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Ex-NHL player Ramage gets four years in fatal 2003 crash; will appeal

A police officer checks out a damaged Chrysler Intrepid at the scene of a three-vehicle accident north of Toronto late Monday Dec. 15, 2003. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Saul Porto

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A police officer checks out a damaged Chrysler Intrepid at the scene of a three-vehicle accident north of Toronto late Monday Dec. 15, 2003. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Saul Porto

NEWMARKET, Ont. - Rob Ramage's reputation as an "exemplary citizen" was trumped by a judge's desire to send a strong message of deterrence against drunk driving as the former NHL player was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison for a crash that killed his friend, former NHLer Keith Magnuson.

Magnuson's death on Dec. 15, 2003, was "tragic and senseless" and occurred under circumstances far too common on the nation's roads and highways, Ontario Superior Court Justice Alexander Sosna said in passing sentence.

"The carnage on our roads caused by impaired drivers continues unabated," Sosna said.

Ramage's case bore "the hallmarks of too many events, done by too many drivers, culminating in too much pain," he said.

Ramage's wife wept as the judge sentenced her husband to prison for impaired driving causing death, among other offences, and banned him from driving for five years after his release.

The Ontario Court of Appeal decided Thursday afternoon that Ramage, 49, will be allowed to appeal his conviction.

Shortly after the court's decision, Ramage was released on bail pending his appeal. He left the Newmarket court where he was sentenced and stepped into an SUV with his family.

While his appeal is being processed, the court ordered Ramage to reside at his home in St. Louis, abstain from alcohol and to not operate a motor vehicle.

At the sentencing hearing in December, Magnuson's family said they have forgiven Ramage and requested he be spared jail time. Instead, they asked that he be sentenced to travel North America speaking to high school athletes about the dangers of drunk driving.

"The Magnuson family ... I thank them for their forgiveness," Ramage told the court before sentence was passed.

"Keith Magnuson was a dear friend and mentor. I can only imagine what a loving husband and father he was."

Ramage played 15 seasons as an NHL defenceman with eight teams, winning Stanley Cup rings with the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens. He also played for the Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs, Minnesota North Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers. Ramage retired after the 1993-94 season.

Magnuson was a rugged defenceman who played his entire 11-season NHL career with the Blackhawks, retiring after the 1979-80 campaign. He also coached the team for a season and a half.

Although the judge called Ramage an "exemplary citizen" who has expressed true remorse and wouldn't pose a danger to the community if released, he said the "serious crime" demanded a sentence that would deter others from drinking and driving.

Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada, called the sentence "appropriate."

"I think a lot has to do with Ramage himself," he said. "He showed tremendous remorse to the Magnuson family, the Magnuson family asked for no jail time. Also, Ramage has accepted publicly his ill-advised behaviour and has accepted the consequences to some degree that go with it."

Magnuson, 56, was killed when a rental car driven by Ramage slammed head-on into another vehicle, driven by Michelle Pacheco, just north of Toronto. Ramage and Magnuson had just left a funeral reception for another former NHL player, Keith McCreary.

Pacheco, who was in court Thursday, suffered a broken heel and upper body injuries.

Last October, a jury found Ramage guilty on all five charges he faced.

On Thursday, the court stayed one of the counts - having excess blood alcohol - on the mutual consent of the defence and Crown.

The prosecution, which had sought a sentence of three to five years, said evidence showed Ramage had up to four times the legal blood-alcohol limit at the time of the crash, although none of the hundreds of people at the funeral reception could say he had a single drink.

The defence, which had asked for a conditional sentence to be served in the community, claimed blood and urine tests were flawed and that any smell of alcohol came from beer cans that exploded in the accident.

Ramage's appeal states the judge was in error when he admitted evidence of the alcohol concentration of urine samples, which were seized without a warrant and without full and voluntary consent.

The appeal also says the judge "usurped" the role of the jury by giving his opinion concerning factual findings and that he misstated critical evidence during the trial.

Mark Osborne, a former teammate of Ramage's in Toronto, said he was surprised by the stiff sentence.

"It's definitely a lot more than anybody had anticipated," he said. "People had heard a couple of years and maybe less time being served."

Osborne said he had spoken to Ramage in the past few days, and the former Maple Leafs captain told him he was prepared to face the consequences of his actions.

"What he's learned over the course of time and the support that he's got through friends, I think he's really prepared, emotionally and mentally, to deal with whatever consequences," Osborne said.

A Missouri jury has already awarded the Magnuson family US$9.5 million in their civil suit against Ramage and National Car Rentals of Canada.

There have been a number of other drinking and driving incidents involving NHL players, including some that resulted in fatalities.

Maple Leafs forward Mark Bell was charged during the 2006 Labour Day weekend with felony hit-and-run and driving under the influence after a two-car accident near San Jose, Calif., when he played for the Sharks.

Bell, 27, pleaded no contest to the charges last summer and will serve six months in jail after the end of this NHL season.

Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Steve Chiasson died on May 3, 1999, after crashing his pickup truck in North Carolina while driving home from an end-of-season team party. He was 32 years old.

Chiasson's blood alcohol level was found to be more than three times the legal limit. A teammate said Chiasson had refused to accept a ride home or call a taxi.

Flyers goalie Pelle Lindbergh died in November 1985 at the age of 26 after driving his Porsche into a wall in New Jersey. Police said he was intoxicated.

Tim Horton, the defenceman who started the popular chain of doughnut shops, died at the age of 44 on Feb. 21, 1974, after losing control of his car while driving on a highway near St. Catharines, Ont. An autopsy showed that Horton, who played for the Buffalo Sabres at the time, was legally drunk.

There has also been a high-profile auto accident involving NHL players in which alcohol was not a factor.

Atlanta Thrashers forward Dan Snyder was a passenger in a Ferrari driven by then-teammate Dany Heatley when the speeding car struck a wall on an Atlanta street, ejecting both players. Snyder died in hospital six days later on Oct. 5, 2003, at the age of 25.

Heatley, who suffered serious injuries in the accident, was not intoxicated at the time, but he pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was sentenced to three years' probation. He now plays for the Ottawa Senators.

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