National Hockey League star Todd Bertuzzi on Wednesday admitted assault in a plea bargain deal to avoid possible jail time over a notorious on-ice clash that left an opponent with a fractured neck.
The Vancouver Canucks forward appeared in court to answer charges stemming from his punch to the head of Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche in March.
The case ignited fierce debate in Canada and the US on the merits of courts becoming involved in incidents in sports.
It also subjected the world's premier hockey league, currently darkened by a labor shutdown, to a blizzard of unflattering publicity, and claims in the US press that the NHL was blighted by out-of-control violence.
In the game on March 8, Bertuzzi followed Moore up the ice, challenging him to a fight. When Moore refused to respond, the Vancouver Canucks star punched him on the head from behind, sending Moore crashing to the ice.
The Avalanche rookie was left lying in a pool of his own blood with fractured neck vertebrae and a serious concussion. He has not played since the incident, which exposed the league to a blizzard of criticism, and his career remains in jeopardy.
Asked whether he wanted to change his original plea of not guilty to assault causing actual bodily harm, Bertuzzi replied "yes" and "guilty."
Prosecutors proposed the plea bargain as they could not prove Bertuzzi's punch injured Moore, who was not in court, or whether the damage was done when his head hit the ice or in a subsequent scrum as Avalanche players piled onto Bertuzzi.
Therefore, they recommended a conditional discharge for Bertuzzi, which would likely mean he would have a period of probation, but no criminal record.
If convicted in a trial that had been scheduled for next month, Bertuzzi could have faced up to 18 months in jail.
Judge Herb Weitzel is not bound by the deal and could theoretically increase the punishment or move on to a trial that had been set for next month.
"We are unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr Bertuzzi's punch had a permanent effect on Steve Moore's return to the NHL," prosecutor Graham Loeppky said.
A stern-looking Bertuzzi, batteries of lawyers and journalists in the courtroom watched as the March 8 incident was played over and over on television screens from seven different camera angles.
The court heard moving victim impact statements from Moore and his mother and father, but Judge Herb Weitzel rejected a bid by Moore's lawyer for sentencing to be delayed until his client could read his testimony in person.
Doctors' reports cited in court said Moore should recover fully from his injuries, but that he was still suffering post-concussion symptoms including mood swings and attention deficit disorders.
After the incident, Bertuzzi was suspended for the final 13 games of the NHL regular season and the entire playoffs.
He is not eligible for reinstatement in the league, currently darkened by a labor shutdown, until after a meeting with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.