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Hockey Manitoba still doesn't get the message

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Two teens were charged with assault during this on-ice incident during a game in Stonewall on March 30.

CHRIS GAREAU PHOTO Enlarge Image

Two teens were charged with assault during this on-ice incident during a game in Stonewall on March 30.

Call it trial by YouTube.

RCMP announced Wednesday that criminal charges had been laid against two teenage hockey players involved in a bantam playoff game held in Stonewall on March 30.

A 13-year-old was charged with assault after a puck was deliberately fired at three on-ice officials. A 14-year-old was charged with assault with a weapon after one of the referees was struck with a stick.

The incidents at the heart of the criminal charges were among the worst witnessed by the hockey community last season. They are, however, hardly unprecedented.

So, why were charges laid in this instance? Well, first and foremost, police were on scene shortly after the on-ice problems started to deal with problems in the stands. Second, there was video circulating on various websites showing some of the incidents in question.

In other words, this was a hockey incident that was very hard to ignore.

However, in the wake of these most recent charges -- criminal charges were also laid against a coach involved in a separate incident at Southdale Community Centre -- we are still left unsure about the differences between a simple, on-ice infraction and a much more serious criminal offence.

Obviously, cops and Crowns can only pursue charges in instances when they either witness the alleged crime directly, or are able to collect first-hand evidence of an alleged crime.

In the past, this has meant many of the worst on-ice incidents never showed up on the justice system's radar. There may have been criminal complaints, but with all the emotion and hyperbole that comes with youth sport, it was often impossible to sort out who did what to whom and when.

Smartphones have changed all that. Now, as soon as things start to go sideways on the ice, dozens of pocket-sized video cameras are activated to capture the intimate details of incidents that previously would have been difficult to sort out.

That means any video-supported complaint to the police will have much more weight, and thus a much more likely possibility of ending up with criminal charges.

However, what of those incidents in which no video exists? They will continue to be seen as "hockey matters," with participants facing little or no risk of criminal charges.

The hockey community has been satisfied, for the most part, that what happens on the ice, no matter how grievous, is not a criminal offence.

Just about everyone acknowledges a lot of what is permitted in hockey, and everything that is penalized by the rules, could be construed as criminal if it were done outside of the rink. Even so, hockey is still reluctant to have police get involved with on-ice incidents on a regular basis.

Furthermore, even with more on-ice incidents headed to the courts, hockey organizations do not feel an obligation to report to police potentially criminal behaviour. That has left hockey opinion leaders in an unusual position of neither advocating for criminal charges, nor actively opposing them.

Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba, said he expects video evidence and the media coverage that seems to accompany it will increase the number of people looking to the justice system for a remedy when bad things happen on the ice.

However, Woods said he believes hockey is doing a good job of policing itself in those instances where players or team officials commit serious, sometimes violent, offences. Woods noted three players involved in the Stonewall incident have been suspended, one for an entire season.

It is unlikely going forward the hockey governing bodies in Manitoba will begin reporting potential criminal acts to police, or forwarding video evidence they may receive from witnesses, Woods said. Rather, that will be left to others who witness on-ice incidents.

That does not mean Hockey Manitoba opposes the laying of criminal charges in serious incidents, only it will not actively pursue them.

"There are incidents where lines are crossed," Woods said. "And I don't think the sport has any objections (if police are called in). But I don't think we're at the stage right now where we're going to look for that ourselves."

It is likely many within the sport see the few, cherry-picked cases involving criminal charges as a deterrent. That it's not necessary to lay charges in all instances for the broader hockey community to get the message there are consequences beyond a garden-variety suspension if they really allow themselves to lose control.

That, unfortunately, is a pipe dream. Without making an effort to involve the justice system in all serious incidents, it's unlikely anyone is going to acknowledge a deterrent.

For the time being, we'll see those involved in the highly publicized cases punished more severely. And those who escape a trial by YouTube will skate through untouched.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2014 A7

History

Updated on Thursday, July 24, 2014 at 10:42 AM CDT: adds photo

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