It's generally accepted as an article of faith within hockey circles that what happens on the ice should be dealt with on the ice, but incidents like the vicious elbow dished out by Rouyn-Noranda Huskies centre Patrice Cormier may well be contributing to a re-think.
The incident, which left the Quebec Remparts' Mikael Tam unconscious and convulsing, has set the hockey world abuzz.
Indeed, the subject was on many lips in the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room.
Enforcer Georges Laraque, who played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, said he was shocked by the incident.
"I couldn't believe it, it was probably one of the worst things I've ever seen. The one thing I can say about [QMJHL commissioner]Gilles Courteau is he's always been good giving suspensions, it doesn't matter the name behind the back [of the jersey)]rdquo; Laraque said. "I'd be really surprised if that kid [Cormier]plays another game this year." Beyond the initial reactions to the hit, there was also a sense that the long-standing reluctance toward involving the justice system in hockey may no longer be justified.
Habs defenceman Ryan O'Byrne said "there's a fine line between hockey and the justice system," but allowed that players might behave differently if they knew they might have to answer for their actions before a judge.
Fellow rearguard Josh Gorges said hockey should ideally police itself but "it obviously hasn't been working." Medicine Hat Tigers head coach Willie Desjardins coached Cormier at the recent world junior tournament. He described Cormier, who captained Team Canada, as "a real character player. His emotions don't go up and down; he's really stable." Asked for his thoughts on the hit, Desjardins said: "He did what I yell at my players all the time, 'Go to the puck. Force him to the outside.' Within the context of the play everything [Cormier]did was fine - until he made contact.
"I don't know what [Cormier]was thinking," Desjardins added. "But I can guarantee you 100 per cent he didn't want to hurt that kid. He didn't want that kid laying on the ice in convulsions." Desjardins noted he's not an expert on what should happen next, whether outside forces such as the police and the judicial system should get involved in monitoring the game. What he's seen is how hitting from behind, once an across-the-country problem, has been addressed with successful results.
"Hits to the head, over the last two, three years, that's become the big topic," Desjardins said. "To get to that spot where we can protect our players, it's a process - just like it was with hitting from behind."
Tam was released from hospital late Monday and returned home to Quebec City yesterday. It's not known when, or whether, he'll be able to resume playing.
There is also no word yet on what sanction the QMJHL will apply to Cormier - though there is widespread speculation he will suspended for the rest of the season and playoffs - and though it's possible he could decide to turn pro, the New Jersey Devils' draft likely wouldn't be eligible to play in the minors until after the Huskies' season ends.
Beyond the league disciplinary process, a police investigation into the matter is ongoing.
Recent history suggests that Quebec's Crown prosecutors are more than willing to pursue criminal charges for on-ice incidents.
Over the past two years at least two QMJHL players have been hauled before the courts to answer for their actions in a game: Remparts coach Patrick Roy's son, Jonathan, who pleaded guilty to assault after attacking an opposing goalie in a 2008, and a second player who was found guilty last year after striking an opponent in the face with his stick. He can't be identified because he was 17 at the time of the incident.
Reached at the CHL Prospects game in Windsor, Ont., Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison said: "We have to acknowledge we're not above the law. We always look at these matters and continue to challenge ourselves to have the game as safe as possible for the players. … I think hockey has always responded in a responsible manner. There's always on-going dialogue between Courteau, [Ontario Hockey League commissioner David]Branch and myself on disciplinary matters and playing regulations. We always share when incidents occur," he said. "We have to educate the players on the outcome of their actions."
But if the Quebec league has lately seen some of its players appear in court, it's not common in other junior leagues. Asked if there has ever been a prosecution for an on-ice incident in the WHL, Robison said: "Looking back over 30 years, not to my recollection." University of Ottawa law professor John Barnes, author of Sports and the Law in Canada, said prosecution of on-ice incidents are a recent phenomenon, legally speaking. They started in the mid-1970s in the heyday of the NHL/WHA rivalry, when then-Ontario attorney-general Roy McMurtry made it a priority to investigate acts of violence on the ice.
"I don't think there's any trend to speak of … there have been prosecutions intermittently since then," Barnes said.
He added that in Canada convictions on hockey-related offences usually result in conditional or absolute discharges rather than jail time, as is the norm for "off the ball" incidents in soccer or rugby in the United Kingdom.
In any event, prosecutions of on-ice thuggery are more complicated than they may appear at first blush, as they often revolve around questions of implied consent to body contact and whether an act goes beyond the "custom and usage" of the rules of hockey.
"There are often problems with these types of cases, it can be hard to determine where the line is to be drawn," said McGill University criminal law professor Ronald Sklar.