Manitoba justice officials have authorized criminal charges against two youth hockey players and their coach following an ugly on-ice incident, the Free Press has learned.
Winnipeg police have been conducting an investigation into the Feb. 16 peewee game at Southdale Community Centre between Sagkeeng First Nation and Brokenhead Ojibway First Nation during the Southeast Winter Tribal Days hockey tournament.
Their findings were recently forwarded to senior Crown officials, who have now concluded three arrests should be made. Those are expected to happen this week.
Sources told the Free Press the coach of the Sagkeeng team will be charged with assault, while two of his 12-year-old players are going to be charged with assault with a weapon (a hockey stick).
The melee began when Sagkeeng player Kainen Bell slashed a Brokenhead player in the final minutes, resulting in referee Stepane Berard rushing in to separate the pair. In the process, Berard grabbed hold of Bell, and the momentum caused them both to fall to the ice. Berard ended up landing on top of the young player, who reportedly suffered a broken wrist.
And that's when all heck broke loose.
According to a Manitoba justice summary of the incident obtained by the Free Press, the Sagkeeng coach will be charged for jumping off the bench and onto Berard.
"The actions in leaving the bench to assault Berard is not only completely unacceptable from a purely hockey standpoint, but also constitutes an assault on Berard," reads the report.
As well, two Sagkeeng players then added to the chaos by swinging their sticks at the referee as he was down on the ice with Bell, their teammate. Both of them connected with his back and head, which constitute the assault-with-weapon charges, according to justice officials.
Berard's role in the skirmish was also investigated, but he will not face any criminal charges on the grounds his actions were reasonable in the circumstances. This will no doubt upset many in the Sagkeeng camp who were furious he ended up falling on top of the player, who ultimately got injured.
"Whether Berard's use of force in this instance was a result of his frustration with events as they had unfolded on this and the previous day, or the result of a simple loss of balance, is difficult to say," the justice summary states.
Winnipeg police ended up being called to the rink to defuse the volatile situation. Berard, the referee, did not suffer any injuries of note.
Southeast tournament organizer Joe Malcolm has called this one of the worst episodes in the 20-year history of the event, which is not sanctioned by Hockey Manitoba officials.
However, officials with the Southeast Tribal Council recently announced one of the Sagkeeng coaches and one of the 12-year-old Sagkeeng players would be suspended for their actions. They refused to provide specific details of the penalties. Officials also pleaded for an end to violent incidents in minor hockey across Manitoba.
"We believe in zero tolerance of violence and (we want) to put sportsmanship and goodwill back into the game," Brokenhead Ojibway First Nation Chief Jim Bear told reporters earlier this month. "We want tolerance to be practised by both players and spectators. The only colour the officials should be aware of is the colours of the uniform and that fairness should be the bottom line."
Sagkeeng Chief Donovan Fontaine also offered an apology.
"When it gets out of hand, people have to step up," he said. "Chief Bear and his community, and our community, were involved in an ugly incident. I apologize for the actions of my community, the actions of my team.
"There should be some punitive action. These things just can't be swept under the carpet."
There have been two other major incidents this spring that put Manitoba minor hockey in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Last month, a linesman was allegedly punched and kicked by a 14-year-old player from Lake Manitoba First Nation in a bantam provincial playoff game in Stonewall. RCMP are continuing their investigation into that incident.
In February, the parents of an eight-year-old Winnipeg player stormed into the rival team's dressing room during a tournament game in Fargo. The husband then got into a fight with the opposing coach, who was from Selkirk.
No criminal charges were laid, but the parents have now been given a three-year suspension by Hockey Winnipeg. They have filed an appeal.
-- with files from Adam Wazny