It’s a story with no end in sight.
When a violent act in hockey occurs, players, critics and experts alike point to a broken culture that leads to excessive – and unnecessary – violence.
Each side gives their points, some more passionate than others, but it eventually subsides, with the same groups digging in once again for future arguments.
Too often, they’re far from home with no vested interest at the local level, but when it hits home, it can take on a different tone.
In a January 2013 midget A minor hockey game between the Woodstock Jr. Navy Vets and the Brantford 99ers, a Woodstock player chipped the puck in towards the goalie near the end of an emotional regular season game. After the goalie gloved the puck, it appeared the Woodstock player snowed the goalie and, within seconds, that player’s helmet had been ripped off by a Brantford player and he’d been sucker punched more than 10 times, resulting in a suspected concussion, a broken nose, cuts and bruises.
The immediate reaction drew attention from local and national media, with the story first getting out via CBC’s Go Public and reaching the editorial pages of The Toronto Star, The National Post, The Globe and Mail, The London Free Press and other places, such as TSN Radio and CTV. After an ensuing police investigation and a large amount of public attention, the Brantford player was charged with assault causing bodily harm in June 2013, with the case going to trial in January 2015.
The Brantford player, who can’t be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, was sentenced Wednesday to 60 hours of community service and also received a discharge, meaning he’ll have no criminal record. When the guilty verdict was given in March, Justice M. Edward Graham was quoted as saying it wasn’t a trial about hockey or fighting in the sport. He described the incident as an “intentional retaliatory attack” that was “outside of accepted standards of which the game was played.”
“(The Brantford player) must have known in his conduct was inherently dangerous,” Graham said at the March 25 ruling.
With hockey being an institution in Canada, many people had opinions on the case, but an continuing theme had people questioning the culture of accepted violence and whether or not changes were needed. While this case alone won’t alter the culture of game, it’s a further example of the gradual shifting of hockey culture.
No longer, or at least not as often, are people looking at such violent instances with a “boys-will-be-boys” attitude.
Now, as with this case and several before it, the legal system is becoming involved and, when hockey organizations can’t distinguish right from wrong, the law is stepping in.
Western University law professor Richard McLaren, who specializes in sports law and has served on cases involving the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and the International Olympic Committee, said in a Skype interview from Lausanne, Switzerland, that it’s rare for the courts to intervene. Normally, he said, they prefer to leave it to the club and the league to dole out punishment, except in extreme circumstances.
“When you participate in a sport with body contact like hockey, there’s a certain leniency in terms of what constitutes an assault,” he said of the local case. “It’s only if the conduct crosses the line…then the courts can intervene.
“Players consent to a certain amount of physical activity like pushing and fights as opposed to a fight on the street that you don’t consent to. That’s the difference between the general public and the consent in a hockey rink. There’s a certain consent to give a licence that would otherwise be an assault that wouldn’t be given the nature of the sport.”
McLaren added the case involving the Woodstock and Brantford players could be cited in other similar future cases.
One such case cited in the court documents involving the Woodstock and Brantford players was R v. S.R.H. in 2011 in Edmonton, Alta. A Leduc player speared an Edmonton player -both were 16 -in a minor hockey game. The Edmonton player suffered ruptured bowels that led to surgery and 17 days in the hospital. The Leduc player was eventually sentenced to a six-month conditional discharge, 50 community service hours at a hospital, a $1,000 donation to a children’s hospital and a written apology to the victim.
Following that verdict, the father of the victim in R v.S.R.H., issued a statement similar to the father of the victim in the case involving the Woodstock and Brantford players.
“Attitudes will change slowly and I think this is a piece of the puzzle,” the father of the Woodstock player told a Sentinel-Review reporter Wednesday after the sentencing, adding the guilty verdict was a “strong enough message that that type of behaviour is unacceptable.”
Though there’s inevitably bound to be some lessons learned from the case and another rung of the ladder climbed in changing aspects of hockey culture, Western University’s Ron Watson, a professor of kinesiology and who teaches a course on sport and the law, said external factors need to play a role if there’s going to be serious change in violence in hockey.
“Zero impact, would be my opinion,” he said of the possibility of change resulting from the local case.
While the number of these type of cases have increased in sports it hasn’t become a deterrent, he added.
“The presumption is everyone will know about it and the decision, but the reality is the incident usually arises from an emotional response to something that happens in the game, with the exception of strategic fighting or attacks like (Todd) Bertuzzi or (Marty) McSorley. It’s usually an emotional response.”
Watson, who coached the Western’s men’s hockey team from 1965 to 1985, suggested little would change until the legal and medical communities became further involved, more public pressure was added, and provincial and federal legislators become more concerned.
“Those are the three agents to bring about change, so in the context of individual court cases, I don’t think it will bring about change, however, until the judicial and the legal professionals start to present a strong voice about changing the nature of the game it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Watson compared it to more than a decade ago, when spinal injuries from checks from behind were becoming an epidemic in minor hockey. Now, those same injuries are almost out of the game.
“We were getting 14 or 15 serious injuries a year (from checking from behind). Once the medical community started speaking out publicly and presented to the hockey organizations, change happened quickly. The rules changed and the legal community, in two cases where there was quadriplegia involved, took away the consent defence,” Watson said. “You cannot under any circumstances consent to being checked from behind in close proximity to the boards. They really narrowed it and those are two agents at an important level that have brought about change.”
It would be convenient to be able to use a crystal ball and see what type of aftermath the local case will ultimately have, but it’s a wait-and-see approach. Though it’s a game of time, there’s little debating that, had it happened only 15 or 20 years ago, the chances of it entering the legal system would’ve been slim at best.
For now, the result from the case is another sign of a progress in attitudes in hockey accepting the possibility of change in the sport.
For each moment that an incident such as this happens, there’s also an opportunity to fix what’s broken.
Kevin Wamsley, a Western University professor of kinesiology who conducts research on subjects including Canadian sport history, violence and masculinity, wrote in an e-mail the verdict was “a step in the right direction of removing violence from hockey.”
He also wrote the case can be used as a precedent moving forward and, as more cases like this one result in charges, a culture shift is inevitable, adding “hockey will get there – it will just take time.”
With hockey more expensive than ever and children having more sporting options, it’ll be less likely to be the first choice of sport for families and fall behind if the sport refuses to change aspects of its culture of accepting extreme violence.
Peter Jaffe, the director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, said more education is needed to provide players the ability to distinguish right from wrong without relying on violence if the sport’s going to change.
“With boys, and I have four sons, one of them loves to play hockey, with boys you’re keeping them to control their emotions and find alternatives,” he noted. “You’re not teaching them to beat up each other, so self-regulation is critical and that’s what you want. You want players to skate away from those incidents (that can become violent).”
Jaffe, a professor of education at Western University, said the change is gradual -and one that needs to start from the top down, beginning with the NHL.
“I think attitudes are changing. It doesn’t happen overnight, and there’s so many different factors. Concussions are a factor. You don’t have to be a neurosurgeon to know a punch to the brain is bad. We spend all our time worrying about checks from behind and a punch is no different. The day of Don Cherry and other dinosaurs trying to justify fighting is over. It filters down, but it takes time.”
While it’s unlikely any major changes will result from the case, there’s bound to be one coach at some level that begins teaching a measured response rather than an emotional one. Though it may take time, and is likely to draw the ire of some hockey fanatics, the legal system is showing it will get involved when necessary.
In past interviews with the Sentinel- Review, Hockey Alliance president Tony Martindale, which both Woodstock and Brantford minor hockey associations belong, expressed an openness to change in confronting violence in hockey culture.
“When I played, the norm was intimidation as a tactic, and that’s the type of thing I think is changing and we need to stress that as an educational component,” he said in a June 2013 interview. “We have rules that didn’t exist before, but now do to get rid of unnecessary penalties like head contact or fighting to keep the game safe.
“I don’t believe (violence is) part of the game. I think it has been our responsibility as administrators to keep the game safe. In this instance, I don’t think it was totally done.”
It may not be the same game your grandparents or your parents watched -or even the one 20-year olds grew up on -but it’s changing with an emphasis on talent rather than brawling. As the culture changes at the top and creeps its way down into minor hockey, hockey will ultimately be the better for it.