Could Thursday ruling in an Ontario courtroom have an impact on on-ice plays such as this punch by Scott Walker on Aaron Ward. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
First, it was the Don Sanderson tragedy. Now, it’s something that happened on a high school rugby field between a pair of teenagers.
Hockey in general – particularly the NHL – continues to be given red-flag warnings on a silver platter explaining the culture of violence that permeates the game is becoming increasingly unacceptable. Whether either of them heeds these warnings remains to be seen, but at least they won’t be able to say they didn’t see them coming.
In a Toronto courtroom Thursday morning, Ontario Justice Bruce Duncan found an 18-year-old rugby player guilty of manslaughter in connection with the death of a player on a rival rugby pitch two years ago. The player, who cannot be identified because it is prohibited under the Youth Criminal Justice Act in Canada, was a player in the Ontario League, which only adds another layer to how this tragedy impacts hockey.
In a high school rugby game May 9, 2007, an on-field confrontation between the accused and a 15-year-old player named Manny Castillo ended tragically when the player, responding to a headlock from Castillo that nearly choked him, picked up Castillo, flipped him upside down and drove his head into the ground. Castillo died of his brain injuries a few days later.
It was an act of retaliation that certainly makes one wonder. Does the fact the player was a high level hockey player with NHL aspirations have anything to do with the fact he went so far outside the rules to avenge a wrong on the field? Those who play rugby maintain things like this happen very rarely, but this time it involved a hockey player, one who was undoubtedly taught throughout his hockey career that acts of retaliation must both serve as revenge and a message.
But it was the judge’s words in explaining his verdict that should have those in the game most concerned. With his verdict, Duncan dismissed the silly notion that many hockey people share that there is implied consent to violence when a player steps on the field or the ice. Lawyers for the accused argued that Castillo had accepted the risks associated with playing the game when he took to the field that day.
“Knowledge or expectation that violence that is well outside the rules of the game might occur is not the same thing as consent to said violence,” Duncan wrote in his ruling.”
He went on to say: “There was no justification in self-defense. Accordingly, the defendant committed an assault, an unlawful act. That unlawful act caused death. The defendant is therefore guilty of manslaughter.”
What, you might ask, does this have to do with hockey? Well, how often have we seen players go way outside the bounds of the rulebook to commit acts of violence? Would this logic apply to a hockey fight between two consenting players or a bodycheck that goes tragically awry? Probably not.
But what about when Scott Walker sucker punches an unsuspecting Aaron Ward in the face during a game? I’m pretty sure you could argue there was no consent from Ward, implied or otherwise. It will be very interesting, if it ever comes to the courts, what the legal system deems as worthy of consent when it comes to hockey.
When a player looks for the puck in his feet, does he consent to another player taking a run from the other side of the ice and blindsiding him with a headshot? Is a player supposed to expect that to happen when he accepts the risks associated with the playing the game?
“The laws of the land apply in the same way as they do elsewhere,” Duncan said. “The legal analysis of whether a crime has been committed on the playing field is the same as it is on the street, though contact sports present a unique factual context for that analysis.”
What the court essentially said is that sports leagues are not above the law and what happens on the ice necessarily doesn’t stay on the ice. Hockey might want to take note.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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