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Crime and the NHL draft

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Scouts are buzzing about a particular second-year Ontario Hockey League player, putting the 18-year-old in the top 100 North American players available for the NHL draft Friday. Mike Brophy of got one prominent talent evaluator on the record:

“I like him,” said E.J. McGuire, the head of NHL Central Scouting. “There are nights when he controls the game and then there are other nights you watch him and you say to yourself, ‘Come on kid, grab the puck and go with it.’ He has (Patrick) Kane-like skill and size isn’t an issue, but he needs to work on his consistency. Maybe that will come with time and maturity. [Editor’s note: Kane was the No. 1 pick by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2007 NHL draft.]

“You worry about what happened hanging over his head and wonder how big that dark cloud is. On the other hand, with what he has had to deal with, maybe it will make him more resilient. Jeremy Roenick said one of the San Jose Sharks‘ problems was they didn’t hit any big bumps in the road this season and when they lost a couple of games in the playoffs they weren’t prepared to handle adversity. This kid has handled adversity. “

The adversity? His manslaughter conviction in May for killing an opponent after a high school rugby game.

The player, now 18, picked up 15-year-old Manny Castillo and slammed him on his head after a 2007 game, pinching his spinal cord. Castillo died two days after the incident.

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The judge in the case called the play a “sucker tackle” and rejected the defense’s contention that no crime was committed because a player takes a risk of injury any time he or she steps onto a field. From the (Toronto) Globe and Mail:

“The playing field is not a criminal law-free zone,” Judge [Bruce] Duncan said. “The laws of the land apply in the same way as they do elsewhere … There was no justification in self defence. Accordingly, the defendant committed an assault, an unlawful act. That unlawful act caused death.”

“The force applied by the defendant was not within the rules of the game …” the judge said. “… dangerous play inside or outside of the rules is not acceptable … The defendant intentionally applied force that was outside the rules of the game or any standard by which the game is played. Manny did not explicitly consent to that force, and I am satisfied beyond any doubt that no such consent can be implied.”

(Marty McSorley and Todd Bertuzzi can tell you Canadian authorities are not afraid to prosecute overly violent behavior in sports.)

The offending player is not being identified because under Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act, it would violate the law to do so. Not for me, because I’m in the United States. However, I’ll refrain from identifying the player, even though it doesn’t take a lot of searching to figure out his name. I don’t want to risk that I, and people on message boards who have identified him, are wrong.

I wouldn’t blame you for finding it sickening that NHL talent evaluators and the player’s seem to be finding ways to, if not excuse what happened, do a little too much to bury it in the past. From Brophy’s story:

The young man does not plan to attend the NHL draft, which will be held June 26-27 at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Those who know him well believe he has a promising future as a pro hockey player.

“First and foremost he’s a terrific young man; a kid who made a mistake,” his coach said. “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He’s not an angry kid; not a kid on the edge. He’s an unbelievable young man.

“As an underage player two years ago he was unbelievable. Last year I think his situation got the better of him and he had a bit of an off year. He was also injured and missed considerable time. But I will say he’s the kind of kid who, even when he was injured, sat in the stands for every practice and encouraged his teammates. And he was always there to help them tape their sticks or lace their skates, too.”

“He is very skilled and ultra-competitive,” Dallas Stars scout Jim Johnston said. “He is a deceptive skater who sees the ice very well. He had an excellent playoff this year so many believe that will help him in the draft.”

“If this hadn’t happened I think he’d be ranked in the first or second round,” the general manager of another major junior team said.

The player’s agent said his client is doing his best to pick up the pieces of his life, but is remorseful about what happened and added, “not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about the other boy.”

His agent added: “He is a very approachable young man and is considered a wonderful role model to younger children. He is a winner.”

Brophy himself notes that “even Manny Castillo’s family didn’t want him charged on the grounds that ruining another boy’s life only added to the damage suffered by their son.” However, that is in dispute — one uncle said that’s what the family wanted, while another uncle read a statement outside Castillo’s funeral saying that was certainly not the case.

The question always arises in these cases: should a player with such a history be allowed to play pro sports? The NHL suspended McSorley and Bertuzzi for violent acts on-ice; the NFL just suspended Donte Stallworth upon his DUI manslaughter conviction. The difference between this unnamed youth and these players is that the youth is, well, a youth, and that he did nothing while in the employ of a league. Pro sports leagues are like any other employer — if you’re good enough and your problems don’t overshadow the organization, there will be a place for you.

However, I’m sure that once this player is drafted, the controversy is going to swirl. The team that takes him better have a PR offensive ready, because there are going to be people upset. However, that doesn’t seem to be the main reason his draft value isn’ t as high as it otherwise would be. The main reason is that the player is going to be sentenced July 6 — after the draft. A team doesn’t like the idea of wasting a draft pick on a player who might not be available for a few years.

Written by rkcookjr

June 25, 2009 at 3:10 pm