San Jose Sharks defenseman Bryan Marchment, who has been suspended more times than disbelief, laments that he was born 20 years too late. He considers himself an anachronism, a blueliner who would have prospered when men were men, hits were hits and cheap shots were addressed in five-on-five donnybrooks instead of in the NHL office. Marchment is old school, and he seems to have missed some classes. In anatomy, for example. His purported hip checks sometimes resemble dangerous knee-on-knee hits. And in spelling. Some opponents are convinced that when Marchment recites the alphabet, he begins, "A, C, L."
In a game in which pain is the common currency, no one inflicts more of it than Marchment. He prowls the ice in search of the bone-shakin', arena-quakin', highlight-package-makin' perfect hit that might turn a match around, but he'll settle for an imperfect hit, which is why the citizens of Dallas, in particular, are so incensed with him. During the 1997-98 regular season, Marchment, then an Edmonton Oiler, rubbed out Dallas Stars left wing Greg Adams for 20 games and sidelined center Mike Modano, the NHL's leading scorer at the time, for 10, with knee-on-knee hits. Then, in the playoff opener at Dallas, Marchment dashed the Stars' Stanley Cup chances when he rode Joe Nieuwendyk into the end boards, blowing out Nieuwendyk's right anterior cruciate ligament.
No penalty was called, but Marchment says he received a written death threat the next day and two threatening phone calls at the Oilers' hotel. Signs in Reunion Arena for Game 2 read KILL MARCHMENT. NHL justice, administered by Brian Burke, then the league's senior vice president and director of hockey operations, was more restrained. Burke, now the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, let the hit against Nieuwendyk slide, but he had already suspended Marchment twice in 1997-98: three games and a $1,000 fine for the hit in December on Modano, who was trying to dance away from a check, and eight games and a $1,000 fine for a knee-on-knee collision two months later with Carolina Hurricanes right wing Kevin Dineen. Marchment has been suspended six other times for more prosaic reasons during his seven full seasons in the NHL, including a checking-from-behind incident and leaving the bench to fight.
"People think I hurt opponents on purpose," Marchment says. "Not true. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want them to feel the hits. I want to make sure they feel them, because every time I hit somebody, I feel it. But I don't want people to think I'm a guy who wants to end somebody's career. There's not one guy in the league I don't have respect for."
Marchment delivers this apologia in the quiet monotone of a man tired of explaining himself, his eyes wandering to a passing trolley car outside the San Jose hotel lobby in which he is sitting. They are not the beady, reptilian eyes described by a Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist after the Nieuwendyk hit. Rather, they are a soft, almost beatific blue. His oft-broken nose—"The number is somewhere in the high teens," Marchment says—swings to the right at the bridge and then gently back to the left at the tip, further softening his features.
For the most dangerous player in the NHL, he is, at first glance, strikingly average. He's ordinary in size for a professional hockey player (6'1", 205 pounds), puts up unremarkable numbers (13 points and 144 penalty minutes in 1997-98), is just a fair skater and has limited puck skills. "The only time he passes tape-to-tape is when the other team's on a line change," one general manager says, "and all he does with the puck in his own zone is go hard around the boards." He's just 29, but the Sharks, who signed him to a five-year, $12 million deal last summer, are Marchment's sixth NHL team. Darryl Sutter, his coach in San Jose, calls him "a solid citizen, a fourth or fifth defenseman."
Of course, Marchment is the only fourth or fifth defenseman in the NHL who is part of every opponent's game plan, a player who must be accounted for at all times, like a Gretzky, a Jagr or a Selanne. Those guys hurt opponents with a goal or pass, but Marchment just hurts them. He waits for an opponent to curl over the blue line, lugging the puck, head down, so he can step up and go kerblooey! Or Marchment holds his position in neutral ice to see if an opponent will pursue a loose puck rolling along the boards or behave with circumspection.
When Marchment was in Edmonton, he would remind his roommate, Ryan Smyth, a swift, slippery left wing, to keep his head up at all times. In training camp Marchment would occasionally clobber Smyth as a public-service announcement. Before the Sharks' training camp formally opened this season, Marchment would watch the rookie scrimmages and salivate. "I hope some of those guys stick around," he said. "I need to get my timing down."
Marchment is dangerous not only when he connects—his clean check on Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mike Gartner in 1995 partially collapsed Gartner's left lung—but also when he misses, because he often sticks his leg out, an act that can impede, even cripple, a player. "Dineen cut back, made a beautiful move," Marchment says of that play last season. "Your brain's telling you to stick your leg out because he'll get by you, have a breakaway, make you look like an idiot. If that's something dirty, so be it."
"When his reputation as a hitter grew, players had to be alert to where he was on the ice," Burke says of Marchment. "They learned to take evasive action. If Marchment was beaten at the blue line, caught flat-footed, his leg would go out. This isn't premeditated. This is just how he reacts. Some players react by turning and skating back into the play; he does it by sticking his leg out. But there's a fine line between keeping an element in the game that every general manager wants—the pancake hit—and sticking out your knee."