When a Hennepin County (Minn.) grand jury indicted Dave Forbes of the Boston Bruins on Jan. 17 for aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon—his hockey stick—on Henry Boucha of the Minnesota North Stars during a game earlier in the month, it opened a Pandora's box of potential legal complications that could alter the nature of hockey and all contact sports. As the 26-year-old Bruin leftwinger was arraigned on the felony charge in Hennepin District Court last week, he became the first pro athlete in the United States to be hauled before a judge by civil authorities for the commission of an act within the confines of a playing area. If the case proceeds to trial and Forbes is convicted, he would receive a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison.
At present Forbes is serving a 10-game suspension without pay imposed by National Hockey League President Clarence Campbell, who termed the case "one of the most vicious incidents that I have ever been called upon to deal with." Boucha, meanwhile, is still suffering double vision caused when Forbes punched him with the butt end of his hockey stick. "Are we supposed to sit here and say 'Boys will be boys'?" said Hennepin County Attorney Gary Flakne, who announced the indictment. "I agree that hockey is a contact sport, but there seems to be a line which the grand jury found, and I agree with, beyond which something other than good-natured hard contact becomes assault."
The indictment carries ominous overtones. "If this civil intervention is pursued to trial," said Campbell, a lawyer himself, "we will have to give great thought to the future of our game. As far as I am concerned, civil authority is not equipped to deal with this type of situation." Harry Sinden, the managing director of the Bruins, warned that "if Forbes is convicted of anything, we'd have to think twice about letting Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and all our other players ever skate in Minnesota again." Sinden paused. "If they convict Forbes," he added, "think of what could happen to football players who hit the quarterback after the whistle or to baseball players who slide into second base with their spikes high and cut another player."
Hockey had a similar case five years ago in which Ottawa police swore out charges against Ted Green of the Bruins and the late Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues for "assault causing bodily harm" after a vicious stick-swinging fight during an exhibition game. Green, now a New England Whaler, suffered a fractured skull and missed the entire season. He still wears a plate in his skull. Maki died last year of an unrelated brain tumor. In separate trials one judge declared Maki "not guilty" on grounds of self-defense; another judge found Green "not guilty" as well, saying that "hockey cannot be played without what normally are called assaults."
Maybe not, but as Campbell grimly admitted after the Forbes indictment, "Something must be done to control the violence in our game. I hear 10 discipline cases each week. And over the course of a season, I suspect I hear at least 10 cases where the civil authorities might think a crime was committed." He shook his head. "Without doubt this has been our worst year ever for sheer violence on the ice." Underscoring that statement is the fact that so far this season Campbell has suspended seven NHL players:
•Dennis Owchar of Pittsburgh and Bryan Watson of Detroit were given two-and three-game suspensions respectively, following a kicking match.
•Ernie Hicke of the New York Islanders was suspended for two games after kicking Bobby Schmautz of the Bruins.
•Don Saleski and Bob Kelly of Philadelphia each received six-game suspensions for their parts in a massive gang-fight in Oakland.
•Keith Magnuson of Chicago was suspended for three games as a result of breaking Chris Oddleifson's jaw when he hit the Vancouver forward with a fist that was partly encased in a cast.
•And now Forbes.
It was, as Campbell said, an "ugly" night in Minnesota. The North Stars, hockey's most disappointing team, were on the verge of a major personnel shake-up as they skated against the Bruins at the Met in Bloomington on Jan. 4. One of the few secure players on their roster was the 23-year-old Boucha, whom they had acquired from Detroit in a preseason deal and had subsequently refused to trade to Montreal in exchange for Wayne Thomas, a desperately needed goaltender. Boucha comes from War-road, Minn., on the Canadian border, and is a minor folk hero around the Twin Cities, where people vividly remember his exploits for Warroad High and the 1972 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. Early in the first period Boucha chased a loose puck against the boards, trailed closely by Forbes. Like most NHL players, Forbes tends to arrive at collisions with his elbows in an extended and upright position. Boucha accepted the elbows, turned around and then flattened Forbes. Referee Ron Wicks banished both players for a total of seven minutes.
According to Campbell's published explanation of what happened, Boucha and Forbes exchanged threats as they sat in their respective penalty boxes. Forbes reportedly told Boucha that he would "shove his stick down his throat." How Boucha retorted has not been divulged. When Boucha and Forbes returned to the ice at the expiration of their penalties, Boucha started to skate toward the Minnesota bench on the opposite side of the rink. Forbes was skating behind Boucha and to his right. Suddenly Forbes supposedly said, "O.K., let's go now." And then, by all accounts, he took a swing at Boucha. Forbes' hockey stick was in his right hand, and while he apparently missed Boucha with his gloved hand, he did hit him with the butt end of the stick. The Minnesota forward dropped to the ice, his hands covering his face. Forbes then discarded his stick and gloves and jumped on top of Boucha and continued to punch away until Murray Oliver of the North Stars pulled him away.
Boucha was removed from the ice on a stretcher and rushed to Methodist Hospital. Some 25 stitches were needed to close the cut beside his right eye. Wearing a patch over the eye, Boucha was released from the hospital the following morning. However, when the patch was removed five days later, Boucha complained of double vision. New X rays revealed a small fracture at the floor of the right eye socket and an eye specialist performed remedial surgery the next day.
Aware that the grand jury was investigating the Boucha-Forbes matter, Campbell shifted the NHL's own scheduled hearing from Montreal to Minneapolis and spent more than eight hours locked in Suite 1614 of the Radisson South Hotel with the involved parties. "The salient facts of the incident are amply verified by several witnesses," he said. Then he announced the 10-game suspension of Forbes. In Minnesota the league president's punishment was greeted with disbelief. "Only 10 games?" said Dennis Hextall, one of Boucha's teammates. In Boston, Campbell's penalty got an opposite reaction. "They're treating the kid like John Dillinger," Sinden said. Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and Carol Vadnais planned to protest the severity of Forbes' penalty by boycotting the NHL All-Star game. However, Forbes convinced them to play.
Then came the grand jury's indictment, which some hockey people have interpreted as a warning that "if you cannot police your business properly, we will." Campbell, of course, defends his punitive measures, saying, "Our record supports what we are doing." Does it? Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL's Players' Association, believes that Campbell's internal decisions in such matters ought to be sufficient, but he wonders if the penalties imposed by Campbell have not been too lenient. "On the whole, the individual incidents seem somewhat small and insignificant," he says, "but it is imperative that the league clamp down severely on all this stick swinging. Campbell must act more decisively than he has in the past. The tendency is to say, 'Nothing drastic has happened.' Well, they ought to operate as though everything that has happened has been drastic. So Wayne Maki and Ted Green didn't kill one another? So Henry Boucha didn't lose his eye? Let's handle these things in a stronger way now. Or else."
Campbell, for his part, sees no easy remedies for the air of violence that has dominated the sport in recent years. "People keep telling us that we are ogres, teaching kids to poke each other's eyes out," he says, "but I feel that is hardly the case. The fact is, this is only the second time we have had civil problems. In the end the trial judge has ultimate jurisdiction, and I'm sure he will look at the total picture, the same way the judges did in Ottawa."
So, boys will be boys. Or will they?