The news former NHLer Andre Deveaux would face criminal charges in Sweden for a blind-side, stick-swinging attack on an opponent prior to a playoff game last week isn’t entirely unexpected. Once video of the incident surfaced, there were bound to be severe repercussions for the 31-year-old, and it’s looking like being released from his contract (as he was Monday) will be the least of Deveaux’s concerns.
The day after his release from Swedish League team Rogle BK, Deveaux had a warrant issued for his arrest, the TT news agency reported. Swedish prosecutors saw what we all saw – Deveaux inexplicably charging VIK Vasteras HK player Per Helmersson as his back was turned in warmups, winding up with his stick, swinging it baseball-style at Helmersson’s ankles, then clubbing him in the head – and decided a hockey punishment wasn’t nearly enough. And they were right. There was no major injury on the play, but what if that massive slash had shattered Helmersson’s ankle and decimated his ability to play at peak form for the rest of his career? In effect, Deveaux was gambling with an opponent’s career – and as it turns out, his own career.
You can argue whatever you like about whether or not Deveaux had been provoked in an earlier playoff game between his team and Helmersson’s, but that is missing the point. This is another cautionary tale, and it's the one hockey’s fundamentalist old-schoolers don’t like to talk much about: the culture of the game can push you to levels of hyper-aggression you never thought possible, but there’s a Rubicon you can cross – and once you do cross it, the game’s gatekeepers won’t always be there to protect you.
Hockey people often bristle when the legal system and/or government shows any interest in how they conduct their affairs, but that type of defensive shell is nearly as bad for the sport as attacks like Deveaux’s. The law isn’t arbitrarily picking on hockey when it intervenes. It’s doing what it would in any sport or business setting where there’s an indication the workplace has become unsafe. If an employer cannot demonstrate the ability to adequately protect its employees, it’s the responsibility of public representatives to step in and ensure that changes.
The standard answer to this is there’s a degree of assumed risk by anyone who sets foot on a professional hockey rink. But if you’re trying to argue someone like Helmersson should’ve known he could be jumped from behind at any point and possibly assaulted in the same fashion that ended the career of former NHLer Steve Moore, you’re out to lunch. No athlete deserves such treatment.
However, these events are inevitable when you create an environment with so many shades of grey when it comes to competitive conduct. Professional hockey essentially says to players, “it’s okay to go this far – to drill a player into the boards from behind, or to cross-check someone in the teeth – but not to go this far.” And they only usually identify what the italicized “this” is after someone has committed the act.
Once you do cross that vaguely-marked line – as members of the Philadelphia Flyers did in Toronto in 1976, when Joe Watson, Bob Kelly, Mel Bridgman and Don Saleski were charged with assault; or when Dino Ciccarelli was charged and convicted of assault in 1988 – your destiny is out of the hands of the always-forgiving hockey establishment. And as the years have gone on and we’ve become a more litigious society, not only do you have to worry about criminal charges, you’ve got to be concerned about civil lawsuits, like the one Moore filed against Todd Bertuzzi after the latter broke the former’s neck in 2004.
Moore’s case was settled out of court last year, but there’s every chance others will come after future incidents and the participants will not withdraw charges. Indeed, if there’s a catastrophic injury during a game that results in a player’s death, reality will come thundering down on hockey and the players involved. The perpetrator will be on trial for the sins of the culture, and while he will bear some responsibility for his actions, he’ll find out quickly and painfully there is no teammate, coach or GM able to protect him the way he may have believed he was protecting his team when his over-the-top act occurred. That’s certainly what Bertuzzi learned in the wake of Moore’s injury; he sued his coach in Vancouver at the time, Marc Crawford, and attempted to shift to Crawford any damages Moore successfully sued him for. (That lawsuit was also dropped.) When something major goes down, hockey’s beloved “Code” gets thrown out the window, and everyone reverts into ass-covering mode.
Players are conditioned to accept that the individual never comes before the team, and that you stand up for one another at all costs. That’s a wonderful concept, but as we’re seeing in Sweden this week, it’s one that quickly disintegrates in the bright lights of the real word. You can be an individual in hockey, and nobody will come to your aid. Deveaux is discovering that now. The veteran enforcer may have thought he was protecting his team or defending his own honor, but he's finding out the hard way what bunk that is.
Deveaux was wrong and ought to pay a big price. Banning him from playing another pro game again should be on the table. But the bigger crime here is that the sport doesn’t do enough with its disciplinary process to strongly discourage this type of behavior in its early stages, and that players are encouraged to become sufficiently self-absorbed and single-minded to the point they reflexively disregard potential consequences of their choices until it’s too late.