"They apologized afterward," he says. "They were just trying to get under my skin. No big deal. Those suspensions made me realize how much I missed hockey. Shooting, playing, even getting hit is fun. It's weird. It's the one thing that still makes me feel alive. It's more than a game. It's like a medicine to me."
Medicine his psyche sorely needs. An avid golfer and fly-fisherman, Boni has discovered he has no appetite for those hobbies as long as the trial hangs over his head. "I can't sit down and tie a fly anymore," he says. "I used to love to be on the water at nightfall. There's a river near Bolzano I used to fish, and you'd hear the slurping of the brownies in the dark, and you'd get down real low and see the flies floating on the water against the moonlight. It's weird, but I can't get into it now. I'm not alone on the river anymore."
Too many ghosts. Too many what-ifs. Too much inexplicable sadness to bear. What had he done to deserve it? First Schrott. Then, last summer, Boni's older brother Joe died in a car accident in Ontario. That same week one of Boni's uncles was killed when a knife-wielding lunatic went on a rampage in a crowd outside an Italian cathedral. What was happening? When would the nightmare end?
Boni's marriage, too, had fallen apart, this a result of the Schrott incident. As it happens, Boni and Grazia had put all their property in Grazia's name in the summer of 1990. By November 1992, Boni, who was not covered by any kind of liability insurance, needed to raise cash for a separate out-of-court settlement with the Schrott family. "The prosecuting attorney told me in very strong terms that it would be in my best interests to settle with the Schrotts," Boni says. "He said it would look very bad to have the family dressed in black, dramatically coming into the court crying." But when he asked Grazia to sell their assets so he could meet the $183,000 settlement, she refused. "She didn't think it was right," he says. "She thought the club should pay."
Last July, Grazia, who has remained in Bolzano with the kids ever since Boni went to play in Courmayeur, filed for a legal separation. She's seeking sole custody of their children.
So Rivetti, the owner of the hockey team, helped Boni meet the settlement with the Schrotts. Boni is now essentially insolvent and playing his way out of the debt. The team has provided him with room and board, and he will receive little pay this season. The club is also picking up his legal fees, although nothing has been spelled out in a contract; and Boni, truly believing himself innocent of wrongdoing, is hunkering down for a long, hard fight with the prosecuting attorney, Luigi Schiavone. "I'm not running from anything," Boni says. "I've got nothing to lose. My life's already been ruined."
Boni has rejected one plea bargain, in which he was offered a three-year conditional sentence. That would have meant, however, an admission of guilt. Also, he would not have been allowed to go out of his house at night or been allowed to leave Aosta, which would have effectively meant the end of his hockey career. "I'd be giving up more than hockey," Boni says. "I'd be giving up on myself."
Why is Schiavone pressing ahead with the case? In an interview on Canadian television last year, the prosecutor admitted, "Certainly we are not dealing with a criminal." Schiavone claims that after the Schrott family dropped the civil proceedings, the case had to be continued by the public prosecutor because of the gravity of the accusation. He says that Boni's was a voluntary act of aggression and that while he obviously did not mean to kill Schrott, he did intend to hit him. Schiavone denies he is continuing the prosecution for publicity, as many Boni supporters claim. "Publicity is not pleasant for a magistrate, though it sometimes happens," Schiavone says. If he gets a conviction, he says, "there can be no suspension of the 10-year sentence because of the seriousness of the accusation."
But according to Ennio Festa, one of the lawyers from a high-powered firm provided to Boni by Rivetti, there are two extenuating circumstances that, if Boni is convicted, could work in the defendant's favor and limit his prison term to five years: Boni has no prior convictions, and he has already made the settlement with the victim's family.
Schiavone is not the first prosecutor to attempt to put hockey violence on trial in the courtroom. In 1975 Dave Forbes of the Boston Bruins hit Henry Boucha of the Minnesota North Stars in the right eye with the butt end of his stick as the two were coming out of the penalty box, and Hennepin County (Minn.) attorney Gary Flakne charged Forbes with aggravated assault. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, Flakne, who was convinced he would be unable to get a conviction, dropped the case. In 1988 Dino Ciccarelli of the North Stars was sentenced to a day in jail (although he ultimately spent less than two hours there) after clubbing Luke Richardson of the Maple Leafs in the head twice in Toronto. And in 1970 Ted Green of the Bruins and Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues were both charged with common assault after a stick-swinging fight in an exhibition game in Toronto. Green suffered a fractured skull in the brawl and could not play for the whole season, and Maki hurt his jaw and neck and experienced blurred vision. In separate trials Maki was declared not guilty on the grounds of self-defense and Green was acquitted by a judge who said that "hockey could not possibly be played unless those engaging in the sport were willing to accept these assaults."