The NHL announced Thursday that Nashville Predators winger Austin Watson has been handed a 27-game suspension, as well as being banned for the entire pre-season, for “unacceptable off-ice conduct.”
The suspension comes after a league investigation into an off-season incident involving Watson and his girlfriend. In June, the 26-year-old was arrested at a gas station outside Nashville after having allegedly struck his girlfriend. Watson was subsequently charged with misdemeanor domestic assault, to which he entered a no contest plea in late-July, resulting in three months’ probation, 26 weeks of a batterer intervention course, a treatment program for drugs and alcohol and a promise to maintain peaceful contact with his girlfriend.
The NHL announced they had opened an investigation into the matter in light of Watson’s no contest plea, which culminated with an in-person hearing with league officials last week in New York and the suspension handed down by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Wednesday.
"I have determined that Nashville Player Austin Watson engaged in a physical confrontation with his domestic partner," Bettman said in a statement. "Today's ruling, while tailored to the specific facts of this case and the individuals involved, is necessary and consistent with the NHL's strongly held view that it cannot and will not tolerate this and similar types of conduct.”
Watson’s suspension, which will sideline him for one-third of the coming campaign, is without pay and will see him forfeit $362,195 of the $1.1 million salary he was due to earn in the 2018-19 season. The money will be deposited into the NHL Players' Emergency Assistance Fund.
Upon the 27-game ban being handed down by the league, the Predators released a statement, acknowledging that they have “supported and worked closely with the National Hockey League investigation” regarding Watson. The team also expressed that they would offer support to Watson, his girlfriend and their child.
“During his suspension, we wish Austin, Jenn and their baby the best as they take the necessary steps to move forward, with the support of the Nashville Predators, the NHL, the NHLPA, and all the collective resources they can provide,” the Predators said in a statement. “Our commitment to AMEND is the same today as it was when we partnered six years ago with the mission of making Nashville the safest city for girls and women. We will continue to evolve and grow our programming to work toward this shared objective.”
AMEND Together is a program “dedicated to ending violence against women and girls by engaging and educating men and boys” that is run by YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee and has been associated with the Predators for several seasons. In January 2017, Watson, along with P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and former Nashville captain Mike Fisher, took part in an AMEND campaign called “Unsilence the Violence.”
Following the suspension, the NHLPA released a brief statement in which they announced they would be filing an appeal on Watson’s behalf. Watson is entitled to an appeal according to section 18-A of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which pertains to commissioner discipline for off-ice conduct. Per the CBA, the appeal will be heard to determine that the suspension was “supported by substantial evidence and was not unreasonable based on the following considerations: (i) the facts and circumstances surrounding the conduct at issue; (ii) whether the penalty was proportionate to the gravity of the offense; and (iii) the legitimate interests of both the Player and the League.” A neutral arbitrator will hear Watson’s appeal.
Last season, Watson scored a career-high 14 goals and 19 points with an average ice time of 12:20 per game. He added another five goals and eight points in 13 post-season games while seeing an increase in ice time to 14:25 per outing. Signed to a three-year, $3.3-million contract in July 2017, Watson has two seasons remaining on his current pact.
If the suspension is upheld following an appeal, Watson will not be eligible to return to the Predators’ lineup until Dec. 3, when Nashville visits the Buffalo Sabres.