For years, the fourth of the 10 McSorleys wondered, Why is it always Marty? Marty, the promising rookie, the famous NHL player, the Stanley Cup winner. Marty! Marty! Marty! So when a reporter calls the office of the International Hockey League's Las Vegas Thunder and asks to speak with Chris McSorley, the man himself replies, "You sure you don't have the wrong McSorley?"
There is no mistake. The Thunder, coached by the 34-year-old big brother of New York Rangers defenseman Marty McSorley, had the best regular-season record (57-17-8) in the IHL this year and aims to win the league's championship Turner Cup. After besting the Phoenix Roadrunners three games to one in the first round of the playoffs, the Thunder is favored over the Chicago Wolves in the best-of-seven conference semifinals. No, there's no mistaking Chris McSorley.
In his five previous seasons as a head coach McSorley won a pair of East Coast Hockey League championship Riley Cups with the Toledo Storm, in 1993 and '94, and he was the ECHL alltime leader in coaching wins (193) when he left in '94. During the summers he has also been involved in Roller Hockey International, the first pro in-line hockey league, since its inception in 1993. McSorley coached the Anaheim Bullfrogs to RHI's first championship, and when the league added 12 teams in '94, he became the coach of the expansion Buffalo Stampede and led it to RHI's second crown. Although he left the Stampede when he moved to Las Vegas last year to take the Thunder coaching job, McSorley wouldn't—or couldn't—quit moonlighting. So he rejoined Anaheim as its director of player personnel and put together a team that earned the best regular-season record in the league before losing in the Western Conference finals.
"You know why I hired him?" asks Thunder general manager Bob Strumm. "Because he's won wherever he's been. Great players don't make great coaches, because things came easy to them. Chris had to learn the game to survive."
McSorley's education in sports Darwinism was homespun. On their 650-acre farm in Cayuga, near Hamilton, Ont., Bill and Ann Marie McSorley drove their seven boys and three girls hard. Every family activity, from softball, soccer or hockey games to chores, was charged with the intensity of a Stanley Cup showdown. "In the mornings we'd work in the barn," says Marty, who is 14 months younger than Chris. "When we finished, we'd come in for lunch and race out to play until Dad corralled us all to get to work again. My mother was a very good softball player. She'd take us out and pitch to us, show us how to catch, and there'd be a baby hanging on her leg." Every Christmas the kids would sneak into the local rink to play with the new hockey equipment left under the family tree. "We battled each other pretty hard," Marty says. "Every one of us wanted to make the NHL."
Alas, only Marty made it—signed as a free agent by Pittsburgh in 1983, then traded in '85 to Edmonton, where he was part of the Wayne Gretzky-era Stanley Cup champions. Chris's NHL dream had come to a shattering halt in 1979, his last year of high school, when he was 17 and playing for the local Junior A club. One morning he was driving to school in his '72 Chevy Bel-Air. He never saw the milk tanker on the road, hidden by the crest of a hill. Three vertebrae in his lower back were fractured in the crash. He couldn't bend without severe pain for six months, and he wore a back brace for the better part of three years.
During his long recovery Chris enrolled at nearby Mohawk Community College and earned an associate's degree in industrial instrumentation technology. Then he found a job as a laborer at Stelco, a steel mill on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. To tone his aching body and to give himself a competitive outlet, he took up the martial art of Wado-Tyu and earned a brown belt, but it didn't satisfy him. So when he learned that his dojo sponsored a hockey club, he returned to the ice. He never cleared it with his doctor; he just played, fighting his pain.
At about the same time, Marty and his dad, Bill, gave Chris a McSorleyan form of career counseling. Marty bought Chris a Barbie lunch pail to make fun of his despised 9-to-5 grind at the steel mill. Then Marty would phone Chris from wherever he happened to be during his rookie NHL tour and tease his big brother brutally. When Chris sought the comfort of home, Bill doubled his farm chores. "They were convinced I could do more than I was doing," Chris says. "They basically shamed me into coming back."
Thus provoked, Chris attended the 1984 NHL draft, cornered Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke and talked his way into a tryout. Three months later the 22-year-old from the steel mill showed up in Philadelphia to audition. Though a bit rusty, he did well enough to hook up with his first minor league outfit, the Kalamazoo Wings, then a Flyers affiliate in the IHL. He signed for $350 a week.
Thus McSorley, a 5'11", 185-pound defenseman, embarked on a five-year, seven-team career of banging around the minors. He gained his greatest notoriety with the Toledo Goaldiggers in 1985 when he bit an opponent's nose during a fight on the ice. "I'm not very proud of that," McSorley says. He adds, "He bit me first, although they never proved it."