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Judge’s tough minor-hockey call requires our thanks

It was a spring hockey game about 10 years ago. My son was playing on a team of 13- and 14-year-olds. They were being coached by a friend of mine, whose son was a star forward.

The game ended and a scuffle broke out on the ice. It looked fairly harmless from the stands but it was clear that the two young referees were struggling to bring calm to the situation. On to the ice barged our coach, heading toward the heart of the commotion with a determined bearing, anger clearly on his face. I sat in my seat incredulous, thinking to myself: No good can come of this.

And I was right.

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When he arrived at the epicentre of the skirmish, he pushed one of the opposing team's players to the ice. He, in turn, was jumped by a couple of the player's teammates. Our coach's glasses went flying from his face. It was about as ugly a scene at a minor hockey league game as I had witnessed – and by that point in my son's hockey career, I had seen plenty.

Eventually, calm was restored but inside the arena the parents of the other team wanted our coach's head – and who could blame them? Wisely, our coach stayed hidden away until well after the braying mob stopped calling his name.

Later that night, I talked to the coach, my friend, a person I knew, or thought I knew, for years. He was, by all measures, a decent human being, a loving and devoted husband and father. But in a single instance, every impression I had of him was cast into doubt. Did I really know him at all?

"I don't know what happened," he would tell me. "I lost my mind."

I was reminded of this moment this week as I welcomed the news that a B.C. Provincial Court judge had sentenced a minor-league hockey coach to 15 days in jail and one year's probation for tripping a 13-year-old player from the opposing team during a postgame, on-ice handshake. The incident was caught on camera and became an instant Internet sensation.

The sentence caught many, including the Crown, by surprise. No one thought jail time was in the cards for the coach, Martin Tremblay, 48. But in his decision, Judge Patrick Chen said the tripping of the boy was "akin to a cowardly sucker punch on an unsuspecting victim." The judge said his sentence was intended to convey the message that assaulting a child, under any circumstances, is unacceptable.

The decision was widely applauded. Like many, I wondered if Judge Chen had a hockey background, maybe had witnessed the mindless, often incomprehensible behaviour exhibited by normally right-thinking adults every day in minor-hockey rinks across this country. People like my friend.

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This we all know: Minor hockey does strange things to some people. It can make them temporarily nuts. It can bring to the fore elements of their character and personality that can go into lifelong hibernation once minor hockey is behind them. And while I commend Judge Chen for his gutsy call and hope it establishes a legal precedent and makes people think twice before doing something as unconscionable as what Mr. Tremblay did, we all know it will not prevent these things from happening again.

Nor will it stop the assaults-by-proxy that go on in minor hockey league rinks every day in Canada; the coaches who urge their players to go after someone on the other team, someone as young as 9 or 10. Believe me this happens. I've seen it. I've heard it. The instructions may not be as explicit as "slash his ankles," "hack his wrists," "knock his block off," but they don't have to be. So much about hockey, especially at the higher, rep levels, is implied.

And then there are the parents in the stands heaping the worst kind of abuse and vitriol on players and referees still in elementary school. It's assault by a different name.

Of course, most minor-hockey parents are wonderful, well-adjusted folk, who are there to support their kids in the healthiest way possible. But there are enough fools, enough people who allow a game played by kids to turn them into common criminals, that we need to be continually vigilant of damage they can cause. And we need do even more to deter them from occupying our rinks and coaching our kids.

In his own way, that is what Judge Patrick Chen was trying to do this week. And for that we owe him our thanks.

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