SIMCOE, Ont. – Former NHL enforcer Ryan VandenBussche was cleared of assault charges Friday stemming from a brawl outside a bar in which he punched a police officer in the face, threatened to kill another, and was Tasered three times and pepper-sprayed before being subdued.
VandenBussche, 35, had been charged with three counts of assaulting police and one count of uttering a death threat after the fight that occurred at last call on July 3, 2006, in the southern Ontario resort town of Turkey Point.
VandenBussche’s lawyer successfully argued that his client’s history of concussions and a hard shove against a wall during the altercation legally rendered him a “non-insane automaton” that cleared him of criminal responsibility for his actions – including a punch that broke a police officer’s nose and orbital bone.
Justice Martha Zivolak ruled “that the action that Mr. VandenBussche engaged in was not voluntary as it related to the officers, that it was not the product of an operating mind.”
VandenBussche and his family sighed and applauded in court after the verdict was read.
He declined to speak to reporters afterward but said in a statement he was happy to put the matter behind him and hopes to embark on a coaching career.
“I want to use what I’ve learned through my 10-year NHL career to help young people. I am hopeful I will be given another opportunity to coach so I can not only help young men become better hockey players but also better people.”
There were only minor discrepancies in Crown and defence accounts of the brawl, which police described as “chaotic” as bar patrons emptied into the street and “started fighting all over the place.”
VandenBussche said he went outside to defend his cousin, but police tried to subdue him and he was pushed into a wall.
As he saw his cousin being handcuffed, he burst through a crowd of people and started swinging at police officers. He was Tasered twice but continued to resist police. As he lay on his back, he threatened to kill an officer and was Tasered a third time as well as pepper-sprayed. He was then finally taken into custody.
The Crown had argued that VandenBussche’s actions were not a case of non-insane automatism – in which a person is not in voluntarily control of their conduct – but simply a throwback to his days as an NHL enforcer who would fight on behalf of his teammates.
VandenBussche told court he had no recollection of the incident from the time he hit the wall to when he was arrested. He said the experience of his memory blacking out, or “getting his bell rung,”dates back to his teenage days of playing hockey and continued throughout his professional career.
Court heard that VandenBussche often came out of hockey fights in a daze and sometimes experienced flashbacks and seemingly random thoughts before snapping out of it.
He recalled skating to the wrong bench after one fight, occasions when he sat in a penalty box without knowing why, and an incident in which he sat in the box and began remembering his Grade 3 teacher before regaining his thoughts.
VandenBussche played 310 games in the NHL with the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
He notched only 10 goals and 10 assists while racking up 702 penalty minutes.
VandenBussche’s career footnote is a fight during a pre-season game in September 1997 in which he knocked out Toronto Maple Leafs player Nick Kypreos, who is now a sportscaster. Kypreos suffered a severe concussion and never played in the NHL again.
VandenBussche now lives in Port Ryerse, Ont., and sells real estate.