The first eight months after the death of Miran Schrott, Jim Boni often woke up drenched in sweat. Always the same nightmare: It is a hockey game like any other hockey game. An altercation in front of the goal like a hundred other altercations. A battle for position, a flash of temper and a slash like any other slash. It means nothing. Only the other player falls to the ice and doesn't get up. Why won't he get up? Get up, Boni is screaming; his mouth is moving, but no sounds are coming out. Get up! Why don't you get up?
Even after Boni awakens, nothing changes. The player in the dream remains on the ice. Still. Lifeless. How many times must he kill Miran Schrott before the interminable nightmare ends? How many hours must he lie with his eyes open in the blackness of night, thinking about spending 10 years in an Italian prison, locked away from his children, Jenny and Ryan. Because of a hockey game.
The nightmares are fewer now. It has been almost two years, after all, since Schrott's tragic death on Jan. 14, 1992, during an Italian B Division game that pitted the hockey club of Gardena against Courmayeur, Boni's team. But occasionally something will set off another nightmare, and the 30-year-old Boni, Italian by birth, Canadian by upbringing, will wake with a cold start. Like the day last summer when he was served the court documents charging him with omicidio preterintenzionale, unintentional manslaughter, meaning that Boni intended to hit the victim but did not intend for the victim to die as a result. It's a serious charge: Conviction carries a mandatory 10- to 18-year sentence.
The trial, set for Feb. 16, 1994, will be in Aosta, the small (pop. 38,000) city in the Italian Alps where Boni is now living and playing hockey. The verdict, his head lawyer, Vittorio Chiusano, has warned him, could go either way.
December 6, 1993
"It's different here," Boni says. "I'm guilty until I can prove myself innocent. One of my lawyers told me, 'No offense, Jimmy, but this is going to be a great case, probably the biggest case in Italian sports.' "
The case, it's believed, is without precedent. It was the first instance anywhere in the world of a hockey player being charged with manslaughter in connection with a fatal injury that occurred during a game. The incident, captured on videotape by Italian television, was relatively innocent-looking as hockey violence goes. Were it not for its tragic consequences, it would hardly have drawn a second glance. Certainly it would never have made any North American's list of Hockey's Most Vicious Hits. "Something like that happens 10 times a game at least," says Dave Pasin, a former draft choice of the Boston Bruins, who was a teammate of Schrott's. "When a guy punches you in the head, your first instinct is to do something back."
Schrott, a strapping 19-year-old defenseman who grew up in Gardena, was covering Boni as the Courmayeur captain broke in from the point. As they jostled for position in front of Gardena's goal, Boni put his arm around Schrott's head. Schrott, who wore a cage on his helmet, punched Boni in the head with his right glove in response. Schrott then raised his left arm to straighten his helmet, and Boni, without looking, slashed him in the chest with the heel of his stick. Spontaneous payback. It wasn't a spear. And Boni's hands were not together on the stick, baseball-style, when he swung. It was a quick, angry whack, a warning for Schrott to keep his punches to himself. Then Boni wheeled to the blue line. Schrott crumpled.
Boni's first thought was that Schrott was faking in an attempt to draw a penalty. "I didn't think I'd hit him hard enough for him to go down," he says. No one on the Gardena team jumped Boni to wreak revenge, and no penalty was called by the referee although clearly Boni could have been whistled for slashing. But it was not the sort of blow that could have been construed as one with an intent to injure, which would have carried a 10-minute penalty and game misconduct. Players bent on injuring another player do not aim at the chest, which is protected by the front flap of the shoulder pads. They aim at more vulnerable areas: the back of the knees, the forearms, the back, the ankles or, in the worst cases, the neck or the head. Not the chest.
But Schrott lay stricken on the ice, and as it became clear that something was unusually wrong, one teammate tore off Schrott's helmet and rolled him onto his back. "When they got him turned over, it looked like he was turning purple," says Pasin, who was on the ice when the incident occurred. "He had no expression on his face. It was like he was sleeping."
"Only one guy went right to Schrott," says Reinhold Oberhofer, an Italian teammate of Boni's. "The other guys on the ice were not so concerned. I asked what was going on, and one of his teammates told me, 'It's happened before in practice. He'll be all right in a couple of minutes.' "
Schrott had a history of epilepsy, and the assumption among some of Schrott's teammates was that he was having a seizure. As players on both sides watched, someone on the ice tried to pry open Schrott's mouth, which was clenched shut. The Courmayeur team physician, Dr. Sauro Rocchia, who would usually be at rinkside, was in the dressing room stitching up another player, and it was three or four minutes before he arrived at the scene on the ice. He also tried to pry open Schrott's mouth and, failing at that, attempted to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation, pounding on Schrott's chest in an effort to revive him. Only after 10 or 15 minutes was Schrott loaded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance to be taken to the nearest hospital, in Chamonix, France. The hockey game continued to its completion. Boni played his regular shift and afterward told his team's manager he was going to visit Schrott in the hospital. "He told me, 'Don't go.' " Boni recalls. "Then he started crying. That's when I understood."
Without regaining consciousness, Miran Schrott had died of cardiac arrest.
"It's like a nightmare you don't wake up from," Boni says. "If I'm going to commit a crime, I know I'm taking a risk, and I commit it anyway, aware there might be consequences. But I was playing a game. That's all. Just like I'd been doing all my life."
Boni, the youngest of four children, was born in the town of Frosinone, east of Rome. In 1964, when he was a year old, his father, Nello, moved the family to the town of North York, outside Toronto, where Nello worked as a carpenter. Jim—blue-eyed, light-brown-haired—grew up like any other Canadian kid. He spoke mostly English at home and, of course, filled the winter months by playing hockey. He was a star midget player for the Toronto Young Nationals when his father was injured in a construction accident in 1978. Unable to work, Nello and Irma Boni, Jim's mother, decided to move back to Italy.
A year after arriving in Italy, Jimmy Boni made the Bolzano hockey club, a pro team in the A Division, as a 17-year-old defenseman. Bolzano paid him $50 a week plus room and board and schooling. Boni was the youngest player on the team, a finesse defenseman, a playmaker who was more adept at moving the puck than at rattling the teeth of incoming forwards. It was a style of play well suited to the larger ice surface of the European rinks, and in Boni's eight years in Bolzano, his team won the Italian national championship four times.
Boni served a year in the Italian military, which is mandatory for Italian men. He met and married Grazia Corradini, who is from Bolzano, and together they ran three casual-line clothing stores in that city. Both their children, Jenny, now 4, and Ryan, 3, were born in Italy.
In 1990 Carlo Rivetti, an owner of several casual menswear companies, started a hockey club in Courmayeur, a resort town in Italy's northwest corner, near the French border. A year later Boni, by then a respected veteran, was persuaded to leave Bolzano to become Courmayeur's captain. He was excited at the prospect of captaining the new, young team, which his friend Roberto Zumofen would manage. He thought the change in scenery would do his career good.
For a while everything was working out as he had hoped. Courmayeur was tied for first place with Gardena. Boni was healthy. His marriage was sound. Then with one fateful, calamitous swing of his stick, two lives were destroyed. Miran Schrott's—suddenly, irrevocably. And Boni's.
At the inquest at the police station the day after the incident, Boni met Josef Schrott, the deceased player's father. Boni told him how sorry he was, that it was a freak accident, that there was nothing unusual about the blow that killed Miran. "I have nothing against you," the elder Schrott told him, shaking Boni's hand. A generation earlier Josef Schrott had been a member of the Gardena team that won the Italian championship. "I played hockey before."
Boni, though, was discouraged from attending Miran's funeral in Oritsay. "The president of Gardena called my wife at home to tell me to stay away," Boni says. "They didn't want there to be any trouble." Boni went to the funeral anyway, which proceeded without incident.
The trouble, however, was just beginning for Boni, who for the last 22 months has suffered a daily and nearly ceaseless personal hell. Italian newspapers—both general circulation and the three national sports dailies—spared no metaphors in sensationalizing the story. "They made it sound like Jimmy was deliberately going out there to kill someone," says Pasin. "They crucified him."
In Turin, La Stampa, the city's largest paper, ran a front-page story with the headline TO KILL FOR SPORT. In another article Boni was described as a barbarian from Canada who had deliberately waited until Schrott raised his arms, then took deadly aim at his foe's heart, rupturing it with a vicious slash.
In fact, when the results of the autopsy were made public, it was learned that the blow to Schrott had ruptured no major blood vessels servicing his heart and that no ribs had been broken. Schrott's heart had apparently been sound, although the autopsy did show that his aorta—the major blood vessel leading to the heart—was somewhat narrower than normal. Was his epilepsy to blame? Had there been a previous condition that somehow contributed to his death? "I heard all those rumors," says Pasin. "All I can tell you is he was built like a bull. I thought he was the strongest kid on the team."
Peter Schwartz, a cardiologist in Milan, dismisses epilepsy as a possible cause of Schrott's death. "His epilepsy was no factor," says Schwartz, who is prepared to testify in Boni's defense. "There would have been convulsions and a very different scene." He also does not believe that the narrowing in Schrott's aorta contributed to his death, although Boni's lawyers intend to argue that it did. "His aorta was somewhat smaller than normal, but not to any degree that would have been life threatening."
Why, then, did Schrott's heart stop beating after this particular blow, which in every aspect except its lethal result was unremarkable? "A combination of factors," Schwartz says. "To be lethal the blow must be intense and on the heart itself. And the timing of the blow is crucial."
According to Schwartz there is a critical vulnerable period during each heartbeat, about 30 milliseconds in duration, in which a sharp blow to the heart can create an electrical impulse. This impulse is capable of interrupting the normal beating of the heart, stunning it much as an electric shock might do. "It's well known in the medical community," says Schwartz, "that any electrical activation of the heart in that vulnerable period has a high probability of causing a little arrhythmia."
That arrhythmia in some cases initiates cardiac arrest. There is actually a medical term for the condition, commotio cordis, and researchers are just beginning to recognize the dangers to adolescents of blows to the area around the heart when they are playing certain sports. Indeed, Schrott is not the first young athlete to have died as a result of such a blow. In the last four years at least two hockey players in the U.S., both 15, have died from cardiac arrest, one in Wisconsin and the other in New Hampshire, after being struck over the heart with a puck. In both cases the boys were wearing shoulder pads with chest padding that covered the heart, they were in good physical health, and they suffered no rupturing or other significant injury to the heart as a result of the blow. Their hearts simply stopped beating after the impact. At least one lacrosse player is known to have died in similar circumstances, and there have also been tragic instances of youngsters being struck in the chest by baseballs, both batted and thrown, and suffering lethal cardiac arrest. Commotio cordis has generated enough concern that in some parts of the country Little Leaguers are now required to wear chest protectors when they bat.
"A young person's sternum is more likely to bend on impact than an adult's is," says Dr. Alan Ashare, who is director-at-large of USA Hockey's Safety and Protective Equipment Committee. "What seems to happen in these cases is the chest wall hits the heart and causes a focus for abnormal arrhythmia."
"It's a relatively new observation," says Dr. Charles Haffajee, director of cardiac electrophysiology at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Boston. "None of us knows whether commotio cordis can happen to you or me or only to those who are somehow predisposed to arrhythmia. We don't know if the fact that an adolescent's skeleton is less formed is a contributing factor. We do know it has to be a very high-pressure blow of incredible speed in the critical area, which is almost directly over the left nipple."
Was Schrott's death another case of commotio cordis? No one can say for sure. Certainly the speed with which Boni swung his stick should not be construed as "incredible." For that matter, Little Leaguers and 15-year-old hockey players do not pitch balls or shoot pucks at "incredible speed." Schrott's death in light of these other cases can be interpreted not as a freak of chance, but as at least the third instance in the last four years in which the inadequacy of chest protection in ice hockey has been tragically exposed. Says Ashare, "Should everyone wear a certified chest protector? We've discussed it, but you have to take into consideration the cost and the incidence of this injury. There are more than 300,000 registered hockey players in the U.S. How much of a danger is this?"
Fairly remote, obviously. Prompt medical attention in instances of commotio cordis can further reduce the chances of fatal cardiac arrest in young athletes. "What was wrong with the situation in Courmayeur was not that the blow delivered by Boni was lethal," says Schwartz, "but there was a lapse of about five minutes before the physician initiated CPR. Cardiac arrest, especially in a normal heart, is very frequently reversible if treated in time, and in my opinion CPR might have saved him. If the people in attendance had reacted properly, Jim Boni would not now be accused of manslaughter."
But it is Boni who will be on trial in the Italian courts. And it was Boni whom the Schrott family sued. Not the physician, not the hockey club, not the equipment manufacturer and not the Italian hockey federation, which in fact gave the Gardena team permission to take legal action against Boni.
"As a hockey player, it scares me to think if something tragic happens on the ice, the federation won't support me," says Maurizio Catenacci, a teammate of Boni's. Catenacci, 29, also hails from the Toronto area, and he is probably Boni's closest friend. He asked to be traded this season to CourmAosta (the team moved to Aosta two years ago, hence the new name) so that he could be with Boni when his trial took place. "There was no defibrilator at the rink," Catenacci says. "It took 15 minutes to get Schrott in an ambulance. And there's the question of why Miran Schrott got the O.K. to play."
"The kid was sick, there's no doubt of that," states Zumofen, who also says that slashes like the one that killed Schrott are given and received every game. He adds, "The ice hockey federation [officials] are the ones who could have closed the door on it. They could have told the prosecutor it was a normal hockey incident that had a tragic result. But a lot of top people from the federation are from Gardena. Schrott was from Gardena. Our team was brand-new and had no political pull with the federation."
After the death of Schrott, the federation initially suspended Boni for the duration of the '91-92 season. It seemed like an appropriate response to the tragedy, and Boni, who'd never had any previous disciplinary problems, was reinstated the following year. Literally an hour before the first game of '92-93, Zumofen received a fax saying that the federation had suspended Boni again, indefinitely, having heard that Gardena fans were preparing to bus to Cortina to protest Boni's return.
Catenacci, who played last season for a team in Fiemme, then organized a player slowdown in support of Boni. Whether they were Italian or Canadian, the hockey players in Italy knew how easily what had happened to Miran Schrott and Jim Boni might, but for the grace of God, have happened to them.
"I feel sorry for Miran and sorry for Jimmy," says Markus Brunner, an Italian player who'd been a teammate of Schrott's on the junior national team. "I saw the incident on TV, and it could happen to anybody. These slashes happen 20 times a game. If Miran were still alive today, he'd say the same thing."
Every team cooperated in the slowdown except Gardena. In games throughout both divisions, the teams waited for 10 minutes in their dressing rooms, delaying the opening face-off. Announcements were made to the fans explaining the reason for the late start. "We got a fax from the federation saying if we did it again, we'd be fined $10,000," Catenacci recalls. "We did it anyway. The fans were supportive. They clapped when we came back on the ice. And if the federation hadn't reinstated Jimmy, we were going to go on strike and not play the games."
The hockey federation relented and once again gave Boni permission to play. But bad luck had become Boni's defense partner, and in his first game back he broke his wrist and was out for another five weeks. In the interim the hockey federation suspended Boni a third time. This suspension, too, was eventually revoked by the appeals committee on the eve of the playoffs last February. Boni then led Courmayeur to a 9-3 record in the postseason as the team won the Italian Division B title.
Strangely, almost miraculously, hockey was the one thing in Jim Boni's life that was still fun. The Schrott tragedy had not tempered his enjoyment of the game or affected the way he played it—though, Boni says, "I'll never hit anyone with my stick again, I'll tell you that." He enjoyed the body contact as much as ever, even relished it in certain instances, ignoring the occasional taunts he received during the final round of the playoffs: "Assassino" or "You've already killed one kid. Want to go for another?"
"They apologized afterward," he says. "They were just trying to get under my skin. No big deal. Those suspensions made me realize how much I missed hockey. Shooting, playing, even getting hit is fun. It's weird. It's the one thing that still makes me feel alive. It's more than a game. It's like a medicine to me."
Medicine his psyche sorely needs. An avid golfer and fly-fisherman, Boni has discovered he has no appetite for those hobbies as long as the trial hangs over his head. "I can't sit down and tie a fly anymore," he says. "I used to love to be on the water at nightfall. There's a river near Bolzano I used to fish, and you'd hear the slurping of the brownies in the dark, and you'd get down real low and see the flies floating on the water against the moonlight. It's weird, but I can't get into it now. I'm not alone on the river anymore."
Too many ghosts. Too many what-ifs. Too much inexplicable sadness to bear. What had he done to deserve it? First Schrott. Then, last summer, Boni's older brother Joe died in a car accident in Ontario. That same week one of Boni's uncles was killed when a knife-wielding lunatic went on a rampage in a crowd outside an Italian cathedral. What was happening? When would the nightmare end?
Boni's marriage, too, had fallen apart, this a result of the Schrott incident. As it happens, Boni and Grazia had put all their property in Grazia's name in the summer of 1990. By November 1992, Boni, who was not covered by any kind of liability insurance, needed to raise cash for a separate out-of-court settlement with the Schrott family. "The prosecuting attorney told me in very strong terms that it would be in my best interests to settle with the Schrotts," Boni says. "He said it would look very bad to have the family dressed in black, dramatically coming into the court crying." But when he asked Grazia to sell their assets so he could meet the $183,000 settlement, she refused. "She didn't think it was right," he says. "She thought the club should pay."
Last July, Grazia, who has remained in Bolzano with the kids ever since Boni went to play in Courmayeur, filed for a legal separation. She's seeking sole custody of their children.
So Rivetti, the owner of the hockey team, helped Boni meet the settlement with the Schrotts. Boni is now essentially insolvent and playing his way out of the debt. The team has provided him with room and board, and he will receive little pay this season. The club is also picking up his legal fees, although nothing has been spelled out in a contract; and Boni, truly believing himself innocent of wrongdoing, is hunkering down for a long, hard fight with the prosecuting attorney, Luigi Schiavone. "I'm not running from anything," Boni says. "I've got nothing to lose. My life's already been ruined."
Boni has rejected one plea bargain, in which he was offered a three-year conditional sentence. That would have meant, however, an admission of guilt. Also, he would not have been allowed to go out of his house at night or been allowed to leave Aosta, which would have effectively meant the end of his hockey career. "I'd be giving up more than hockey," Boni says. "I'd be giving up on myself."
Why is Schiavone pressing ahead with the case? In an interview on Canadian television last year, the prosecutor admitted, "Certainly we are not dealing with a criminal." Schiavone claims that after the Schrott family dropped the civil proceedings, the case had to be continued by the public prosecutor because of the gravity of the accusation. He says that Boni's was a voluntary act of aggression and that while he obviously did not mean to kill Schrott, he did intend to hit him. Schiavone denies he is continuing the prosecution for publicity, as many Boni supporters claim. "Publicity is not pleasant for a magistrate, though it sometimes happens," Schiavone says. If he gets a conviction, he says, "there can be no suspension of the 10-year sentence because of the seriousness of the accusation."
But according to Ennio Festa, one of the lawyers from a high-powered firm provided to Boni by Rivetti, there are two extenuating circumstances that, if Boni is convicted, could work in the defendant's favor and limit his prison term to five years: Boni has no prior convictions, and he has already made the settlement with the victim's family.
Schiavone is not the first prosecutor to attempt to put hockey violence on trial in the courtroom. In 1975 Dave Forbes of the Boston Bruins hit Henry Boucha of the Minnesota North Stars in the right eye with the butt end of his stick as the two were coming out of the penalty box, and Hennepin County (Minn.) attorney Gary Flakne charged Forbes with aggravated assault. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, Flakne, who was convinced he would be unable to get a conviction, dropped the case. In 1988 Dino Ciccarelli of the North Stars was sentenced to a day in jail (although he ultimately spent less than two hours there) after clubbing Luke Richardson of the Maple Leafs in the head twice in Toronto. And in 1970 Ted Green of the Bruins and Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues were both charged with common assault after a stick-swinging fight in an exhibition game in Toronto. Green suffered a fractured skull in the brawl and could not play for the whole season, and Maki hurt his jaw and neck and experienced blurred vision. In separate trials Maki was declared not guilty on the grounds of self-defense and Green was acquitted by a judge who said that "hockey could not possibly be played unless those engaging in the sport were willing to accept these assaults."
Those were deliberate acts of violence that pushed the envelope of organized sport to a level that the various prosecutors apparently believed was closer to civic mayhem. Even so, none of the cases resulted in sentences that amounted to more than a slap on the wrist. Courts on this side of the Atlantic have shown a great reluctance to apply the law of the land to events that take place within an athletic arena.
Boni, however, isn't being tried on this side of the Atlantic, and it is unclear how the Italian courts will react to his case (which will be tried before a jury). "It's going to be a tough trial," says Zumofen. "There's not much of a hockey culture here."
"Most of Italy thinks, Look at this crazy sport of hockey. You're allowed to kill someone with a stick," says Catenacci. "The judge will probably have never seen a hockey game before."
A factor that should cause particular alarm for a lot of top NHL players about the whole Boni-Schrott affair is that beginning in April, Italy will host hockey's world championships. "I think the prosecutor's actions raise questions in a lot of people's minds," says Bob Goodenow, head of the NHL Players' Association, whose constituency should be well represented on the Canadian, U.S., Swedish, Russian, Finnish and Czech national teams in the championships. "I've looked at the tape of the Boni incident, and while the result was horrible, it wasn't an act by a player that hasn't been seen in hockey a thousand times before. Do they prosecute boxers and soccer players over there? It's a legal quagmire and an issue of concern for all the players and federations to be aware of before we go [to Italy]."
Walter Bush, head of USA Hockey and a council member of the International Ice Hockey Federation, which sanctions the world championships, agrees. He had heard about the Boni incident but until recently was unaware that it was being prosecuted. "If that's the law of the land, maybe we shouldn't be playing there," Bush says. "Everybody who plays hockey knows there's some danger involved every time you step on the ice. In 1968 I saw [North Star] Billy Masterton fall backward on the ice and hit his head. Thirty hours later he was dead. What if someone had tripped him? Would they have tried the guy for murder? I'm not too keen on playing there if they go ahead with this trial."
"If he's convicted, hockey in Italy is over," says Ralph DiFiore, a teammate of Boni's on CourmAosta who grew up in Montreal. "The prosecutor says Boni intended to hit him, so it's manslaughter? It's a joke. If I belt a guy into the boards, it's premeditated. What if he loses an eye? What if he breaks his jaw? Is some prosecutor going to come after me? What about a boxer who kills a guy in the ring? It happens, eh?"
It happens, yes. Still, as reasonable as all these arguments sound, Jim Boni will stand trial. Alone. It is not Italy that will be on trial. Nor an overly vigilant prosecutor. Nor the sport itself. It is one scared and bewildered hockey player who, in a rare moment of feistiness, says, "I'm going to clear my name. I want to see who's got the guts to put me in jail."
As Feb. 16 approaches, his nightmares will return. He's fairly sure of that. And only that.