Minor hockey has come down hard to punish parents over rink rage -- unlike the courts
AARON WHERRY | Jan 01, 2007
Two years ago, Brad Desrocher's eight-year-old son was benched for a few shifts by his hockey coach, Mark Teskey, because the boy had missed practice and was lacking focus during the pre-game warm-up. So incensed was Desrocher that he approached the bench and choked the coach until Teskey lost consciousness.
Desrocher was charged with assault and, like most cases of rink rage in Canada, the trial in Toronto became a minor spectacle. With the public paying attention, the Crown attorney decided a firm statement was in order, asking that Desrocher be sentenced to four months in jail. "From my perspective, this became a case that had the potential to have a great deal of general deterrence," Crown attorney Donna Armstrong says. John Gardner, president of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, agreed and, in his written submission to the Crown, asked the judge to send a message. "We encourage you to seek a sentence that will reflect society's general revulsion at an unprovoked attack upon a volunteer," he wrote, "and that, with its attendant publicity, will bring to the attention of players, parents and spectators that such behaviour . . . has no part in the national sport of our country." Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson chimed in too, asking for a sentence that would "send a strong and clear message to those who fail to control themselves."
No such luck. Ultimately, the judge opted to let Desrocher go with a $2,000 fine. He accepted Desrocher's defence that he was still upset from the death of his father some four months earlier, and tired after returning from a "bereavement vacation" to Mexico the night before. "Decent people sometimes do wrong things and get dragged into a situation that is very frightening," Desrocher's lawyer explained to reporters.
Such an underwhelming result might seem more galling if it wasn't so predictable, given the precedents. To the contrary, a verdict in line with the Crown's recommendation might have been the more shocking result. The fact is, parents who assault coaches, referees and other parents are generally forgiven their moments of hockey-inspired indiscretion.
Last year, a father in Ontario was dealt a $1,000 fine and 18 months' probation for slamming a referee's head against a metal door. Also in Ontario, a mother managed a conditional discharge and 100 hours of community service after hurling coffee into the face of a player who had cross-checked her son from behind, while a B.C. father received a $350 fine for punching a linesman. Four years ago, a former police officer in Quebec escaped with a $50 fine after uttering death threats at a referee. A survey of a dozen cases in recent years found only one that resulted in a jail sentence -- a father in Alberta sentenced to 10 days in jail after jumping on the ice to attend to his injured son and threatening the life of the referee while holding a hockey stick.
Though the courts aren't yet willing to do likewise, the hockey community has gone to great lengths in recent years to deal with the problem of rink rage, banning parents from arenas for years at a time in extreme cases. "[The number of] incidents [is] very well down," said Paul Schmidt, president of the Edmonton Minor Hockey Association. "But, when they have come up, we have come down very hard on the parents, where we've suspended them. Up to a three-year term is probably the longest." But assault is another matter. Gardner gave Desrocher a five-year ban from GTHL rinks. "This can't be open season on coaches."
"If in this case it was, say, a teacher, the man would be in jail," says Rochelle Wallace, Vancouver Minor Hockey Association president and a Grade 7 teacher. "If he choked his son's teacher because she gave him a detention or didn't give him the mark that the parent thought the child deserved."
The most infamous case of rink rage occurred in Massachusetts in 2000, when Thomas Junta beat another parent to death in a dispute, ironically, over a game Junta felt was too rough. The 44-year-old truck driver was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to serve six to 10 years in prison. But it was another case Desrocher's lawyer referenced to explain why his client did not deserve jail time -- that of former Vancouver Canucks star Todd Bertuzzi, who attacked Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore from behind during a 2004 game, breaking three vertebrae in Moore's neck. Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to a year's probation and 80 hours of community service.
A stiff penalty for Desrocher, says Gardner, might have scared potential transgressors. "I hope to hell somebody doesn't have to get killed to drive this point home -- that this sort of nonsense can't be tolerated."
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