom actions, a not guilty verdict resulted, but as the legal world, and sexual assault advocates assert, not guilty verdicts do not unequivocally prove innocence. Innocence, by definition, means a crime was not committed. In the criminal justice system, however, a verdict of “not guilty” means the prosecution could not prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" a crime was committed.
As sexual assault advocates claim, cases and verdicts like Virtanen’s speak to why many victims do not immediately come forward.
“Unfortunately, what this trial and this verdict does is it confirms what so many victims are afraid of when they come forward,” said Angela Marie MacDougall, the executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver.
Due to the burden of proof placed on victims, taking cases such as Virtanen’s to civil suits, according to MacDougall, is one of the only pathways available for victims to receive justice and address sexual violence.
“I think if the criminal system is going to be a measure of justice, and we’re seeing that it’s not, then I think society is going to have to look for other ways to address sexualized violence because it continues unabated.”
While Virtanen was found not guilty, his innocence has remained in question. Now, whether he ends up on the Oilers will depend on his on-ice performance in training camp, and a moral decision for Holland.
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