Hockey coach who was choked urges parents not to forget "it's just a game."
Youth hockey coach Terry Johnson has some advice for the parent sentenced to six months in jail Tuesday for choking him during a team practice.
"People forget it's just a game," Johnson said after Thomas Tonda, 50, of St. Paul, was sentenced in Dakota County District Court. For his part, Tonda told Judge Timothy McManus, "I'm extremely sorry about what happened. I let the association down. I let the kids down. I let my son down."
He's the latest among several Twin Cities parents who've had to spend time in jail for violent incidents connected to youth sports.
Last year, a Minneapolis man was sent to prison for six years for assaulting a youth basketball director in Burnsville. And an Eagan man will be in court Wednesday for allegedly punching his son in the face after his team lost in a youth basketball tournament in Lakeville in December.
Although experts say it's unclear if such incidents are on the rise, bad conduct by parents has clear consequences.
"Good sportsmanship and bad sportsmanship is learned," said Nicole LaVoi of the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, who has studied the effects of parental behaviors on youth athletes.
Where misbehavior comes from is less clear, LaVoi said.
Some parents, LaVoi said, are hesitant to put strict boundaries on the behavior of their kids, and when someone like a coach disciplines their child, the parents see it as a reflection on their parenting skills.
Johnson also thinks attacks like the one he endured are an emotional response.
"What I think it is," he said, "is you're in a heated moment, something happens to your son -- and we all know you'd die for your child -- so when you feel your child has been wronged you're going to probably overreact, go over the top."
The attack on Johnson occurred last Dec. 6, when Tonda and his son were at a peewee hockey practice with other 11- and 12-year-olds in the South St. Paul-Inver Grove Hockey Association. Tonda's son made a comment about not getting to skate enough and swung his hockey stick like a baseball bat, hitting one of the other players in the face. Johnson pulled the boy aside and told him that his behavior was not acceptable and that somebody could get seriously hurt.
The coach told the boy to return to practice, but he instead skated off the ice and headed to the locker room.
Tonda followed his son, then returned to the penalty box and started screaming at Johnson. When the coach told him to "stop and go home," Tonda put him in a stranglehold, according to court documents. The coach told police he began to black out. Another coach rushed to the victim's aid and eventually freed him. As Tonda left, the complaint said, he shouted: "I'm going to kill you. I'm going to [expletive] choke you out."
Johnson was not hospitalized, but he did miss more than a month of work because of neck pain, he said.
Tonda pleaded guilty in August to one count of terroristic threats, a felony. A misdemeanor assault charge was dismissed.
The plea agreement called for no more than 365 days in jail, but Tonda could have faced more than seven years in prison because the crime constituted a probation violation from a 2009 conviction for first-degree cocaine possession.
Prosecutor Tricia Loehr argued for the full sentence, saying Tonda seemed to have more remorse for his own consequences than for the harm he had done anybody else. Defense attorney Thomas Sieben argued for a 30- to 60-day sentence.
McManus, who also was the judge in Tonda's Drug Court case, gave him a 21-month stayed prison sentence, saying he didn't want Tonda's actions to cause him to lose his job, his home and his family. The judge ordered him to serve 180 days in jail, pay $3,693 in restitution, and do 350 hours of community service -- in a field other than athletics. If Tonda offends again, the seven-year sentence will be back on the table, McManus said.
After the sentencing, Johnson said he's coached youth hockey for seven consecutive years and three years before that. He never had a problem with Tonda or his son before this incident, he said. In fact, he's gotten letters, gift cards and compliments from parents about how he handles the kids.
Tonda's and Johnson's sons may end up playing on the same hockey team again this year, although McManus ordered Tonda to have no contact with the victim or his family. The judge did say Tonda could attend the games, but he must stay on the opposite side of the rink as the coach.
Johnson, however, said he's unsure if he even wants to coach the team this year.
Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284
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