For hockey fans who have watched in shock as teenage players and grown-up coaches have been charged with criminal offences, it's the single question that just won't go away.
Where do you draw the line between hockey penalty and criminal penalty? Despite several well-publicized cases this year, it remains a mystery.
Last week, two teenage players were charged with assault and assault with a weapon after RCMP investigated several incidents at a playoff game last March in Stonewall. The charges come a few months after criminal charges were laid against a coach for an incident at the Southdale Community Centre.
To date, a lot of the focus of news coverage related to these incidents -- perhaps even too much of the focus -- has been on how hockey organizations should respond in the wake of a serious, on-ice incident. In particular, whether hockey folks have a responsibility to report these incidents to police.
...The greatest factor in determining possible criminality is whether... the incident happened as part of the normal course of play, or whether it occurred away from the play or during a stop in game action.
However, hockey convenors, directors and referees in chief do not get to determine when a hockey offence becomes a criminal offence. That is the work of the police and Crown attorneys.
They are the agents of the justice system, mandated with deciding which cases go to court.
Unfortunately, hockey organizers and justice-system officials rarely come into contact with each other. As a result, a huge gulf exists between those who know the law and those who know what's transpiring on the ice.
Winnipeg Crown attorney Paul Cooper said in an interview police and prosecutors look at a number of factors before a sports-related incident is considered criminal. They include the age of the players, the level of play, the tone of the game and the type of league (competitive or recreational) where the incident took place.
However, the greatest factor in determining possible criminality is whether the incident in question took place "on the ball" or "away from the ball," Cooper said. In other words, whether the incident happened as part of the normal course of play, or whether it occurred away from the play or during a stop in game action.
In previous cases where there have been criminal investigations of incidents in "collision sports" -- where violent contact is permitted within the rules of the game -- this has been a very reliable way of determining whether something has crossed the line into criminal activity, Cooper said.
Cooper could not discuss any particular case. However, looking at some of the most recent incidents, the rationale behind criminal charges seems fairly obvious.
If a player were to shoot a puck at a referee during a stoppage in play (which has been alleged at the Stonewall game) or a coach leaves the bench and gets involved in a physical altercation with an official (as was alleged in the Southdale incident), then it's fairly certain police can investigate, and prosecutors can consider charges.
It also explains why, Cooper explained, incidents involving physical abuse of an official are prosecuted more regularly. No sport allows players to physically contact a referee at any time, meaning this kind of incident can never been seen to be "on the ball."
Cooper agreed even with these guidelines there will still be some ambiguity in certain situations.
For example, fighting in hockey is generally considered to be part of the game. Is a particularly violent fight considered "on the ball" or "off the ball" as part of the flow of the game?
Still, as explained by Cooper, the line between game offence and criminal offence seems relatively clear. The only remaining question that needs to be asked is whether sports governing bodies and front-line organizers, armed with this knowledge, have an obligation to report to police any incident that may cross that line?
Although governors/organizers aren't experts in the law, they do have access to volumes of information related to every incident that takes place on a field, court or rink. They know the names of the referees, team officials and players.
They even know the names of most of the spectators based on team rosters.
Should sport convenors be required to report possible criminal activity? Teachers and daycare workers already have a legal obligation to report any suspected incidents of abuse; surely we could expect the same of convenors, officials and coaches.
There is a critical need here for some public education. Families registering their children for sports, and adults contemplating roles as coaches or referees, should be aware there are certain things that happen between the lines of youth sport that can be viewed as criminal acts.
Laying criminal charges against a youth hockey player is a serious matter. It could also be used to send a serious message, but only if we're all reading from the same playbook.