A violent brawl involving two Pennsylvania high school hockey teams is raising questions whether on-ice fights should be prosecuted.
On Tuesday, five former hockey players from Ridley High School in Folsom, Pa., appeared in a Montgomery County courtroom for a preliminary hearing on charges of harassment, simple assault and conspiracy to commit simple assault, stemming from an altercation on the ice earlier this year.
The incident occurred in March during a game between the Ridley Raiders and Central Bucks West High School in the quarterfinals of the Philadelphia “Flyers Cup” Scholastic Championship.
Trailing 7-1 in the third period, a Raiders player sucker-punched an opposing player, before falling on top of him and continuing to strike the player in the head. The ambush triggered other Raiders players to attack other opposing players on the ice.
At least two Central Bucks players suffered injuries, with one of them needing treatment for lacerations, a broken nose and other broken facial bones.
Investigators told local media that the scorekeeper heard Ridley players conspiring to attack the opposition, leading prosecutors to claim the melee was premeditated
“Ridley knew the game was over, they knew their season was over and they were going to inflict as much damage as they could on CB West,” prosecutor John Gradel told WCAU-TV.
“When the puck was dropped none of the players from Ridley made a move for the puck, all they did was start throwing punches.”
But the defence claims the violence is just part of the sport and blamed the clash on the officials.
“It’s part of the culture. Fights happen at hockey games,” defence attorney Mark Much said. “This is a game that by all accounts they lost control of.”
The defence also argues both teams were culpable in the events that led to the fight.
“It seems to me that whatever Ridley did was wrong and whatever CB West did was defensive. I don’t see the video that way at all,” defence attorney Mike Malloy said.
“If you watch a hockey game today, someone is going to win a fight, someone is going to lose a fight,” he told the Delaware County Daily Times.
Both teams were assessed penalties, including three Ridley assistant coaches. Ridley was handed 45 penalties totalling 271 minutes, while Central Bucks West High School received 44 minutes in penalties.
A Montgomery County judge held the charges for four Ridley players. One of the former athletes waived his right to a hearing.
A formal arraignment is set for Jan. 17.
The incident is again exposing violence in hockey and raising questions asking why more charges stemming from on-ice fights are not pursued.
Some legal experts have argued that athletes consent to the risk of injury when they step on the field of play, which can be used as a defence to assault within a game.
But there have been previous examples of both professional and amateur athletes found guilty by the courts following assaults on the ice.
“It’s been a culture that’s resisted any kind of a softening of its stance on violence, but lately I think the message has been starting to sink in,” Kevin Wamsley, an expert on violence and sports at Western University said.
In 2013, a 17-year-old hockey player from Woodstock, Ont., was charged with assault after attacking a player during a game.
At the time, Tony Martindale, the executive director of Minor Hockey Alliance of Ontario, said it was the league’s preference “that police do not get involved in these types of matters, and if we need to change how we do business so that they aren’t, then that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
The player whose identity is protected under law was given a seven-game suspension by Hockey Canada, and later sentenced to 60 hours of community service.
In 2007, a 22-year-old woman was charged after kicking another player in the head with her skate.
There have been some high-profile NHL players who have also been disciplined by the courts.
In 2004, Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi was charged with criminal assault causing bodily harm after punching Colorado Avalanche defenceman Steve Moore from behind. Bertuzzi pleaded guilty and received one-year probation and 80 hours of community service.
Moore later sued Bertuzzi and the Canucks but reached a settlement out of court.
Boston Bruins enforcer Marty McSorley never played another NHL game after he used his stick to slash Vancouver Canucks tough guy Donald Brashear in the head during a game in 2000. McSorley was suspended for the rest of the season and was later found guilty of assault with a weapon and was sentenced to 18 months probation.
Twelve years before that, a similar incident involved Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli striking Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Richardson in the head with his stick several times. Ciccarelli was suspended 10 games by the league. He was convicted of assault, but fined just $1,000 and sentenced a single day in jail.
One of the first examples of the law being applied to actions on the ice was in 1975 when Boston Bruins player Dave Forbes was charged with aggravated assault with a weapon. Forbes was charged for butt-ending Henry Boucha of the Minnesota North Stars in the eye with his stick, then slammed Boucha’s head on the ice causing permanent damage. Forbes’ case ultimately was dismissed when a jury could not come to a verdict. The charges were not retried.
Recent studies have shown a reduction in fighting in the NHL and other leagues. There were 372 fights in the NHL in 2016-17, down from 734 fights in 2008-09.
— With files from the Canadian Press