He did not particularly deserve the distinction, but last week Dino Ciccarelli became the first NHL player to go to jail for an on-ice assault. Dozens of NHLers, past and present, have committed barbarities as grave or graver than the one for which Ciccarelli was imprisoned last week. But none of them ever "did time."
Ciccarelli, 28, the Minnesota North Stars' alltime leading scorer, was convicted of assaulting Luke Richardson of the Toronto Maple Leafs during a game at Maple Leaf Gardens on Jan. 6. After twice clubbing Richardson in the head with his stick, Ciccarelli realized the futility of this exercise—thanks to his helmet. Richardson emerged unscathed—and proceeded to punch his adversary in the mouth. Traditionally in NHL towns, the long arm of the law withered when it came to enforcing laws in hockey arenas; police and the courts have almost always turned a blind eye to the game's violence.
That changed with this incident in Toronto. Two days after the game, officials announced they had issued a warrant for Ciccarelli's arrest. In late May he appeared in provincial court in Toronto to plead not guilty to the assault charge, and he returned in July for a one-day nonjury trial. Last Wednesday. Judge Sidney Harris found Ciccarelli guilty. Citing the need to convey a message to the NHL that "violence in a hockey game or in any other circumstance is not acceptable in our society," Harris sent the North Star right wing to jail for a day and fined him $1,000.
Ciccarelli, who in January pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure in Eden Prairie, Minn., was handcuffed and transferred to Toronto Jail, where he spent less than two hours. At first Ciccarelli was worried. "There were about 12 guys in the cell," he said. "But I ended up signing autographs." Ciccarelli, whose lawyer, Donald Houston, is appealing his conviction, was in custody for a total of four hours. Not exactly the rock pile.
September 4, 1988
Despite the brevity of Ciccarelli's incarceration, some hockey people were upset at the "meddling" from outside. "He already served a 10-game suspension. That cost him over $25,000," said North Star president Lou Nanne, referring to the action taken by the NHL last season. "That was punishment enough." Nanne said Ciccarelli was arrested only because "some politician" asked the Toronto police to press charges. "Now where do they draw the line?" It is a valid point. Hundreds of ugly, violent altercations break out in NHL games every season. Which ones merit police action?
"It seems to me that hockey has been able to police its own," said Minnesota general manager Jack Ferreira.
Here Ferreira runs into disagreement. Ontario attorney general Tan Scott said, "We have the perfect right to be in hockey rinks, particularly when those who administer professional hockey seem ill-equipped to curb this kind of incident."
While expressing disappointment with Judge Harris's verdict, NHL president John Ziegler did say, "It has long been our belief that sports are not above the law." That does not quite square with a new NHL bylaw, enacted in June, that imposes a $1 million fine on any club that leapfrogs the NHL's internal justice system and goes right to the courts, as the New Jersey Devils did during the Wales Conference finals in May, when they obtained a temporary restraining order against the suspension of Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld.
The problem is that society's and the NHL's ideas of justice are two different things. In a preseason game in Ottawa in 1969, St. Louis left wing Wayne Maki fractured the skull of Boston defenseman Ted Green during a vicious high-sticking joust. Both players were charged by local law enforcement officials with assault, but both were acquitted in separate trials. The only time served by Maki or Green came in the form of 14- and 13-game suspensions, respectively. Before delivering more serious penalties, the NHL seems to be waiting for delivery of more serious injuries on ice. When such an injury happens, it may require a coroner.
The courts in at least one hockey town, however, are now apparently willing to give NHL justice a little boost into the 20th century.