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The case involving ‘hockey dad’ is rife with tragic ironies

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BOSTON — He will go to jail wearing his own moniker: hockey dad.

Not "gentle giant," the label his defense lawyer tried to attach to his frame. Not "burly truck driver," the phrase the media used to hint of dangerous bulk.

Thomas Junta, who was found guilty last week of involuntary manslaughter, will be forever known as "hockey dad," as if the paternity and the sport had teamed up to commit the crime.

"Soccer mom" may be the handle for the minivan-driving, suburban mother involved in her kids' lives, but "hockey dad" is now the official nickname for any overinvolved, driven father who lunges over the line that separates competition from violence.

After Junta pummeled another father, Michael Costin, to death at their sons' ice hockey practice in suburban Boston, he became a human lesson plan for coaches and parents and athletes. He's the worst-case example of parent-fans who embarrass their children and threaten each other at sports events from Florida T-ball games to California baseball fields.

But to me what is most remarkable is not the end of this story but the origin, a beginning as odd as playing hockey on a July day. Watching his 10-year-old son being roughed up by the older boys, Junta told referee Costin to cool down the action. When Costin shrugged and said, "that's hockey," the hockey dad replied, "No it isn't. These kids are going to get hurt."

Thomas Junta turned into a killer because he was enraged . . . by violence. The fight began with an angry impulse to protect a child from harm. Violence erupted from an attempt to stop violence.

This ironic background was never really discussed as the case became the first full-scale TV trial since before Sept. 11. Media watchers noted that we were back to normal — or abnormal, if you prefer. But surely there was something fitting about the fact that the first home-front case to grab the imagination of wartime viewers was about violence. About the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of aggression let loose.

There is no way to control which punch would leave a dad reeling and which would leave him dead. No way to predict if a parent defending a son would instead leave him devastated.

How many times have we seen the escalation in Belfast or the Middle East, where each episode in the "cycle of violence" is defended as a "cycle of protection"? In the war on terrorism too, a justified retaliation against an enemy produces unplanned "collateral damage" against civilians. The protection of life, the liberation of a country, also produces death under the strange name of "friendly fire."

You don't have to be a pacifist to be sobered as you watch the unpredictable directions of war. We haven't caught Osama bin Laden, we haven't "decapitated" al-Qaida, but this war may yet unleash Pakistan and India. After that? If and when victory ever comes, it may have a somber tone and tally.

Sports are not wars, although the culture sometimes erases the line and teaches that one prepares for the other. How many parents push their sons — and sometimes daughters — to go get 'em, fully aware that these boys — and sometimes girls — might be sent to go get 'em?

If there are just wars, there are no just "rink rages." If countries cannot always walk away, hockey dads can. But war also shows that even the most planned and practiced and rehearsed violence — military violence — takes on a life and death of its own. How much more true this is in everyday life.

In talking about the struggle for civil rights, not war, Martin Luther King Jr. once said that violence was not just immoral but also impractical. "Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers."

There is no sorrier example of this "impractical," "bitter," "brutal" defeat than the story of the hockey dad, who will be sentenced just days after King's birthday.

One man, Costin, with sole custody of four children, had once wrestled with the law and with mental illness. His own father had killed Costin's brother. Now this "devoted dad" is dead.

The other man, Junta, with two children, had recovered from his own scrapes with the law. Another "devoted dad," he lived to see his distraught 12-year-old son admit in court that he had yelled, "Dad, stop."

The fight to end violence ended in violence. The "hockey dad" was, in the end, like a missile named Peacekeeper. And all the children, all the families, are now lost. Lost, as they say, to friendly fire.


Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com. Washington Post Writers Group