It is the beauty and curse of our times that every moment can be captured digitally.
Once there it can define you, exonerate you and quite possibly convict you.
Take Justin Pender, for example.
One instant he was a lower-rung minor league professional hockey player of modest reputation outside his home province.
The next he’s the most notorious ball hockey player on the planet and the subject of a criminal inquiry by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary thanks to 30 seconds of blind rage captured by a fan on video and posted on YouTube.
“We are aware of the incident and we’re assigning an officer to look into it,” RNC inspector Dean Roberts told Sportsnet on Wednesday morning. “We have started an investigation.”
It will centre around the final seconds of the semi-finals of the World Ball Hockey Championships held in the Newfoundland and Labrador capital this past weekend. Pender, a native of St. John’s who played four seasons in the QMJHL for the Halifax Mooseheads and the past four seasons in the East Coast Hockey League, is a defenceman with Team Canada, who are losing 5-1 to Czech Republic.
The game has been heated, with 19 penalties given out before Pender’s eruption and with the Czech players allegedly diving and taunting and at one point coming by the Canadian bench and pretending to spit.
“They were using diving and taunting as a tactic, this is not up for debate, anyone in the building will tell you,” says Terry Ryan, the Canadian team captain and the high performance director for Canadian Ball Hockey Association. “That might be the sore loser part of me talking, but it’s relevant.”
The police will have to determine how relevant, as what happens next will haunt Pender for years and may well land him in court.
At the 2:02 mark of the video and with 1.3 seconds left in the game Pender approaches Jan Bacovsky at the faceoff after he scored an empty net goal. Pender gives the Czech player a hard shove, which appears unprovoked based on anything in the previous two minutes of the video. The Czech player points to the scoreboard, at which point Pender cross-checks his opponent and punches him in the head.
More words are exchanged and the referee steps between them, but then Pender, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds and towers over the Czech player, who appears to be about eight inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter, steps around the referee and attacks.
He fires 15 punches in a 30-second, entirely one-sided confrontation where he chases Bacovsky from centre to just in front of the Czech net. At the end Pender pulls off the Czech goalie — who along with two referees who had collapsed on Bacovsky in an effort to protect him — and fires off three more blows. Bacovsky never attempts to throw a punch.
Finally Ryan arrives and pulls back his teammate and escorts him off the rink. In the meantime referee Marek Kralovic of Slovakia is writhing on the ground having suffered a knee injury trying to stop Pender. He’s eventually taken away on a stretcher. The Czech goalie also appears hurt, but plays in the gold-medal final the Czechs lose to Slovenia 2-1.
In all it’s as egregious an attack as you’ll see in any sport at any level. The only question now is what will come of it.
Pender refused comment when contacted by the St. John’s Telegram. “I just want it to blow over,” he said.
He’s facing a suspension by both the Canadian Ball Hockey Association and the International Street and Ball Hockey Federation.
“This is a rare thing,” George Gortsos, executive director of both organizations, told the Telegram. “I couldn’t even speculate (on the length), because I don’t think we have a precedent.”
Pender apologized via Twitter and Ryan says he’s deeply sorry for what happened.
That likely won’t cut it. While the police investigation is just beginning and is proceeding without a complaint from the victim, the video is pretty damning and Pender’s apology would certainly seem to be a pretty comprehensive admission of guilt.
It’s left to his friend and teammate Ryan to try and explain the unexplainable, and separate the man from an act of madness.
“He’s a big teddy bear, but when he loses it, he loses it.” says Ryan, the eighth-overall pick in the 1995 draft by the Montreal Canadiens as a tough-guy winger with some scoring touch. “You’re playing for pride, your country, your province and your family — everyone — and you’re at a world championship and there was a boiling point. I’m not supporting what he did, but I can see how the emotions ran so high.”
“I’m definitely partly to blame for the result because I could have done something. I’m 36 and one of the older guys on the team — 10 years ago that could have been me — but I’m a leader and I didn’t lead in that situation.”
“He’s not going to look good here, it wasn’t a great act, but there’s a human side of it.”
It’s a fair point. Few among us can’t relate to losing ourselves in a rage even if for the vast majority it falls far short of launching an attack on someone for nothing more than some schoolyard taunting, if that.
The human side of things isn’t falling into a rage. It’s being able to pull yourself out of it before what you’d like to do actually takes place.
Pender wasn’t able to put the brakes on. Maybe it’s because he’s still playing professional hockey and for six months a year teetering on the edge is part of his job description. Maybe it was the idea of being humiliated in front of friends and family. Maybe he’d been provoked earlier in the game or away from the view of the camera.
There are a lot of maybes, but none of them add up to an excuse. You could say that Pender’s is a modern crime: a moment of weakness unlucky enough to be caught on our omnipresent lens.
But you could also say he’s lucky no one was hurt worse than they were.
In the end Pender will be the one answering for what he did; and ultimately it will be the police asking the questions.