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Two-fisted problem

McSorley incident further damages hockey's rough image

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Posted: Sunday February 27, 2000 06:51 PM

  Marty McSorley Marty McSorley (right) has been an enforcer his entire career -- a player who protects a team's star and dishes out retribution. AP

BOSTON (AP) -- The phone call was a Christmas Day tradition on the McSorley farm in Cayuga, Ontario, one as predictable as Santa's visit or the ritual of opening mounds of presents in a family with nine children.

The authorities would ask Mom and Pop McSorley to pick up all or some of their six sons at the local hockey rink. Seems they had broken in to play, and there was blood on the ice. Lots of blood.

Marty McSorley, not always the instigator but usually the one in the middle of the McSorley mayhem, would calm his mother by saying, "No big deal. It was just us."

That was the trouble with one of the ugliest acts of violence in hockey in years. Marty McSorley was just being Marty McSorley. And, in the minds of some, hockey was just being hockey.

The Boston defenseman's blow not only left Donald Brashear with a concussion, it staggered a sport that has spent years trying to clean up its image. It could very well be that hockey, where violence always walks a dangerously thin line between acceptance and abhorrence, becomes as much a victim of McSorley's actions as Brashear himself.

"I would never let him play again," Georges Laraque of the Edmonton Oilers said of McSorley, who previously had a league-wide reputation of being a tough but decent-enough guy. "I wouldn't even let him enter a rink again."

Detroit's Joey Kocur, never one to walk away from a fight himself, said, "Marty McSorley crossed the line that shouldn't be crossed. What he did was stupid."

But in the only major professional contact sport where athletes carry what can be a lethal weapon, what constitutes crossing the line?

McSorley's attack might have, but many in the game believe Matt Johnson's back-of-the-head blow two years ago to Jeff Beukeboom was equally despicable. It effectively ended Beukeboom's career, yet Johnson drew only a 12-game suspension.

Dallas captain Mike Modano's neck easily could have been broken by a wicked check from behind by Anaheim's Ruslan Salei in the second game of the season, but Salei was suspended for only 10 games. (McSorley was suspended for at least 23 games, the rest of the season.)

Still, the NHL cites numerous statistics to support its argument that violence is decreasing in a sport that desperately wants to be known as a hip alternative to the NBA.

Fighting has decreased by one-third in the past 10 years. Penalties are on the decline, too.

Sean Brown of Edmonton is on a pace to lead the league with 219 penalty minutes; Gino Odjick had 371 minutes three years ago. The Detroit Red Wings have had just 11 fights this season, about one every six games.

As TV analyst John Davidson said, it's much more common now for a game to be played without fisticuffs than with it, and there are more bench-clearing brawls a year in baseball than hockey.

That's not to say the NHL doesn't have plenty of players whose position probably should be listed as fighter, not forward.

On most nights, tough guy Krzysztof Oliwa of New Jersey has about as much chance to score as the fans who take impossibly long shots during those between-periods contests.

Rookie Dennis Bonvie isn't a klutz on skates, but his main objective is to prevent cheap shots on Pittsburgh star Jaromir Jagr.

Commissioner Gary Bettman, a former NBA executive, came to the NHL flush off the success the NBA had in marketing its stars. The NHL hasn't quite succeeded in copying that formula, but Bettman has been largely successful in pushing the NHL to clean up its act.

Of course, one unspeakable moment of violence can set back years of progress, and what the NHL will learn over the coming months is whether McSorley's moment of mayhem was that very act.

"This is not how we want hockey to be portrayed," NHL senior vice president Colin Campbell said. "It's an isolated incident. We have 1,300 games a year, hockey is a hard-hitting game and I don't remember an incident such as this in a long time.

"We can't undo this, but we want people in all leagues that girls and boys play in to know we won't tolerate it. ... We certainly don't want people waving the flag that our sport has crossed the line in this incident and that it represents our sport."

McSorley's swing was a dark moment for the sport, but it wasn't the first. In 1969, Wayne Maki of St. Louis hit Boston's "Terrible" Ted Green in the head with a stick during an exhibition game. Green needed a metal plate in his head and missed the season.

In 1988, Dino Ciccarelli of the Minnesota North Stars was taken to court for hitting Luke Richardson of Toronto with his stick. He was found guilty and served a sentence of ... one hour.

And, nearly a century ago, the president of the Ontario Hockey League called for a halt to "slashing and slugging." The words of John Ross Robertson proved prophetic three years later in 1907 when Owen "Bud" McCourt was killed by what authorities ruled was "a blow from a hockey stick."

The difference now is that nearly every game is on live TV, highlights are shown ad nauseam and the image of a particularly ugly piece of stickwork can be stamped into a viewer's mind for years.

For now, the NHL hopes the thin line that separates physical play from violence is not crossed during the playoffs, and that the McSorley mess will fade as he sits out this season, and perhaps the rest of his career.

Even if Bettman allows him to play next season, and that is no given, a 37-year-old defenseman laden with such excess baggage as a smash to the head may find it difficult to land another contract.

"You have to ask yourself: Would you like to have a stick across the side of your head like a baseball bat?" Toronto goaltender Glenn Healy said. "I think the answer across the world would be no."

Phoenix defenseman J.J. Daigneault has a solution.

"I just wish the time would come when we hit only with our shoulders and not use our sticks to hit anyone," he said. "Like in other sports."

Related information
Brashear still hurts; awaits more tests
McSorley suspended for season
SI's Michael Farber believes the NHL likes having fighting as part of the game. (113 K)
Anaheim's Stu Grimson says fighting helps prevent more serious acts of violence during games. (216 K)
Vancouver coach Brian Burke says there is not as much fighting as critics think. (125 K)
Grimson feels the NHL should ban fighting in the late part of the game. (211 K)
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