Friday, August 24, 2007

NHL can’t be judge and jury when legal system fails

By Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

We only know these two facts for sure: Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Mark Bell was sentenced to six months in prison during the off-season for a DUI and hit-and-run incident last Summer, and former Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet pled guilty to gambling charges and was sentenced to two years probation.

The rest of the story is a stunning reversal of the usual cries for legal intrusion when the NHL becomes as violent as any two-minute segment on the nightly news.

Yes, both men committed crimes and will be punished for such. But it’s of no consequence to the league, which employs both, to add sanctions for actions taken outside the bounds of the sport.

Any call for reprisals within the game itself – from the lowly fan blogger to team
owners – unfairly puts commissioner Gary Bettman in the unenviable position of having to act, and doing so under the spotlight of instant media opinion and criticism.

Bell’s incident occurred in the summer and off the ice, and there is no evidence Tocchet placed bets from his team office or on the game itself, so you can’t suggest a league penalty for conduct detrimental to their respective teams.

Bettman shouldn’t be forced into the position of high school disciplinarian, charged with meting out punishments that serve as examples to the rest of the community. For all his failings with running the NHL, he should never be charged with righting a wrong done by the failing of the legal system.

At one time, jurisprudence could take care of these fatal mistakes, because hockey players were not the public figures they are today. In 1984, then-Bruins forward Craig MacTavish left a nightclub in Lynn, Massachusetts, drove under the influence, then hit and killed 26-year-old Kim Radley in nearby Peabody. MacTavish pled guilty to a lesser charge of vehicular homicide, yet spent the entire following season in jail.

Of course some sweet came from the bitter, as MacTavish turned his life around, was given a second chance to re-establish his career in Edmonton and won four Stanley Cups over the remaining 12 years.

Still, that penalty seems so harsh compared to Dany Heatley, who acted irresponsibly with speed and his recklessness resulted in the death of teammate Dan Snyder back in September, 2003. Although alcohol did not factor into the crash (rather driving too fast on rain-slicked roads) Heatley pled guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide and received three years of probation.

The young forward didn’t get his new start until two years later, in a trade to Ottawa, after his time in purgatory on a year rehabbing from injuries sustained in the crash plus the cancelled 2004-2005 season.

Besides the passage of time and shifting of community and legal standards, the presence of alcohol and degree of bodily harm seem to be the deciding factors in both cases. The actions of both players directly resulted in the death of another, and one served his debt to society behind bars, while the other carries what is known as “blood guilt.”

In the two recent examples, there are too many mitigating factors, too many ways to split hairs for Bettman to be fairly evaluated if and when he decides to hand down judgment.

California is a moderately-budgeted B-movie reality compared to the rest of the United States in many respects, and the sentence given to Bell for his hit-and-run is too bizarre and lenient for this die-hard East-coaster to stomach. It sends the diametrically opposed message that what Bell did was criminally wrong, but not enough to have his life and livelihood affected.

In Tocchet’s case, he rightfully slipped past the typical prosecutorial trick, which, in polite society is termed as: throw anything against the wall and see what sticks. It certainly fed the papers, network news, radio and sports programs with all sorts of lurid tales of connections to organized crime, but petered out into nothing more than a small-time operation funded by big-time money makers.

So, I strongly disagree with anyone playing up the situation as another crossroads in the growth of the NHL, or as some kind of moral test for the game’s head honcho. There are enough internal factors which are far more important to the league’s overall health.

Let the NHL decide what to do about the salary cap, the unbalanced schedule and an increase in the number of season-ending injuries. It may be run by a cadre of lawyers, but there is not a robe and a gavel to be found among them.

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