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The first eight months after the death of Miran Schrott, Jim Boni often woke up drenched in sweat. Always the same nightmare: It is a hockey game like any other hockey game. An altercation in front of the goal like a hundred other altercations. A battle for position, a flash of temper and a slash like any other slash. It means nothing. Only the other player falls to the ice and doesn't get up. Why won't he get up? Get up, Boni is screaming; his mouth is moving, but no sounds are coming out. Get up! Why don't you get up?
Even after Boni awakens, nothing changes. The player in the dream remains on the ice. Still. Lifeless. How many times must he kill Miran Schrott before the interminable nightmare ends? How many hours must he lie with his eyes open in the blackness of night, thinking about spending 10 years in an Italian prison, locked away from his children, Jenny and Ryan. Because of a hockey game.
The nightmares are fewer now. It has been almost two years, after all, since Schrott's tragic death on Jan. 14, 1992, during an Italian B Division game that pitted the hockey club of Gardena against Courmayeur, Boni's team. But occasionally something will set off another nightmare, and the 30-year-old Boni, Italian by birth, Canadian by upbringing, will wake with a cold start. Like the day last summer when he was served the court documents charging him with omicidio preterintenzionale, unintentional manslaughter, meaning that Boni intended to hit the victim but did not intend for the victim to die as a result. It's a serious charge: Conviction carries a mandatory 10- to 18-year sentence.
The trial, set for Feb. 16, 1994, will be in Aosta, the small (pop. 38,000) city in the Italian Alps where Boni is now living and playing hockey. The verdict, his head lawyer, Vittorio Chiusano, has warned him, could go either way.
"It's different here," Boni says. "I'm guilty until I can prove myself innocent. One of my lawyers told me, 'No offense, Jimmy, but this is going to be a great case, probably the biggest case in Italian sports.' "
The case, it's believed, is without precedent. It was the first instance anywhere in the world of a hockey player being charged with manslaughter in connection with a fatal injury that occurred during a game. The incident, captured on videotape by Italian television, was relatively innocent-looking as hockey violence goes. Were it not for its tragic consequences, it would hardly have drawn a second glance. Certainly it would never have made any North American's list of Hockey's Most Vicious Hits. "Something like that happens 10 times a game at least," says Dave Pasin, a former draft choice of the Boston Bruins, who was a teammate of Schrott's. "When a guy punches you in the head, your first instinct is to do something back."
Schrott, a strapping 19-year-old defenseman who grew up in Gardena, was covering Boni as the Courmayeur captain broke in from the point. As they jostled for position in front of Gardena's goal, Boni put his arm around Schrott's head. Schrott, who wore a cage on his helmet, punched Boni in the head with his right glove in response. Schrott then raised his left arm to straighten his helmet, and Boni, without looking, slashed him in the chest with the heel of his stick. Spontaneous payback. It wasn't a spear. And Boni's hands were not together on the stick, baseball-style, when he swung. It was a quick, angry whack, a warning for Schrott to keep his punches to himself. Then Boni wheeled to the blue line. Schrott crumpled.
Boni's first thought was that Schrott was faking in an attempt to draw a penalty. "I didn't think I'd hit him hard enough for him to go down," he says. No one on the Gardena team jumped Boni to wreak revenge, and no penalty was called by the referee although clearly Boni could have been whistled for slashing. But it was not the sort of blow that could have been construed as one with an intent to injure, which would have carried a 10-minute penalty and game misconduct. Players bent on injuring another player do not aim at the chest, which is protected by the front flap of the shoulder pads. They aim at more vulnerable areas: the back of the knees, the forearms, the back, the ankles or, in the worst cases, the neck or the head. Not the chest.
But Schrott lay stricken on the ice, and as it became clear that something was unusually wrong, one teammate tore off Schrott's helmet and rolled him onto his back. "When they got him turned over, it looked like he was turning purple," says Pasin, who was on the ice when the incident occurred. "He had no expression on his face. It was like he was sleeping."
"Only one guy went right to Schrott," says Reinhold Oberhofer, an Italian teammate of Boni's. "The other guys on the ice were not so concerned. I asked what was going on, and one of his teammates told me, 'It's happened before in practice. He'll be all right in a couple of minutes.' "