London News & Search
The consequences of hockey violence are mapped out in the scars along the lower part of Doug Gardner’s face.
Doctors carefully stitched his lower lip back together 18 months ago, after he was rushed to hospital from a Sunday morning recreational no-contact hockey game in Dorchester.
It couldn’t be pulled together without extensive dental surgery to rebuild his collapsed gum. Doctors also had to insert four of the five teeth that could be found on the ice after he was intentionally whacked in the mouth with a goalie’s stick.
Gardner, 40, was knocked out when he fell face-first onto the ice. For the next five months, he couldn’t work while he struggled with concussion symptoms. He still has migraine headaches, a sore neck and has lost feeling in his lower lip due to scar tissue.
And he’s lost all passion for a game that had been a staple of his life.
This is not part of Canada’s game, a London judge said this week when he sentenced goalie Jason Ashton, 37, who pleaded guilty to assault, to 90 days of house arrest and two years of probation.
“It may be that many ‘purists’ of the game believe that ‘what happens on the ice’ should be dealt (with) by the respective sporting bodies, but I am satisfied that a conditional sentence will send a clear message to many that not only will cases involving serious violence on the ice lead to convictions, but they may also lead to a restriction of one’s liberty by way of house arrest,” Ontario Court Justice Wayne Rabley said.
“In my view, this will send a clear message to others, warning them that the courts will not condone this type of behaviour.”
Rabley’s is the latest court decision to come down hard on violence on the ice, a clear message assaults can’t be dealt with just by time in the penalty box.
Gardner had been a four-game-a-week player before the injury. He’d played since he was three, reached a skill level to play both Junior A and Junior B and took up refereeing after his playing days were over.
“Hockey has been a big part of my life,” he said after Ashton’s sentencing this week.
“Since this, it’s opened my eyes to what can happen. It’s changed my whole view on things.”
On Feb. 14, 2016, Gardner, who still enjoyed playing at a high level, was part of the last-place team in the Dorchester NBC (no body contact) league when they took on the first-place team with Ashton as the goalie.
Gardner said he didn’t know Ashton outside of the rink but they were aware of each other when they played. And, he said, “there is a little bit of chirping going back and forth.”
On this morning, the game was tied 2-2 — Gardner had scored twice — and the game was intense.
Gardner remembers fighting for position and skating in the goalie’s crease. He came in contact with Ashton and the referee was about to call an interference penalty.
But before it was whistled down, Ashton grabbed his stick like a baseball bat and took a two-handed swing at Gardner’s face.
Ashton was assessed a major penalty and kicked out of the game. Then came the criminal charge.
Gardner’s gum was caved in and had to be reconstructed. He couldn’t eat solid food for weeks. He had to cancel a promised trip to DisneyWorld with his daughter and girlfriend, long-planned for the week after the injury.
He needed six root canals and a brace in his mouth. His dental surgery has cost him $8,000 out of pocket.
He’s still on light duties at his job as a driver for the LCBO.
The psychological scars have been much deeper. Gardner said he no longer has any desire to play hockey.
“I have no interest. It’s a shame, really,” he said.
“I’m more concerned about my health and piecing my life back together.”
Ashton, a electrical supply salesperson, was described in Rabley’s judgment as “a family-oriented man with an easy-going personality” and “level-headed and sportsmanlike” on the ice.
He’ took on a second job to pay $5,000 of Gardner’s medical bills.
But in his pre-sentence report, while remorseful, Ashton said what happened was unintentional and that Gardner had “provoked” him, claiming he had been slew-footed in the crease. That’s not what the referee saw.
“What is most unfortunate is that even if that were the case, his response was completely inappropriate,” Rabley said.
There’s a difference, the judge said, between competitive hockey and non-contact recreational sport — and that needs to be recognized.
There is an element of consent in professional sport, he said, particularly one like hockey where there is “some violence” expected when the players sign on. The players are elite athletes who are “young, strong, well-trained and prepared both physically and mentally for the violent aspect of the game.”
But recreational players, Rabley said, don’t consent to violence. The players, even the best athletes, “as much as they may dream of greater glory, their best days are often behind them and many are employed in jobs where the rigours of physical training and preparation are not involved.
“When serious violence occurs in a recreational league . . . these cases should not necessarily follow the principles established for those in professional and semi-professional leagues,” he said.
A discharge, as requested by the defence, was not appropriate, Rabley said. “Those involved in recreational sports leagues must appreciate that significant violent behaviour will not be sanctioned by the courts and that this kind of conduct will not be condoned in our community.”
But instead of a jail sentence, as suggested by the Crown, Rabley opted for house arrest and a probation period that will bar Ashton from playing hockey for two years.
London psychologist and anti-violence advocate Peter Jaffe, who has spoken out strongly against hockey violence, applauded the decision.
“I think the decision sends an important message that violence has no place in hockey, in particular recreational hockey where men and women are playing for fun and all of them depend on their health for employment.
“The last thing you want are people who are suffering serious injuries.”
Jaffe added that he believes “the same thing should apply to junior hockey or professional hockey leagues.”
Gardner said if he ever plays again, it will only be with people he trusts. He just doesn’t want the same injuries to happen to others who love the game.
“We’re not professional hockey players, we’re not being paid, we’re out there because we love the game at this age. We’re out there for exercise. We need to go to our jobs tomorrow. We have families,” he said.
“This kind of behaviour, it just cannot be tolerated. . . . You can’t do that, you just can’t.”
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