A 31-year-old rec league player from Ottawa was sentenced to 18 months probation after a controversial collision with 47 seconds remaining in a game allegedly left a competitor with a concussion, broken teeth and tissue injury.
Hockey violence in the news again, this time because of a rec league incident in Ottawa.
Gordon MacIsaac, a 31-year-old PhD student, was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months probation for what was ruled a "deliberate blindside hit" on 31-year-old Drew Casterton in a game on March 12, 2012. MacIsaac was convicted of aggravated assault and, on top of the probation, Ontario Court Justice Diane Lahaie ordered him to pay $5,000 to Casterton and forbade MacIsaac from playing or coaching competitive sports during those 18 months.
On Feb. 27 Casterton, a business owner, also filed a $600,000 lawsuit against MacIsaac and the Ottawa Senior Men's Hockey League. Among the injuries Casterton alleged to have suffered was a concussion, two broken teeth, cuts to his face, and tissue injury to his neck and spine. The allegations in that lawsuit have not yet been tested in court.
As always, there are two very different sides to this story and they'll be familiar to any NHL fan who has ever argued the legality of a bodycheck or watched one of the league's supplementary discipline videos.
Witnesses for the prosecution said Mr. Casterton was coming out from behind the net as MacIsaac was rushing in. Witnesses on the victim’s team said that with 47 seconds left in the game, MacIsaac’s feet left the ice and he hit Mr. Casterton’s head, snapping it back. Mr. Casterton lost consciousness and fell to the ice.
Jonathan Desjardins, a referee at the game, testified that both Mr. Casterton and MacIsaac were rushing toward the puck behind the net when the collision happened.
“What I saw, clearly saw, is (MacIsaac) jumped off the ice,” Mr. Desjardins testified. “His skates left the ice, arms in the high position, making contact with the victim.”
Mr. Desjardins testified that three players from Mr. Casterton’s team skated over to where the referee was helping the victim. The players told the referee that MacIsaac skated in front of the other team’s bench and said he got Mr. Casterton back for an earlier hit.
And on the other side:
Witnesses for the defence said that as MacIsaac was rushing in, he was involved in an unavoidable collision and that his feet never left the ice.
The big difference between this and an NHL hearing, of course, is that the NHL is a professional contact league and this incident took place in a non-contact recreational league. You don't expect, nor should you, to get clocked by another player.
When a player steps onto the ice, rec league or not, they do take on an assumed risk. And, if you choose to not wear a visor, there is even more risk involved. For instance, if a shot deflects off a stick and knocks out half your teeth, you probably don't have a case against the shooter or the player holding the stick that deflected the puck. Some leagues mandate full masks for insurance purposes.
While we don't necessarily want on-ice incidents ending up in court - and certainly not for it to become a regular occurrence - the line can often get crossed from incidental to intentional in a naturally aggressive and physical game such as hockey. It happens more often than you'd think, though convictions are rare to come by. Check out this story from 2000 about Jeffrey English, who played in a non-contact rec league in Toronto. He was struck in the face with a stick and had to have 25 stitches to close the cut near his nose. He took his case to the police, but there never was a conviction.
Figuring out the intent of a check, unless the offender admits to wrongdoing, is nearly impossible to prove. MacIsaac's lawyer, Patrick McCann argued in court that his client never said anything about seeking payback for a play earlier in the game and there's certainly no video to review. Ultimately, the seriousness of Casterton's injuries and the referee's impartial account have to weigh heavily.
Some, including McCann, believe interest in playing recreational hockey will "inevitably" wane because a player was convicted for what McCann believes to be unavoidable, incidental contact.
“It will inevitably create a chilling effect on anybody that considers playing recreational hockey,” Mr. McCann said. “This could happen to anybody in that situation.”
But a more likely response than a decreased enrollment in rec league hockey is that some of the skaters who play with an edge might think twice after this ruling.
If, after reading about this conviction, a rec league player thinks about avoiding or letting up on an opponent behind the net (to perhaps cut off a pass instead), rather than following through and risking a big collision, that wouldn't be the end of the world. After all, it's only beer league. No one's out there to lose an eye.