McSorley hates that characterization. He says he never meant to hit Brashear in the head. He says he was aiming for a shoulder in an attempt to goad Brashear into a fight. In fact a slow-motion replay of the video shows that McSorley's stick did brush the top of Brashear's right shoulder before crashing into his face. Last week McSorley spoke with SI in his first extended discussions of the incident since his conviction.
"Yes, I meant to slash him," says McSorley. "Did I mean to hurt him with my stick? No.
"Look, I take responsibility for what happened. I feel bad that Donald got hurt. But when somebody says that I intentionally struck him in the head with my stick, I have an issue with that, because that goes to the core of who I am and the player I've been over the years."
McSorley's 3,381 career penalty minutes are the third most in NHL history. Before the Brashear incident he had been suspended seven times by the league for acts ranging from cross-checking an opponent in the forehead to gouging a rival's eye during a fight to spearing. McSorley is a thug. "I have no halo," he says.
Yet in the vigilante world of the NHL it is no paradox that many executives, coaches and players still respect McSorley. During his prime he was one of the best fighters in the game. As Wayne Gretzky's teammate for three seasons with the Edmonton Oilers and another eight with the Los Angeles Kings, he regularly punched out players who dared rough up the Great One. McSorley also taught himself to play well. Though he possessed marginal talent and was never drafted, his unwavering work ethic enabled him to develop into one of the league's better defensemen. He won the Stanley Cup with the Oilers in 1987 and '88 and went to the finals with the Kings in '93. In 1990-91 he tied for the league's best plus-minus rating. McSorley takes pride in his hard-earned ability to pass, puckhandle and defuse oncoming rushes, yet he harbors no illusions. Would he have reached the NHL without his fighting ability? "I would not have made Junior A," he says.
No one understands the enforcer's role better than McSorley, and no one understands better why, on the night of Feb. 21, he was sent onto the ice in the final seconds of a game the Bruins trailed 5-2. According to McSorley's trial testimony, coach Pat Burns had gathered the Bruins before the game to address Vancouver's toughness, adding, "Some of you guys might have to fight."
The events leading up to McSorley's fateful blow seem more suited to a Saturday-morning cartoon show than to an NHL game: 1) On his first shift McSorley clearly lost a fight to Brashear, who then played to the crowd and embarrassed McSorley by dusting off his hands; 2) later in the first period McSorley cross-checked Brashear to provoke him into a rematch, but Brashear didn't bite; after the whistle McSorley was assessed a 10-minute misconduct penalty; 3) while McSorley was serving that penalty, Brashear was battling for position in front of the net and fell on top of Bruins goalie Byron Dafoe, injuring Dafoe's knee; and 4) in the third period Brashear skated near the Boston bench and taunted the Bruins by flexing his muscles. After that, according to McSorley's testimony, Burns yelled at his players, "Are we going to take that, or are we going to stand up for ourselves?"
With less than a minute remaining in the game, Canucks coach Marc Crawford sent Brashear onto the ice. Immediately, as McSorley testified, Bruins assistant Jacques Laperriere said to him, "Mac, Mac, you're up. You're going. You're going." By any educated reckoning the implication was that the coaches wanted McSorley to fight Brashear. (Laperriere, who is still with Boston, didn't return calls for comment, while Burns, who was fired last month by the Bruins, could not be reached.)
McSorley was playing with a battered left shoulder that he could barely raise, an injury that he says limited his control over the stick. (Bruins' trainer Don DelNegro testified in court about McSorley's ailment.) When he stepped onto the ice, he was desperate to fight Brashear, not only to do what he thought was his coaches' bidding, but also to help save his career. Weakened by a long string of injuries, his effectiveness had been dwindling in recent years. He was on a one-year contract, and he was playing for his fifth team in five seasons. McSorley knew that the fighting ability that had gotten him into the league was what would keep him there. He had to stand up to Brashear but had little time to engage him before the game ended.
With three seconds remaining, he came upon Brashear, whose back was turned. Then McSorley swung his stick. "Marty plays on the edge," says the Philadelphia Flyers' feisty right wing, Rick Tocchet. "That's his role. He got too close to the edge, and a bad thing happened. It was bad, but anyone who says that those kind of things never happen in hockey, well, that's just bull."