When police step on the ice

What happens when life and sport meet in court?

15.05.2010
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Lanxess Arena Cologne  Germany

Referees are only the first line of discipline in cases of extreme on-ice violence. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images

MANNHEIM – The decision by police in Quebec a few days ago to press charges against Patrice Cormier for an alleged vicious hit to the head of an unsuspecting opponent, Mikael Tam, raises questions once again of when and why police step in and take action concerning events that take place on ice during a hockey game. But the incident, which occurred during a QMJHL game, has implications for all players in all leagues at all levels.

Cormier will be charged with assault causing injury as a consequence of his elbow to the head of Tam. He’ll appear in court this summer and faces up to 18 months in jail if convicted. The incident occurred on January 25, 2010, and Cormier was suspended for the balance of the season by the league.

So what would happen if a particularly egregious act of violence occurred on the ice during an IIHF World Championship game?

The first consideration is always the jurisdiction in which the incident occurred. “How the police and courts apply the law to events in a hockey game differ from country to country,” IIHF Council member Fred Meredith explained. “There have been some instances when a player who simply got into a fight during a game was charged. Most often, however, police will often await the outcome of disciplinary proceedings by the national association before deciding whether or not to take action.”

Legal action consists of two different considerations – criminal law and civil law. In criminal law, some incidents that occur in a game would be treated as a criminal assault if taking place on the street, but the law, Meredith explains, “has to consider that in taking part in a game, a player is deemed to accept a certain level of violence. That level is subject to interpretation by the courts but would not, I suggest, include a deliberate attempt to injure or possibly an action so reckless that the player should have been aware that his action was likely to cause injury.” In other words, what’s done on the streets is not the same as what’s done on ice.

“In civil law,” Meredith continues, “in considering whether or not to award damages, the court will go beyond the criteria in criminal law. It will consider that players owe a “duty of care” to one another and that a “reckless” or “negligent” act may constitute a breach of that “duty” to the extent that damages will be awarded, as was the case with Collett, a young British footballer who was awarded some 8 million Swiss francs for career-ending injuries.”

A player accepts some level of violence, to be sure, and he accepts the possibility of injury, but he does not accept actions that would lead to a career-ending injury.

So what would happen if a terrible assault took place during an IIHF game? “I would expect at the very least for the police to look at the incident,” Meredith suggested. “However, we are not in a position to interfere. It’s up to the local police to decide their involvement. I can say, though, that the number of incidents in which police have become involved is increasing every year. In Great Britain there have been several cases in football where players have been awarded millions of pounds in damages, and in rugby where attackers have had to serve time in jail.” If nothing else, one message should come through loud and clear to players and leagues everywhere. If the game cannot police itself, the law is proving more and more willing to do so.

Two factors come into play regarding this increase in legal activity. First, sports are now a high stakes arena in which billions are paid in salaries, TV rights, ticket prices, souvenirs, and so many other ancillary elements have made the global phenomenon of sports a valuable and powerful industry.

Second, the degree to which a player can be deemed to have breached his “duty of care” can be more easily proved in the modern world of multi-camera coverage of events. In other words, there’s nothing like solid video proof of an attack for the assailant to be convicted.

The victim also plays a significant role in the outcome of an act of violence. He can choose to do nothing, but if his career has been ended by an opponent’s violent actions he can pursue civil action in the country the attack occurred or even the opponent’s home country. Of course, to maximize the potential for success, he’ll also name the team of the attacker in any suit.

The IIHF can do very little. It holds several events only once a year and even if it suspends a player for life, that suspension carries no weight in the NHL, KHL, or any other league around the world.

Several provinces in Canada have charged players over the years. Ontario charged four members of the Philadelphia Flyers in the late 1970s, three of whom were convicted of assault (no jail time was involved). In 1988, Dino Ciccarelli spent a day in a Toronto jail for swinging his stick at the head of Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Richardson, and Marty McSorley was convicted in a Vancouver court for his stick assault on Donald Brashear. McSorley was convicted of assault with a weapon and given an 18-month conditional discharge.

Of course, the ongoing civil suit by Steve Moore against Todd Bertuzzi might well re-define the legal landscape of the NHL and violence in its games when that case finally goes to court.

In Europe, several incidents have also occurred. On October 31, 2000, in a Swiss league game, Kevin Miller attacked Andrew McKim from behind, ending McKim’s career. Miller was suspended just eight games and fined CHF 3,000. In September 2005, the District Court of Zurich later imposed a jail term of three months and an additional fine of CHF 10,000. A civil suit later saw Miller pay a much larger compensation as well.

Jim Boni was charged with unintentional manslaughter after an incident in which he slashed Miran Schrott during a Serie B game in Italy. It was not a vicious or dirty slash, nothing out of the ordinary, but Schrott fell to the ice and died. An epileptic, Schrott had passed out before in practice, so no one thought anything of the incident. No penalty was called even. Boni was sentenced to one year in jail, but he served no time.

The victim of an assault wants reimbursement for having his career ended, but fans also want justice. They want to know that if some hideous act of violence occurs before their eyes, the perpetrator will be severely punished.

The lingering result of many NHL incidents, for instance, is that players are not dealt with harshly enough. This has a major long-tern effect. When parents take their children to see a hockey game and witness something so bad that a player is carried off the ice on a stretcher – an all too familiar event these days – the family goes home and wants nothing to do with the game. Forgetting all legal and monetary concerns, putting an end to violence, and punishing such acts, is essential to the game’s growth and survival.

Meredith cannot recall any egregious act of violence in IIHF history, but the possibility always exists that one might occur. In this day and age, a player should think long and hard before attacking someone. He could wind up in jail, with an empty bank account, his career – as well as his opponent’s – over. Truly, it just isn’t worth it.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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