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Roy ruling: Court balks at setting precedent

It is a question long-debated in this hockey-loving country.

At what point does the state have a place in the rinks of the nation? When should what has forever been a widely accepted part of the game be deemed unacceptable, as it would be in any other context?

The latest case in point: Jonathan Roy, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, pleaded guilty yesterday to assault charges related to a brawl in 2008, when, as a goaltender with the junior Quebec Remparts, he skated the length of the ice to attack the opposing team's goalie, perhaps egged on by his famous father, who was coaching behind the bench.

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It wasn't one of those moments that made you proud to be a hockey fan, or that could be easily justified according to "the code," or because of the need to "send a message" or because if the boys don't blow off steam with fisticuffs, they'll resort to nefarious stickwork.

This was ugly, stupid, stage-managed and pointless.

But if every ugly, stupid, stage-managed and pointless act of violence at every level of hockey was deemed punishable by law, the courts would be overflowing.

It is not unreasonable to speculate the Quebec authorities jumped on this case because of Roy's last name, because of the widespread exposure the fight received, because it was a chance to show off the power of toughened laws. (Roy's lawyer argues the law was in fact toughened after the brawl took place.)

And it seems likely Roy's punishment is going to be unsatisfying. In return for a guilty plea and an offer to pay $5,000 to charity, he is asking for an absolute discharge.

If the court agrees, it would be the latest in a line of milquetoast sentences that includes Dan Maloney pleading no contest and doing a bit of community service after he was charged for clubbing Brian Glennie in the head during an NHL game in 1975, Marty McSorley receiving an 18-month conditional discharge and slap on the wrist for hitting Donald Brashear in the head with his stick in 2000, and, of course, Todd Bertuzzi pleading out to a year of probation and conditional discharge for attacking Steve Moore from behind, breaking Moore's neck and ending his NHL career in 2004.

The criminal courts obviously have little appetite for recasting the culture of hockey, in part because by donning a uniform and skating out onto the ice, players have given implied consent to all kinds of things that would not be tolerated in the outside world - the way a boxer gives implied consent to being punched in the head, to being knocked unconscious, perhaps even being killed in the name of sport/entertainment.

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Hockey players are penalized for high sticking, for fighting, for unsportsmanlike conduct, but two minutes or five minutes or 10 minutes in the box hardly suggests zero tolerance.

Even the most ardent hockey fight abolitionist has to understand this isn't the best way to try to clean up the game. And even the worst knuckle-dragger can make a valid point arguing the police and courts have better things to do than sticking their noses into situations like these unless there is lasting damage done - and even then, it might be more appropriately a civil rather than criminal concern.

Back in 1974, in the grim era of the Broad Street Bullies, the late William McMurtry wrote his famous, brave report on violence in amateur hockey, in which he argued for the elimination of fighting: "Sport, and particularly hockey, need not be a symptom of a sick society. Hockey can be a positive educational force - a model - to instill values such as co-operation, personal discipline, tolerance and understanding - a catalyst to promote fellowship and mutual respect among individuals and people rather than a divisive force, fuelled by calculated animosities."

That kind of idealism, from a time when the game was arguably far nastier at all levels than it is now, still flies in the face of current realities, of a sport that takes its lead from the NHL, where fights are part of the entertainment package, where a willingness to drop the gloves is a marketable skill, where occasionally things will take an uglier turn.

The trickle down to the minor leagues, to junior hockey, and beyond, is undeniable.

No judge, no jury, is going to change that, nor does it appear they believe it is their job.

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