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Hockey loving dad believes it's time for a change

Finally, the law steps in to bring a little sense to hockey.

There is much to be said for the Quebec legal system and the belief that justice must be seen to be done, even when it comes to something as simple as the national game.

But we are not speaking here of Zdeno Chara, rather of Justin Sasson.

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Justin Sasson is eight. He stars for the Montreal Canadiens in his imagination and on Rue Choquette, the quiet street on which the Sassons live in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, a Montreal suburb.

Justin's father, David Sasson, refers to his son affectionately as "the little criminal," a reference to a visit a year ago from the local authorities that ended up in a court case that was finally decided Thursday.

It began as a street hockey game. Justin joined his 11-year-old brother, Josh, and David himself got involved as kids from around the neighbourhood joined in and someone on the street with no sense of justice or childhood called to complain about the noise.

The next thing Sasson knew he was talking to security officers and being handed a $75 ticket in breach of a bylaw he didn't even know existed. He decided to fight. He was joined by supporters who mounted a petition. A year later he won his case when Municipal Court Judge Nathalie Haccoun ruled this week in favour of children getting outside for a little exercise.

"I pleaded not guilty and I got lucky," Sasson said Friday morning. "I got a judge who cared a little about children playing. The stars were aligned. I broke the law, sure, an obscure law that nobody knew about, but I broke it."

Such recently restored faith in the justice system, therefore, would suggest that this lifelong Habs fan would embrace this week's decision by Louis Dionne, Quebec's director of criminal prosecutions, to ask police to investigate Tuesday's hit by the Boston Bruins' Chara on Montreal's Max Pacioretty that left the young Canadiens player concussed and with a cracked vertebra.

But such is not the case.

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"I personally don't believe it's a good idea," says the man who won a victory for hockey in Quebec court only two days after the devastating Chara hit on Pacioretty.

Many of us could not agree more. The Chara hit - in which Pacioretty's head strikes a stanchion near the benches - has polarized the hockey world between those who believe it was simply a "hockey play" gone bad, as the NHL decreed when it declined to suspend the huge Boston defenceman, or a deliberate riding into the post by a player trying to avenge both a lost game and previous friction between the two players.

But no matter what it is or is not, the Chara hit is not Marty McSorley on Donald Brashear, nor is it Todd Bertuzzi on Steve Moore, two fairly recent and infamous incidents that ended up in B.C. courts, to little satisfaction on any side.

The Montreal police have been asked to "see whether there's grounds for prosecution." If not - and the wild debate on "intention" would suggest this is at least a moot point - then the decision not to prosecute would have exactly the same effect as a not guilty verdict. Both would stand as confirmation that the NHL decision not to suspend Chara was the correct one, which so many believe it was not.

The issue, of course, is "intent." It is what separates those who believe the hit was tantamount to attempted murder and those who believe Chara was merely "finishing his check," which some take to mean completing your play, and others read as making sure you hurt the opposing player no matter how long ago the puck you are pretending to play left the area.

The only fair and safe answer to "intent" is to move beyond it to "result" - and for hockey to stop bickering about how something happened and turn its attention, instead, to what happened and how that might be prevented from happening again.

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Hockey, after all, already has rules in place that remove "intent" from the equation. If I accidentally high stick you, I still get a penalty. If I shoot the puck over the boards in my own end, I get a penalty whether accidental or not.

So, too, it should be with hits to the head.

Beginning Monday in Boca Raton, Fla., NHL general managers will begin meetings that will cover a wide range of issues, yet will centre on one: concussions.

It has been a remarkable, almost unimaginable 2011, beginning with Sidney Crosby's New Year's Day concussion that has the game's greatest star still sidelined. We have seen brawls, an owner calling out his own league, a 10-game suspension to a player who shouldn't even be in the game, scientific proof that head battering leads to permanent brain damage, sponsors taking a critical look at hockey, a petulant response to such criticism by the commissioner - and a total, so far, of more than 70 players missing time due to concussion, Max Pacioretty merely one of the latest.

It's time for change, says Dave Sasson - change that would involve the entire "culture" of a game that is no longer the game Sasson grew up cheering.

"If Guy Lafleur played now," he says, "he'd get mangled out there."

Instead, Guy Lafleur - with or without head protection - will play again in the imaginations along Rue Choquette this weekend, when neighbourhood kids, and some adults, are invited out to celebrate justice finally coming to hockey - at least road hockey.

"There'll be beer," Sasson says. "But apple juice for the kids."

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More


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