Legal Concerns



Pee Wee Hockey Coach Gets Jail Time For Tripping 13-Year-Old Opponent in Post-Game Handshake Line

By Doug Abrams

 It was a malicious act by a youth league coach who should have known better.  A mighty costly act too, and one whose outcome I hope will help send a message to adults who feel tempted to commit assaults and other violence in children’s games.

At the end of a pee wee hockey game in Vancouver, British Columbia last June, the teams were proceeding through the traditional handshake line. As the boys shook hands with one another, the winning team’s 48-year-old coach, Martin Tremblay, intentionally stuck out his leg and tripped a 13-year-old opponent, whom he had berated from the bench throughout the game.  The boy fell into a 10-year-old teammate, and both players went down. 

A spectator’s video, which quickly went viral on YouTube, showed Tremblay pointing menacingly at the 13-year-old immediately after the tripping. (1:01). The boy reportedly broke his wrist and was fitted for a cast. 

In November, Tremblay pleaded guilty to one count of assault arising from his cheap shot.  On February 26, Provincial Court Judge Patrick Chen surprised some courtroom onlookers when he sentenced Tremblay to 15 days in jail, to be served on consecutive weekends.

The sentence was much stiffer than the suspended sentence and fine that Crown prosecutors had sought, but Judge Chen likened the attack to a “cowardly sucker punch on an unsuspecting victim.” “Society,” he said, “will not tolerate the assault of children by adults.” 

A Signal That Needs To Be Sent

Judge Chen called Tremblay’s jail sentence “a signal to other parents heavily involved in the sporting activities of their children that they must be seen as models of good and acceptable behavior and not as instigators of violence and of riotous behavior.” 

Courts need to send this signal to the relatively few adults who remain prone to violence in children’s games, and I am glad that Tremblay’s plea and sentencing received coverage in newspapers, television and online in Canada, the United States, and indeed throughout the world.  Fifteen days is not a felony sentence, but even modest jail time sends a wakeup call that might deter some adults from similar violence.

In general, the likelihood of criminal deterrence depends on two factors, the nature of the offense and the nature of the offender.  The nature of the offense, by itself, does not hold much promise in youth leagues because publicized criminal punishment is more likely to deter future premeditated crimes than future impulsive crimes of passion. Most assaults by adults in youth sports fall into the second category because I have never heard of a parent or coach who woke up in the morning plotting to commit an assault in a game later that day. Most of these assaults happen in the heat of the moment without planning or thinking, and we cannot count on criminal prosecutions to deter much impulsive behavior.

 The nature of the offender, however, holds much more promise in youth leagues because the realistic prospect of criminal punishment is more likely to deter rational thinkers than people who lack self-control. Despite the usually impulsive nature of adult violence in kids’ games, I suspect that in localities where prosecution for youth sports violence is a real possibility, publicity does encourage greater self-control in some parents and coaches.

These adults are normally family people trying to earn a living and raise their children. They are the kind of people who tend to make good neighbors until the game starts, and they value their jobs and their place in the community. They are not career criminals, and the youth league assault is typically their first brush with the law. The potential for deterrence can be strong when parents and coaches sense what indictment, prosecution and sentencing would mean for them and their families.


Education and Deterrence

 Efforts to stem adult assaults in youth sports need to begin with the adult-education programs that many youth leagues now use with great success.  From my years of coaching, I sense that these programs — created by national youth sports governing bodies, and the public and private schools — do help prevent assaults, violence and other acts of misconduct by influencing many adults to embrace sportsmanship. Adult-education programs must confront anger management issues because every wayward act prevented spares a victim.

 Public authorities, however, should take the criminal process more seriously when an adult commits an act of violence despite the best efforts of education programs to influence their behavior for the better.  Prosecution should be the backup plan because criminal prosecutions can punish wrongdoers such as Tremblay only for injuries they have already inflicted. 

 I suspect that rates of reported and unreported assaults would diminish significantly in places where criminal sanction becomes a more realistic possibility for the relative few adults whom education programs fail to influence.  Too often, however, public authorities let adults get away with criminal misconduct in youth sports, sometimes without even a slap on the wrists.  Following the coach’s guilty plea, Judge Chen sent the right signal.

 [Sources: Hockey Coach Jailed For Tripping Child, Guelph Mercury (Ontario, Canada), Feb. 27, 2013;  Sam Adams, Hockey Coach Jailed For Tripping 13-Year-Old Player As Teams Shake Hands After Junior Game, MailOnline (England), Feb. 27, 2013; Laura Pullman, Caught on Camera! Hockey Coach Faces Assault Charges After “Tripping Opposing Player, 13, and Breaking His Wrist” During End-Of-Game Hand Shakes, MailOnline (England), June 29, 2012]