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At week's end O'Neill was still investigating the violence in the Edmonton-Los Angeles game. However, he admitted that fighting is "sometimes used as a tactic. While it's not used to take out the better players [O'Neill was interviewed before the spearing of Gretzky], it is used against the more aggressive players. What they [the intimidators] seem to be doing is trying to stir up their team. They think the team needs a lift, so those players are encouraged to be more aggressive.
"We're all disturbed about the number of fights, no question about it," O'Neill continued. "There are very strong feelings among the owners that this type of fighting has no place."
Be that as it may, the league has traditionally taken the position that hockey is a frustrating game, played in close quarters by men wielding sticks, and that compared with players' swinging sticks at one another, fighting is the lesser of two evils. One only has to look at collegiate hockey to realize that this is not a totally absurd premise. Under NCAA rules, officials are required to eject anyone involved in a fight, but stick fouls aren't dealt with nearly as severely. The result is that fighting is rare in the college ranks, but sticks can often be heard clattering across face shields and helmets. Obviously, if the NHL were to make the penalties for fighting and high-sticking costly enough, both forms of mugging would stop—and all the more swiftly if teams were banned from bringing up replacement fighters from the minors when the resident pugs receive suspensions.
One factor contributing to the high level of violence in the NHL is that the players are bigger, faster and more skillful than in the past. The exceptionally talented little guy can still function, but the undersized player with fair-to-middling ability no longer occupies the 16th, 17th or 18th place on a roster. That spot may well be taken by a player with no redeeming skills or social value—your classic goon.
In late January, for instance, the Montreal Canadiens, facing a series of intradivisional games, called up Steve Martinson, a career minor leaguer who had played in 35 NHL games before this season and had spent 171 minutes in the penalty box in those games. Martinson has had one function—that of intimidation. His "finest" hour may have come on Jan. 29, when he sought out and roughed up Boston's Bobby Gould, a relative pacifist. Over in the Norris Division, whose teams have been involved in a disproportionate number of offenses punishable by suspension this season, trouble is always just one shift away.
Like the Toronto-Detroit mess and other fight-marred games of late, the Smythe Division's Oilers-Kings slugfest may have been induced by the approaching playoffs, in which L.A. may meet Edmonton in the first round. In the postseason, teams are more careful about drawing penalties. It's the posturing leading up to the playoffs, particularly between intradivisional rivals, that has the greatest potential for violence.
"It seems like everybody is rearming themselves," said Montreal coach Pat Burns last week. Actually, most teams have plenty of weapons on hand. On Feb. 27 in Landover, Md., Scott Stevens of the Washington Capitals and Dave Manson of the Chicago Blackhawks engaged in an altercation that will almost certainly bring discipline from O'Neill. Stevens gouged Manson's eye and Man-son, who had already been suspended this season for pushing a linesman, bit him on the hand.
Manson and Stevens are gifted players with hot tempers, though Stevens has learned to control his ire. The same can't be said of the 6'2", 220-pound McSorley, who has perhaps the friendliest off-ice manner in the league. McSorley isn't as talented as either Manson or Stevens, but with 11 goals, 17 assists and 290 penalty minutes at week's end, neither is he a mere goon. A former Oiler and teammate of Messier's (he was traded to the Kings along with Gretzky in 1988), McSorley would not have gotten to compete in the NHL if he hadn't been handy with his fists. Now he has become a competent player as well.
So last week the tasks of challenging Messier—and of lighting a fire under the fourth-place Kings—fell to McSorley. Most of the spectators at the Forum saw McSorley give Messier an additional shove after they jostled each other and toppled onto the ice. Messier, who has two suspensions on his record, is no wallflower, but this was his first fight of the season. If the Kings used fisticuffs to accomplish a short-term objective, the "real spiritual" experience may have backfired on them: Sandstrom, a key player, will miss a minimum of 10 days.
Not always are star players brought down as abruptly as Sandstrom and Messier were. Generally, a goon glowers from the bench at the other side's hardworking checker, who has been trying to contain the goon's star teammate. If the star should be bumped, the opposition coach sends out his gorilla, who in hockey's hoary ritual, proceeds to seek out the toughest guy on the ice and start a fight. In theory, the team whose tough guy wins the bout gains an edge.