[author: Aaron Kase]
A vicious check in a youth hockey game in Massachusetts had the family of an injured player pushing for a criminal trial, although ultimately prosecutors decided not to press charges against the teen who delivered the hit.
High school student concussed in a legal collision during a game
Players consent to violence in sports that would be otherwise be criminal assault
On rare occasions attacks in professional hockey games warrant prosecution
Assault and Battery?
Tucker Hannon was a star forward on his high school hockey team, but he suffered a concussion and had to sit out most of the season this year after he was laid out in January by opposing player Alex Way in the hit shown in the video below. While Way wasn’t penalized or suspended for the hit, Hannon’s parents hired a lawyer and investigated the possibility of convincing prosecutors to file criminal charges against him.
See video url: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=pTWRjZ_nP1M
The magistrate deciding whether the hit warranted prosecution deferred to the rules of the sport, stating “I’m not going to sit here as a hockey ref,” as he declined to file charges against Way. The reality is, even had the hit warranted a penalty in the game, players competing in sports implicitly consent to a certain amount of violence, and prosecution is rare unless an attack rises to a level of brutality and intent to injure far beyond what happened in the Massachusetts high school game.
“Hits like the one in the youth hockey game are part of the sport,” says Dean Chuang, a criminal defense attorney in Washington state. “Players and parents assume some level of risk.”
Had the case actually made it to trial, it might have been an easy acquittal for the defendant. “The idea that hockey or football players could be charged criminally for simply using force allowed or envisioned in the sport is nonsense,” Chuang says. “That’s why these guys put on a helmet and pads. They expect this level of violence. If players don’t want to get hurt, they should play chess or Xbox.”
Part of the Sport
Hannon’s attorney said of the case, “If this (check) was off the rink, on a public way, that is gross, negligent assault and battery.” However, that’s just the point– the hit wasn’t on a public street, it was in a game that embraces big hits.
“Clearly such a hit outside of sports is a criminal offense, but we as a society will allow this action in sports,” Chuang explains. “The state should not attempt to prosecute conduct that is expected and part of the sport. Conduct outside of the norms of the sport could be prosecuted, such as sucker punches, etc. The bottom line is if the questioned conduct is part of the game, then we as society will not prosecute the action.”
If the same rules applied in a sport that a player willingly signs up for as do for public interactions on the street, sports like football, hockey and boxing couldn’t exist. Essentially players are assaulting each other every time they enter competition, but they are consenting to the violence and, in professional sports, handsomely compensated for it.
Into the Courtroom
Players are constantly intentionally hitting each other in hockey, and even throw down the gloves and fight each other on the ice (much less so in high school than professional leagues). Only in the rarest and most extreme cases does the conflict ever spill out of the rink and into the courtroom.
In over 100 years of NHL hockey, players have faced criminal prosecution 15 times in the United States and Canada. Two high-profile and scary instances have occurred in the last 12 years. In 2000, Marty McSorley of the Boston Bruins slashed Vancouver Canuck Donald Brashear across the head with his stick with only two seconds remaining in the game, an attack so far out of the bounds of the sport that McSorley was tried and found guilty of assault.
See video url: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9Yvt0B4RXWc
Then in 2004 a Canuck was on the receiving end of criminal charges, when Vancouver’s Todd Bertuzzi punched Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche in the back of the head, then drove him into the ice face first, breaking Moore’s neck and causing other injuries. Facing prosecution, Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to assault.
See video url: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Fz9RE9RGrVY
Both McSorley and Bertuzzi ultimately received conditional discharges and didn’t serve any jail time. Both were suspended by the NHL for extended periods of time, and McSorley, already near the end of a long career, never played again. Bertuzzi’s story, however, isn’t over– he’s back in the league, on a Detriot Red Wings team that was recently eliminated from the playoffs. Nor is his time in court over– a lawsuit filed by Moore against him will be heard this fall.
While criminal prosecution may be difficult to justify, a civil lawsuit may be an option for a player who has been severely injured.
In the case of the high school hit, the magistrate made Alex Way apologize for concussing Tucker Hannon and left it at that.
Do you think Way should have been prosecuted? Is it fair to judge a hockey or football hit as criminal when both sports routinely involve violent physical contact? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.