Friday, July 11, 2008

Blog blast past: VandenBussche's 'concussion defence' might put pro sports on trial

Former NHL tough guy Ryan VandenBussche today had all charges dropped against him in connection with a Canada Day weekend 2006 brawl with police in Turkey Point, Ontario. Judge Marsha Ziwolak accepted his claim that he had "a head injury that legally rendered him a 'non-insane automaton.' " Ziwolak, the Simcoe Reformer reported, "also pointed to Vandenbussche's history of concussions throughout his hockey career, incidents that had also left him with temporary memory loss." A civil suit is pending. From June 8, 2007, here's a look what could be called the controversial concussion defence.

Former NHL tough guy Ryan VandenBussche's legal team is contemplating a controversial defence during his assault trial in our former stamping ground, Simcoe, Ont.:

"(Defence lawyer Gerry) Smits has said he will call a psychologist who is an expert on the effects of concussions to testify that VandenBussche was not
responsible for his actions that night."
Daniel Pearce
, Simcoe Reformer
Imagine the precedent. Think of how often athletes from contact sports where concussions are a reality (hockey, football) end up in court on assault charges, or legal raps that involved physical and/or emotional violence. If this legal argument helps VandenBussche, who's facing a string of charges including three counts of assaulting police officers (and a $10.2-million Cdn civil suit from OPP officer Hector Jibbison, whose nose was broken, among other traumas) after a Canada Day post-bar melee, it could have uses in other legal jurisdictions.

A defence lawyer could also point to how the stress of facing the end of one's career can impair a pro athlete's mental state. The transition out of the pro-athlete lifestyle is typically turbulent, since the player is often left to make a major lifestyle change (and adjust to a lower income) without much more than a "good luck" from the team and the league that coveted him for his body until he was used up.

VandenBussche, 34, can be seen as at that stage when he brawled with the cops outside the Turkey Point Hotel last July 1, jumping in after seeing two of his cousins were involved in a melee. He was less than five months removed from season-ending major back surgery. His playing prospects were further curtailed since the "new NHL" had rendered players of his ilk (10 goals, 702 PIMs across 310 career games) superfluous (he tried a comeback last season in Finland and in the low minors, neither of which lasted long). They probably should have been superfluous all along, but he certainly didn't create those conditions. He did what he had to do to stay at the highest rung of the hockey ladder and cash a NHL paycheque, which in his case was seldom much more than the league minimum. He knew being a finesse guy was a one-way ticket out of the NHL.


Now VandenBussche is in a legal imbroglio is part modern morality tale, part about small-town celebrity and with a dose of racial politics. With his case pending, a local hockey man named Darren DeDobbelaer, president of the Simcoe Storm of the Niagara Junior C Hockey League, hired Ryan as head coach. From the vantage point of a journalist who had good dealings with both men during his stint as sports editor at The Reformer, this doesn't seem totally wrong -- DeDobbelaer is trying to help a friend.

Besides, VandenBussche wouldn't get anywhere advocating goon hockey. The Niagara Junior C loop doesn't permit fighting. He also has a base of hockey knowledge that should be put to good use. Where better than in the area where he grew up?

(As if to illustrate nothing in this story is cut-and-dried, DeDobbelaer reacted to an article that detailed VandenBussche's hiring while facing charges by saying he would deny The Reformer access to Storm coaches and players.)

As well, Jibbison, who got his nose broken while on duty, is an African-Canadian who was posted in an area that hardly reflects the New Canada, notwithstanding the men from Mexico and the Caribbean (inexplicably called "offshore workers") who come to work on farms during the summer months. Jibbison's lawsuit was filed by the Selwyn Pieters, who seems to be without peer in Canada in arguing legal matters which involve race.

It's hard to see how you deliver justice for both men. VandenBussche needs some kind of restorative justice. He had a weak moment, but he's not a sociopath. Not to be all bleeding-heart, but both he and Jibbison are victims. It's mostly a matter of degree.

This might not be more than a local story, since it's a fringe player and it's not a murder trial, although apparently this goes to trial in August, when editors are often scrambling to find something to fill the news-hole. Still, to most people and probably most sportswriters, the old "live by the sword, die by the sword" serves as a good sum-it-all-up. The enforcer got pinched for using the same tactics that served him well on the ice.

There just seems to be more at play here.

It's understandable why Jibbison is seeking redress: He was suffered physical and emotional pain for just doing his job. An irony is that was a reality for Ryan VandenBussche in the NHL and that might have sowed the seeds for that regrettable night -- ergo, the possible use of the "concussion defence."

Perhaps the way pro sports treats players on their final bounce out of the game should also be on trial.

Bussche Party In Turkey Point (July 4, 2006)
OPP Claims Assault By NHL Player (CityNews, Sept. 8, 2006)

That's all for now. Send your thoughts to


Dennis Prouse said...

Your nasty old right wing reader here is having a hard time mustering up much sympathy for Ryan. Plenty of active players have gotten themselves into stupid bar fights in the summer, so I'm failing to see the connection between the end of his career, and taking a swing at a cop.

Here's my first question as the Crown counsel in this case -- how much had Ryan had to drink that night? I think you could make a fairly strong case here that alcohol and testosterone, and not post concussion syndrome, was to blame. (Funny how guys who are at home with their wives, and not out at a bar yukking it up with their buddies, don't seem to end up in these kinds of pickles.)

At age 34, Ryan is too old for this kind of silliness. Again, this happened at a bar -- these kinds of incidents generally don't happen in grocery stores or the rec centre. Time to grow up, Ryan, and take some responsibility for yourself.

sager said...

That's cool, Dennis, it's not about trying to drum up sympathy for the dude. The legal argument his learned counsel is considering is intriguing, that's all: A diminished sense of responsibility brought on by the risks of his profession.

The bottom line is the community was cool with what Ryan had to do to be a NHL player, many celebrated it. He made a big mistake and a lot of people (check the second link) are trying to paint a picture of a monster. It simply isn't that cut and dried.

Dennis Prouse said...

I have no doubt that once the young officer learned he was dummied by a former NHLer, he gilded the lilly pretty liberally. The amount he is seeking in damages is a joke. While his fellow officers no doubt want Ryan V. to be convicted on the charge of assaulting an officer, I'm sure they are cringing a bit at the notion of one of their own playing the victim card in a civil suit.

Having said all that, you just can't go off on a police officer. Period. Just like Ryan would have faced a long suspension had he hit a linesman, so too will he have to pay the piper for hitting a police officer. There are lines that cannot be crossed in a civil society, and he crossed one.

It strikes me that if he didn't retire due to post-concussion syndrome, and has no documented history of concussions from his playing days, this defence is going nowhere in a hurry. Even if he has some, it's going to be tough unless he is currently under a physician's care for neurological damage.

sager said...

It seems like he crossed a line. But it's more about finding a way to discipline him that's rooted in common sense. What is the point in giving him a jail term?