11/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Dubious Anniversary

Forty years ago on September 21, 1969, Wayne Maki almost killed Ted Green. Ted Green was one of the most feared of the National Hockey League gladiators. Superbly confident in his ability to control and pass the puck, Green made his opponents pay a physical price for entering his space on the rink. Green was never afraid on the ice, and he often aggressively provoked fights as the team's enforcer. A modest man off the ice, when he suited up for a game Green was a wicked terror to be feared. His club and his fans expected him to play that role. Age 29 at the time of the incident, Green was at the top of his game.

Wayne Maki was at the opposite end of the career spectrum. At age 24, the Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario native was yet to make his mark in the National Hockey League. He first made it to the League for part of the 1967-68 season, playing with his brother, Ronald "Chico" Maki, an established star with the Chicago Blackhawks. Most of the next two seasons, Wayne Maki played minor league hockey. The 1969 pre-season was his opportunity to demonstrate his game-playing abilities.

On September 21, 1969, during a typical hockey melee in an exhibition game in Ottawa between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, Maki almost killed Green with a well-placed slash of his Sher-Wood hockey stick across Green's skull. (In 1969, players did not wear helmets. They would not be required to do so until 1979 and, even then, that absolute rule would be phased in over time and made applicable only to rookies who joined the League.) As a result of the episode in Ottawa, Green experienced massive brain hemorrhaging.

The incident itself lasted only a few seconds and followed the pattern of escalation common in violent outbursts in sports. It began at the 13-minute mark of the first period when left-winger Maki shot the puck over the blue line into the Bruins end. Most fights and injuries occur in the corners of the rink behind the goal line, and this night would fit that model. Green played the puck with his skate while Maki headed for Green and hit him from behind. Green roughly pushed Maki away and down to the ice with his gloved left hand. That was sufficient for the referee, Ken Bodendistel, to raise his arm indicating a penalty would be called against Green as soon as Boston obtained control of the puck. This small, inconsequential contact then spiraled out of control.

From his knees, Maki speared Green in the genitals, perhaps the most egregious attack that can be committed on the ice and a clear violation of the unwritten code (and the written rules) of hockey. As Green turned away to skate towards the penalty box, he swung his stick and slashed Maki on the arm, once again knocking him to the ice. Maki's immediate response would resound throughout the sports world and would focus the public's attention on the relationship between the games, the violence and the criminal law.

Maki answered Green's second assault by slashing at Green's skull with his hockey stick. Green had turned his head away thinking that the fight was over. Maki slashed with the hardest part of the stick, at the bend where the shaft joins the blade. Green fell helplessly to the ice.
The left side of Green's body was paralyzed immediately. The right side of his head had been crushed in. Pieces of skull mixed with pieces of his brain. He had been hit at the spot of the brain that controls speech, his left arm and his left leg. Green lost consciousness on the way to the Ottawa hospital, and, when he regained awareness, he immediately asked for a priest to administer the last rites.

Green blamed himself for the injury. He had turned away from Maki and had not seen the blow coming his way, something an experienced brawler, like the Bruins defenseman, should never do. He understood, however, that Maki's attack was just a part of the vicious game that he had loved to play since childhood. Because of the severity of Green's injury and the notoriety of the incident, the public (or, at least, the media) pressured the Canadian authorities to take action. The Ottawa police investigated the Green-Maki incident. Two months after the event on November 21, 1969, the constables swore out criminal charges against both Maki and Green for "assault occasioning bodily harm." If convicted, each defendant faced a possible sentence of up to two years in jail. This was the first time in the history of professional sports that police authorities had issued a complaint against players because of an incident that occurred during a game. It would not be the last.

The Maki and Green criminal cases were heard by two justices of the Ontario provincial court in 1970. Both defendants would be acquitted of the criminal charges against them. The court excused Maki's vicious attack as having been in self-defense and Green's as being the kind of assault hockey players consent to. A few months after his acquittal, in a most remarkable demonstration of personal determination Ted Green returned to the ice to play for the Bruins. He wore (and always complained about) his full black helmet.

Ted Green's recovery was miraculous. Wayne Maki's story, however, ended tragically. Claimed by the Vancouver Canucks in the 1970 expansion draft, Maki played for two more seasons until he was diagnosed with brain cancer on December 14, 1972. He retired from the game and found work as an electrician until his death at age 29. He had played only three full seasons in the National Hockey League.

Was sports justice served in the Green-Maki criminal cases? The malevolent chaos in Ottawa that night did not produce a public outcry to stop all the violence in NHL hockey. While notable for the severity of the injury Maki caused Green, the event is better viewed as characteristic of a sport without internal boundaries designed to protect the physical well-being and even the lives of the participants. As hockey fans know, the Green-Maki incident did not end the mayhem on the ice. Periodically, the brutality continues to erupt into repulsive acts of violence.

In the first instance, it would be more efficient and effective for a sport to determine internally the appropriate amount of violence, but the NHL has no interest in such a limit. Most recently, in June 2009, the NHL general managers discussed a special rule penalizing hits to the head. The Junior A Ontario Hockey League had banned such hits, but the NHL general managers refused to do anything. Bob Gainey, the General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens, said that such a prohibition would diminish the "robust physical play that attracts all of us to the game."

The law, through its instrument the courts, can play a role in stemming violence in organized hockey if the owners, coaches and commissioner's office default in adjusting the rules and instructing the players. The law is there to pick up the left-over pieces in the name of society. Hopefully, the left-over pieces will not be those of a hockey player.