The game hardly mattered. Playoff berths weren't at stake. It was just an off-season scrimmage for a bunch of preteen hockey nuts, hoping, perhaps, to add some power to their slapshots. On July 5, from the stands of the Burbank Ice Arena, in Reading, Mass., Thomas Junta watched his 10-year-old son shoot the puck. The kid wasn't faring well. Though contact was forbidden, an elbow nearly smashed his nose. With play getting rougher, Junta, 42, a truck driver, called down to the only adult on the ice, Michael Costin, demanding that he intervene. Costin, whose three boys were playing too, reportedly replied, "That's what hockey's all about," and he and Junta traded insults. When Costin left the ice, the men scuffled, resulting in Junta's ejection by a rink manager.
Had it ended there, the incident might only be notable for its absurdity: adult men fighting over a kids' version of a thuggish sport. But when Costin, 40, emerged from the locker room, Junta was there. The men started brawling. At six foot one and 275 pounds, Junta overwhelmed Costin, 100 pounds lighter, and allegedly beat him into a coma. Two days later, Costin a part-time carpenter and single father of four was dead.
Charged with manslaughter last week, Junta pleaded not guilty and was released on $5,000 bail. In nearby Lynnfield, 200 mourners paid Costin their respects. At his wake, one of his sons, beset with grief, climbed into the casket. The Rev. John E. Farrell cast blame all around. "We name violence in our society," he said.
Both men, in fact, were no strangers to it. In 1992 Junta was charged with assault and battery, though there was no finding in the case. Costin's past was more troubled. While still a teenager, his father was convicted of manslaughter for stabbing his 17-year-old brother Dennis. Costin himself went to jail for offenses ranging from assaulting a police officer to breaking and entering. Recently, he seemed to be making amends. A recovering alcoholic, he had won full custody of his children, and friends say he devoted himself to their care.
How could it have happened? The answer, in part, may be that kids' leagues have become tinderboxes for parental rage. Among recent incidents: last month, at a baseball game in Hollywood, Fla., a parent-coach allegedly punched an umpire and faces battery charges. In March a Staten Island, N.Y., dad was indicted for allegedly breaking the nose of his son's coach with a hockey stick. "We've seen a definite increase in violence," says Bob Still of the National Association of Sports Officials in Racine, Wis. "We hear of two or three cases a week; most aren't reported."
Still's group now provides "assault insurance" for its 19,000 members. And 14 states have passed laws toughening penalties for violence against officials. Hundreds of leagues also offer parental sportsmanship classes, though only a fraction of those are mandatory. In the wake of Michael Costin's death, that may soon change.