Hockey assault charges not a growing trend, lawyers say

After Ottawa police laid assault charges against two teens in separate incidents during hockey games, we asked two Ottawa-based criminal lawyers to share their thoughts on whether this represents a growing trend.

Complaints to police likely stem from heightened concussion awareness, aren't necessarily a trend, lawyers say

Canadian players watch as the Russian flag is raised after losing 2-1 to Russia in the Bronze Medal game at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in Malmo, Sweden on January 5, 2014. (Canadian Press)

Assault charges against two teenage hockey players for separate on-ice incidents are likely the result of heightened awareness about concussions, and aren't indicative of a growing trend, two criminal defence lawyers say.

The first teen was charged in February after he allegedly assaulted another player with a hockey stick during a major midget hockey game in the Ottawa community of Stittsville last November.

The second teen was charged with assault causing bodily harm at the end of February for allegedly hitting another player during a non-contact tournament at the Richcraft Sensplex in January, sending him to hospital with a concussion.

If there's something wrong with hockey, the criminal law is not going to be able to fix it. It's a problem with hockey that needs to be solved by hockey.- Mark Ertel, criminal defence lawyer

Neither of the teens charged can be named because they're under the age of 18.

Ottawa police say the charges were laid because investigators believe the hits fell outside the bounds of normal hockey play. 

The charges stem from complaint which police are obligated to investigate, and aren't part of any wider crackdown on hockey violence, said spokesman Const. Marc Soucy.

Concussions 'in the public consciousness'

Lawyers Mark Ertel and Lawrence Greenspon agree the complaints to police about the hits were likely the result of increased awareness about the potential seriousness of head injuries.

"I think sort of generally the world is more in tune with hockey violence and the effect of concussions on people long-term, and that sort of thing. So it's in the public consciousness in a way that it wasn't before," said Ertel.

Ottawa defence lawyer Mark Ertel says very few people are found guilty of violence during hockey games. (Chris Rands/CBC)

Greenspon said that increased awareness is a good thing.

"I think more and more people have been made aware of concussions and how they can be life-changing and long-lasting, and I think the awareness on the part of the public and, equally, the management of hockey teams ... I think that's really good, I think that's something that a lot of people wish we were more aware of years ago," he said.

But while it's important that people take head injuries more seriously, Ertel doesn't believe the criminal justice system is the best way to deter players from making bad hits.

Hard to prove intentions

"If there's something wrong with hockey, the criminal law is not going to be able to fix it. It's a problem with hockey that needs to be solved by hockey," he said. 

Defence lawyer Lawrence Greenspon says more people are aware of concussions and their effects than they were years ago. (CBC)

"Hockey is a very fast game. People collide, tempers flare, and people who participate ... are consenting to ... a wide range of things both inside and outside the rules, so to attract a criminal sanction and to be found guilty, it has to be pretty far outside the scope of the game."

Ertel said it's also hard to prove that bad hits in the fast-paced sport are intentional or not.

"For the criminal law to apply people have to intend to do the thing that constitute the offence, and there has to be some reasonable forseeability of the consequences ... and when those elements aren't there it's going to be very difficult, it's going to be impossible, to prove that anybody's guilty of anything arising out of a hockey game," he said.

With files from Emily Ridlington