Wednesday, June 30, 2010

From Cross-Checking To A Crime: When Is Violence In Hockey Criminal

With recent criminal charges pressed against Patrice Cormier for his hit on Michael Tam that sent Tam into convulsions on the ice, the issue has come up again - when is violence in hockey criminal.

Let's first look back at some notable incidents over the past 20 years.

1988 - Dino Ciccarelli repeatedly hits Leafs rookie defenceman Luke Richardson with his stick around the neck and head area. Charged and convicted of assault, he was sentenced to one day in jail and fined $1,000. Richardson goes on to play in 20 NHL seasons.

Watch it here -

2000 - Marty McSorley of the Boston Bruins hits Vancouver Canuck Donald Brashear in the head with his stick from behind as the game comes to a close and after losing a fight to Brashear earlier in the game. Brashear falls backward hitting his head hard on the ice. Brashear loses consciousness and suffers grade 3 concussion. McSorley is charged with assault and is suspended by the NHL for the remainder of the 1999–2000 season missing 23 games. McSorley is found guilty of assault for his attack on Brashear and gets a conditional discharge. McSorley never plays in the NHL again.

2004 - After repeated failed attempts to instigate a fight, Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks punches Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche in the back of the head, knocking Moore unconscious. The pair fall to the ice with Bertuzzi’s weight crushing Moore face-first into the ice. Moore sustains three fractured vertebrae, a grade three concussion, vertebral ligament damage and facial lacerations. Bertuzzi pleads guilty to assault causing bodily harm and as part of his plea deal, gets a conditional discharge. No jail time, no record. Six years later, Bertuzzi looks to extend his contract with the Red Wings. Moore won’t play hockey ever again.

2004 - Alexander Perezhogin clubs Garrett Stafford in the head with his stick. The blow knocks Stafford to the ice unconscious in convulsions, and results in twenty stitches, the loss of teeth and a concussion. Perezhogin pleads guilty to assault and gets a conditional discharge as part of a plea deal.

2007 - Chris Simon of the Islanders strikes Ryan Hollweg in the face with his hockey stick. Simon receives a match penalty for attempt to injure, resulting in his ejection from the game. Hollweg suffers a cut to the chin that requires two stitches. The Nassau County district attorney decides not to press charges. Simon says there is no place in hockey for what he did.

2008 - Backup goalie turned backup singer Jonathan Roy charges down the ice and beats up an unwilling Bobby Nadeau, goalie for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens . He then fights another player, and then while escorted off the ice expresses his displeasure for the crowd by way of sign language. Roy is charged with assault in connection with his fight with Nadeau, pleads guilty and gets a conditional discharge. In his press conference, he apologizes for his gesture to the crowd but does not apologize for attacking Nadeau.

2010 - Forward Patrice Cormier of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies comes off the bench and makes a bee-line for Quebec Ramparts Michael Tam. Cormier elbows Tam in the jaw sending him into convulsions on the ice. Cormier was charged with assault. Tam was back playing hockey a month later and subsequently suspending 2 games for boarding.

Violence in hockey is as old as the game itself. In 1927, three Ottawa Senator players were charged with assault after a stick swinging incident involving some Montreal Wanderer players.

The recent case of Cormier has reopened discussions as to when a hit on the ice should be considered a crime.

Looking at criminal assault is helpful to understand the issue.

In order to establish the crime of assault, you need to show 2 things: (1) an intention to harm, and (2) the victim didn’t consent to that harm.

In hockey, when you step on the ice, you consent to some form of bodily contact and harm, and the risk of injury that flows from that. This is because hockey is understood to be a violent game. Players consent to harm that is incidental to the game but not to acts that are so clearly outside the scope of what is acceptable in the game. So Marian Hossa’s devastating high stick on Bryan Berard or Andy Sutton sending Jordan Leopold airborne are ok; Bertuzzi on Moore may not be ok though.

So in some cases when a player jumps on the ice and intentionally injures another player, and where the harm is overly aggressive, it could be said that the harmed player did not consent to the harm.

It follows then that it is possible that a crime has been committed on the ice.

In the case of the Cormier hit on Tam, some believed that Cormier intentionally hurt Tam (he was headhunting). The hit on Tam was considered so bad that, in the view of some, Tam could not be seen as having consented to it. What followed then was the charge of assault.

Some may say the hit happened pretty fast and it wasn’t as bad as some other stuff we’ve seen on the ice (like Bertuzzi for example or even some ‘fair’ hits). That is a good point. It is important to remember that the intent to injure component is really important when it comes to assault though.

Did Cormier intend to injure Tam? That’s always a critical question when determining whether a crime has occurred.

What do you think? Where does the Cormier hit fall along the spectrum of hockey hits? Was it a crime or was it just a part of hockey? What about the Roy fight – was that a crime?

Let us know what you think by leaving your comments - just click on "comments" below.


Anonymous said...

Agree with the analysis. Old enough (just) to remember Wayne Maki and Ted Green. Just because you play -- and I do still play -- doesn't mean you agree to get sucker-punched (or sucker-elbowed, I suppose), or harpooned, or beaten with a stick, or nailed violently from behind. Hence Dino, Bertuzzi, McSorley, Simon & Perezhogin were all rightfully charged and convicted. So I'd say ditto for Cormier, and even Roy, as the other keeper didn't want to dance. If it is a usual or ordinary play that goes a bit too far, then the hockey penalties take care of the situation even if injury sometimes results -- like any tough game, you do have expect it and be aware of that possibility.

Anonymous said...

I think that there are actually three elements to assault. Like you said, there has to be an intent to harm, and the victim didn't consent to that harm. The implied third element is that there is an actual harm. If I swing my stick at someone so hard that when it hits the ice it shatters, but no one is hurt, no one is going to accuse me of assault, even though my intent to harm is clear. Every case where an assult charge was brought was a case where there was not just a harm but an extreme and egregious harm and an extreme and egregious intent to harm. Without both of those, it's hard to think of an ordinary hit as an assault. For example, when Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theisman's leg or when Scott Stevens laid out Lindros, no one thought it was an assault, because it was clearly part of the game and accidental. And if Moore gets up from the Bertuzzi hit and skates to the bench, woozy but okay, maybe out a couple games with a concussion, no one thinks it's assault, even though the intent was clear (maybe Bertuzzi even gets a game misconduct and is even suspended for a game or two). Although it's wrong to make a decision based on consequences, I think that's what happens, and that the severity of the injury helps to determine consent. Did Moore consent to being hit so hard that he could suffer a concussion? Yes. Did he consent to being hit so hard that he broke his back and couldn't play hockey again? No way. But Bertuzzi's intent (I'm gonna hurt that guy!!!) is the same in either case.

Anonymous said...

Good analysis.
The Roy incident to me was the most egregious act. He skated across the ice and engaged into a fight with an opponent who was clearly not involved with the play. He might as well have hit a player sitting on the bench or a fan. No difference. I would have liked to see Roy with a criminal record.

Remo Williams said...

Finally a blog with interesting subject-matter! Solid analysis.

Lu said...

nice thoughts here Eric. the level of respect in Hockey has diminished to the point of debating whether or not some hits are deemed criminal acts. once again, another arguement to eliminate the "instigator" rule and bring some respect back between players. Keep these good topics coming.. but more importantly, why was Theo always so clueless on the Cosby show?

Anonymous said...

Love this analysis. Even when these incidents result in charges there is rarely, if ever, any consequences to the charges. Often a conditional discharge and often no criminal record. Hardly a deterrent. The real consequences are left to be settled by the victim's own lawsuit for damages. But I don't hear about successful outcomes of these either. One can get hurt playing hockey, no question ... but when it's a Bertuzzi sucker punch that ends a guys career it seems fair that he should have to payout some cash.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic. Problem is that professional men's hockey - like most professional men's sports - is so intertwined with projecting a macho image that the players themselves probably aren't going to protest for fear of appearing weak. But for the good of the sport, the refs and league should impose stiffer penalties, especially if the injury is clearly intentional. Has anyone ever been suspended for an entire season?

Anonymous said...

Great blog Eric. I love the analysis and the examples you have used. This has always been part of the game. I'm not saying I condone it, but the players have tended to police themselves (or at least before the instigator rule) now the players are stronger, faster -and based on that- can really seriously injure each other. It's like comparing Eddie Shore to Scott Stevens. I think the impact of the media can't be understated as well. These types of hits are big news, they are shown over and over again, I still think of Tam going into convulsions on the was tough to watch. Some day and some day soon, somebody is going to get a lengthy jail sentence.

Anonymous said...

GREAT STUFF! nice insight on interesting topics

Eric Macramalla said...

On whether a player has been suspended for the entire season, the OHL suspended Erie Otters forward Michael Liambas for the entire season after a hit that left his Ben Fanelli with serious head injuries. Cormier also got the rest of the season and playoffs.

In 1975, Dan Maloney of the Detroit Red Wings was charged with assault causing bodily harm after he attacked Brian Glennie of the Toronto Maple Leafs from behind. In exchange for a no-contest plea, Maloney did community service work and was banned from playing in Toronto for two seasons.

As for why Theo Huxtable was clueless - I think it made for good comedy. Always fun to watch father/son dynamic play out.

Ken said...

Good blog. The last thing we need in sport are criminal charges and judges deciding on punishment. Do hockey and football players intend to hurt each other when they hammer the other guy into the boards or the turf? Of course they do. I have never heard of a gentle, pain free, body-check. Do these players consent ahead of time to this physical play by stepping onto the field or the ice? Yes. Do players consent to an elbow in the head or a crack-back block? No. Does that mean there should be charges laid for every elbow to the head or crack-back block? Of course not. That is why there are penalties and suspensions. I do think the leagues, particularly the NHL, need to hand out longer suspensions where the foul leads to injury and where the player is a repeat offender. Start handing out 40,50,60 game suspensions for this stuff, and the resulting loss of pay, and players are going think a little before nailing the other player from behind into the glass, or they are going to find themselves out of work. Once in a while you have an incident such as the 1969 pre-season hockey game in Ottawa where Wayne Maki clubbed Ted Green over the head with his stick and fractured his skull. Criminal charges were clearly appropriate, but this was a rare case. Contact sport is legal, last time I checked. How can you allow the UFC and other MMA sports to operate and then turn around and lay criminal charges if a guy gets hurt? Are the athletes crazy for choosing an occupation where serious injuries are common? Possibly. Probably. But let's save the police investigations and criminal charges for the street crimes and leave the athletes alone.

Anonymous said...

Like the idea of this blog. Assume it will also get into the business law side of hockey and discuss issues surrounding relocation of teams and how the cap rules seem to be dictating how teams are built and dismantled these days.

Daniel Gilbeau said...

Nice blog Eric! I do not condone any of these brutal actions but would like to add my 2 cents worth. I will start off with Chris Simon since I am an Islanders fan. Terrible retaliation by Simon but not impressed with the commentators. Simon was hit from behind and his head smacked the glass. Was Simon thinking straight when he smacked Hollweg in the head with his stick? Does not excuse him but just that Hollweg was not some innocent victim. Same thing can be said for McSorley on Brashear. Brashear smacked McSorley but refused to fight. I am not saying what McSorley did was right but he was trying to get Brashear to back up his actions and crossed the line. Bertuzzi was acting on instructions from his coach. Does it make it right? Hell no, but he is not the only one to blame. I know if someone says jump off a bridge and you do it, is it their fault? Not quite the same, when your coach says to do something and you do not, you will not play! Bertuzzi was guilty but so were others.
I am so glad to see what Dave Branch of the OHL has been doing. You want to play like a moron, you are out of the league. Good to see the QMJHL follow Branch's example and threw Cormier out of the league. Great job!
The brain power of the NHL thought they were cleaning up the league when the removed the enfrocer but caused so many other problems. Players can no longer hold others accountable and take care of business.
Look forward to more debates on future blog articles.