Inexorably tied to the game of hockey is a player known as the cheap shot artist. Not to be confused with an enforcer, these thugs deliver late hits with malicious intent. Needless to say, they aren’t exactly the smartest players out there, often forgoing secondary or post-secondary education to participate in the amateur hockey circuit in hopes of making it to the National Hockey League.
However, the single biggest cheap shot of the season against the Buffalo Sabres did not come from an ignorant, toothless hoser but rather a well-educated college professor. University at Buffalo English Professor Bruce Jackson is suing the team for the pain and suffering that resulted from a pane of Plexiglas falling on him during a Sabres game. Thus, in the same way that an illegal hit involves an elbow targeting the head, the use of the court system to target an entity that has no real responsibility for an incident can only be defined as one thing: a cheap shot.
For this lawsuit to be considered anything else, Jackson needs to prove that the Sabres were negligent. Considering how violent and random the game of hockey is designed to be, singling out the Sabres as such is nothing short of unfair and careless. Simply put, the team cannot control whether or not pucks, bodies or drunk fans disproportionately hit the board in question vis–vis the other boards.
In an article in the Buffalo News, Jackson’s legal counsel admitted that fans assume some responsibility when they attend hockey games, such as the potential for injury when a puck flies into the crowd. If the counsel admits that a fan must assume the risk that a puck could ricochet into the stands, she should not hold the team responsible for the same random and uncontrollable forces that are at play against the integrity of the Plexiglas boards. The force and angle of a shot are analogous to the force and angle of a hit: both are a natural part of the game of hockey and capable of overcoming reasonable and prudent countermeasures that the team puts in place. Just as the Plexiglas boards cannot deflect all shots coming from the ice, it cannot sustain the force of all body checks coming from the Sabres or their opponents.
Unfortunately for Jackson, the glass transferred the force of the body check to him. While the Sabres are capable of plenty of things, they cannot suspend Newton’s Second Law and prevent a safety measure from becoming a danger to fans. Then again, lawsuits in the land of Cellino and Barnes are known for being on the fringe of the rule of law, the immutable laws of physics included.
Legal precedent is split on this matter: while some courts have exculpated teams for injuries sustained by fans, others made the ignominious decision to rule in favor of the fans.
While I don’t mean to marginalize Jackson’s pain and suffering, any damages awarded to him should be limited to medical bills that insurance does not cover. Anything else is much too subjective and, considering his age (with all due respect, he is 71 years old), may not even be directly related to the original incident. Whether or not the lawsuit affects the Sabres financial status is unknown. However, a small market franchise can’t be expected to sustain million-dollar payoffs in frivolous lawsuits and maintain financial solvency.
Fortunately, the Buffalo community has experience in supporting their sports figures in light of dubious financial penalties. In 2007, the NHL fined Sabres’ coach Lindy Ruff for his response to a cheap shot delivered against captain Chris Drury. Sure enough, Buffalonians chipped in and raised enough money to cover the fine. Though these funds were ultimately donated to charity, they sent a message to the league that the fine was unjust and also demonstrated the city’s support for its franchise.
Similarly, I wouldn’t mind sending a couple bucks to a “Sabres defense fund” to show Jackson where I stand on his lawsuit. Just as Ruff exclaimed, “Don’t go after our [expletive] captain” to Ottawa Senators’ coach Bryan Murray when Drury was decked by the aforementioned questionable hit, the city of Buffalo needs to send a message to Jackson: “Don’t go after our hockey team.”
Scott is a member of the class of 2008.