Skip to main content

There's never a good time to have your upper lip ripped open as a result of a two-handed chop from a fellow carrying a hockey stick. But the timing couldn't have been worse for Jeffrey English.

It was February, the height of RRSP season, and as a financial planner, his busiest time of the year. But instead of meeting clients with his best foot forward, he sported a 25-stitch cut underneath his nose, as well as the swelling and soreness that went with it.

It made things awkward.

The circumstances surrounding the injury are similar to the incident in which Boston Bruins' defenceman Marty McSorley chopped Donald Brashear on the side of the head, leaving the Vancouver Canucks forward unconscious, with blood seeping from his nose.

Like Brashear, who may miss the rest of the season with a severe concussion, English was the victim of what seemed to be an unprovoked, premeditated attack. "I just turned around and saw this stick coming at my face and then whomp," he said of the 1998 incident at Chris Tonks Arena in the west end of Toronto.

Unlike Brashear, English was playing in a no-contact men's league, strictly for fun and exercise. Receiving a scar for life was not part of the plan.

The hockey world has focused on the McSorley-Brashear incident, with debate raging on the season-ending 23-game suspension handed McSorley by the National Hockey League. And it will continue to be an issue, particularly if the Vancouver police charge McSorley with assault.

Less talked about are the times when recreational athletes across Canada and North America have been the victims of what would seem to be obvious criminal behaviour.

And based on anecdotal evidence at least, there may be no better place to assault someone that on the the playing field. Successful criminal prosecutions are rare, and in cases in which convictions are made, the sentences are often quite light.

"It happens. It happens more than the general pubic is aware of," said Toronto police constable Oliver Febbo about the frequency of violent recreational incidents. He investigated the English attack and eventually charged his assailant with assault with a weapon.

"We have three arenas in our division, and I've been to every one. . . . It's not unusual to have cruisers out to them once or twice a month."

While the NHL establishment and fans debate this week's events in Vancouver, the bigger story may be found in the recreational leagues -- why violence happens there and what can be done about it.

Earlier this week in Toronto a 14-year-old was checked from behind and hit in the head several times with a stick. A Quebec man was convicted of an on-ice assault. A 15-year-old in the Chicago area is facing criminal charges after he left an opponent paralyzed after a check from behind last November.

Hockey is not the only sport in which things seem to get out of hand. In Texas, a high school basketball player was recently sentenced to five years in prison for assaulting an opponent. In Wichita, Kan., Ben Christenson, a top-draft pick of the Chicago Cubs, avoided criminal prosecution after hitting an opponent in the face with a warm-up pitch.

Yet for sheer volume, no sport has a history of players committing violent, potentially criminal acts as hockey in Canada. The first reported case occurred in 1905 when a player was charged with manslaughter after an opponent died from a slash to the head.

Bill McMurtry, a Toronto lawyer who did an exhaustive report on violence in amateur hockey in the mid-1970s, at the height of the Philadelphia Flyers' Broad Street Bullies days, said that if he were doing his report again today, he wouldn't change a sentence.

"Hockey is the only sport in the history of sport anywhere in the world that not only tolerates fighting, but rewards it," McMurtry said. "You breed McSorleys from the age of 10 and up, and there may only be 30 or 40 in the NHL, but there might be 3,000 or 4,000 who are aspiring to get there. It breeds a culture of violence."

And yet relatively few on-ice transgressions have drawn the attention of the police in the United States and Canada. And with the exception of Dino Ciccarelli, who was sentenced to one day in jail and fined $1,000 in 1988 for striking Luke Richardson in the head several times with a stick, the defendants have been acquitted.

There is no legal reason for acts committed during sporting events to go unpunished, according to experts. While there is the notion of implied consent -- an athlete accepts the risk of injury when deciding to play the game -- it doesn't apply to instances in which the injury is the result of intentional or reckless behaviour by another player. There is no immunity under law for a two-hander delivered in the heat of the moment.

Which is why common sense dictated that Jeffrey English should contact the police about his injury. According to court testimony, the then 38-year-old Mississauga resident was trailing the play in the offensive zone after centring the puck when his opponent hit him.

"As far as I'm concerned it was completely unprovoked," English said. And, given the nature of the league, completely unexpected.

He found a sympathetic ear when he took his case to the police. "What happened was completely outside the boundaries of fair play," Febbo said. The crown counsel agreed, and the player was charged.

But as it so often happens in these instances, there was no conviction. The defendant's lawyer was able to create doubt about the victim's identity.

Intent is difficult to prove at the best of times. Complicating matters in sports-related assaults are deeply held views that the occasional rash act is the inevitable byproduct of spirited competition.

That was gist of the remarks made by the judge who acquitted Ted Green and Wayne Maki after their infamous 1969 stick-swinging battle that left Green fighting for his life.

It was a familiar refrain in a recent ruling by a London Ont., judge in a case in which Doug Cottrell, founder of a no-contact league designed for older recreational players, was left unconscious and with three broken teeth (he was wearing a helmet and facemask) as the result of a blow from a stick.

The opponent admitted in court that he was "trying to send a message" to Cottrell, but grounds were still found for acquittal. According to the London Free Press there was doubt about where the blow landed and the judge also said that it wasn't unusual -- even during an old-timer's hockey game -- for things to escalate into a scrap. Boys will be boys.

"It seems that we as a society have allowed athletics to operate under a different set of rules," said Matt Mitten, director of the National Institute of Sports Law at Marquette University in Wisconsin.

"It's very difficult to get convictions. Was there intent to injure? Was it somehow in self-defence? Was it part of the game? Those are all difficult things to prove."

Cal Botterill, a sports psychologist with the University of Winnipeg and a consultant to several NHL teams over the years, said that when it comes to judging conduct on the field of play people tend to look at things the wrong way.

Excusing questionable behaviour with a "in the heat of the moment" defence is wrong, he said.

"If you go back to the reason that [organized]sports exist and have the place in our society that they do, it's because they are supposed to build character and help us learn to control our emotions and channel them in a positive way," he said. "In that context, behaviour on the ice should be held to a higher standard."

The standard to which McSorley's act is held may be determined by the British Columbia justice system.

As for English, he's imposed his own sanction in the wake of his experience with violence, justice and sports.

He has loved hockey his entire life, so he didn't want his 1998 experience to be his last. He played in another league last season, to try to rinse the bad taste out of his mouth. And then he quit.