MONTREAL - A Quebec junior hockey player accused of assaulting an opponent with a cross-check to the face during a heated contest last fall was merely following hockey's unwritten code of engagement, his lawyer argued Thursday.
The accused is facing one count of assault causing bodily harm and a second charge of assault with a weapon.
During closing arguments in Quebec youth court, defence lawyer Richard Shadley said the stick attack was accidental and the Crown overreached by pursuing charges.
Because of a publication ban, neither the accused, the victim or the teams they play for can be identified.
But the case revisits the fine line where sport and crime intersect on the ice.
The alleged assault happened during a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game last season.
After a whistle stopped play, a melee ensued with players from opposing clubs squaring off.
Shadley argued his client was trying to ensure none of his teammates were outnumbered.
"When there's a skirmish like this, everyone takes an opponent," Shadley said.
"That's what he intended to do."
The accused, now 18, matched up with the only opposition player on the ice without a sparring partner and allegedly delivered three cross-checks to the chest of the supposed victim, who didn't react to the shots.
But the fourth shot, a violent cross-check, apparently caught the opposition player square in the mouth, sending him to the ground.
The entire incident lasted about four seconds.
Shadley said his client wanted to gauge his opponents' interest in fighting and was trying to get him to drop the gloves.
He pointed to an unwritten code of conduct that governs the game on the ice.
"The code is an integral part of this case because the code gives you the key to consent and consent is one of the basic elements in the offence of assault," Shadley said.
The victim, who needed a stitch to fix the wound, missed about six minutes of the game before returning to play.
Shadley said the incident was minor and pointed at high-profile NHL altercations such as those that left players Steve Moore and Donald Brashear injured.
But Crown prosecutor Ellen Baulne said the case was not an isolated incident and argued it didn't mean an assault hadn't taken place just because the victim didn't miss significant ice time.
Baulne argued consent is not implied by simply being on the ice when a stick is used as a weapon.
She said the victim in the case had no chance to duck the stick shot.
Shadley told Judge Jacques A. Nadeau the first three shots didn't even constitute a sanctionable offence under the rules of hockey.
"There are levels of sanction which everyone agrees to - penalties, suspensions, game suspensions," said Shadley.
"Then, and only then, we cross the final threshold into crime, criminal record, potential jail."
But the code calls for a player who doesn't want to engage in fisticuffs to give a sign.
"He turns away, he skates away, he grabs your stick, he looks the other way, there are all kinds of signals that are given," Shadley said.
"That's what is done in professional hockey because no one wants to be an instigator because if you instigate, there's an additional penalty."
Shadley also questioned why it took the victim five days after the incident to file a complaint with police if he thought the attack was intentional.
"There was no bad blood between these two boys," Shadley said, adding his client skated off the ice and was by all accounts shocked and disappointed in what he'd done.
A series of brawls brought about widespread calls in Quebec to bring about tougher sanctions in hockey and prompted the QMJHL to crack down on on-ice violence and impose longer suspensions.
During the trial, a QMJHL official testified that fighting remains part of the game although Pierre Leduc said the number of incidents have been nearly cut in half.
But the league has not eliminated fighting altogether and acknowledges it remains part of the game.
Both the accused's father and mother were in court, as was the victim in the case.
Nadeau will render a verdict on Sept. 18.
Sidhartha Banerjee, News from (c) The Canadian Press, 2009.
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