- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Nobody deliberately started it, of course. Nobody ever does. According to NHL statistics, approximately two out of three fights occur without instigation by any of the parties involved. So when right wing Marty McSorley of the Los Angeles Kings and center Mark Messier of the Edmonton Oilers dropped their gloves and began swinging at each other on Feb. 28 at the L.A. Forum, their fight may have been, in the league's eyes at least, an understandable, spontaneous eruption on the part of two frustrated and angry players.
But this punch-up couldn't be explained away so easily. Its timing—only 1:35 into the first period—seemed curious, and Messier, an MVP candidate, appeared to have been targeted by McSorley, a candidate to fight Buster Douglas. The incident touched off a riotous evening that would culminate in 86 penalties, the most in a game in the NHL's 72-year history. It also set the stage for numerous other scraps, one of which sent the Kings' Tomas Sandstrom to the hospital. In the wake of the 3½ hours of mayhem, which ended in a nine-player melee with 26 seconds to play, even the league, long accused of looking the other way when it comes to violence, admitted that its house may not be entirely in order.
"There is no question about it, this [kind of fighting] adds nothing whatsoever to the game," said Brian O'Neill, the NHL vice-president in charge of discipline. "Earlier this season, fighting was down 23 or 24 percent [compared with 1987-88], but after recent games, we can't say that right now. We thought we were moving in the right direction with fighting. Now we have to examine who is doing the fighting, and maybe bring in additional penalties."
Although the Oilers-Kings debacle didn't establish the record for the most penalty minutes in a game—a 1981 Boston Bruins-Minnesota North Stars matchup that featured 406 minutes' worth of penalties still has that honor—last week's 356 minutes' worth made for as sorry a spectacle as one can imagine. Nineteen seconds after the McSorley-Messier bout, L.A. right wing Dave Taylor and Edmonton defenseman Craig Muni dropped their gloves.
With 3:22 remaining in the second period, an eight-player brawl erupted. During that one the Oilers' Glenn Anderson punched Sandstrom in the face. Sandstrom lay on the ice for several minutes before being taken to the hospital. He was treated for a fractured facial bone, a scratched right cornea, bleeding inside the right eye and a gash—which took four stitches to close—below that same eye. Sandstrom underwent laser surgery on his eye as an outpatient last Friday.
Although the second period wasn't over, referee Denis Morel sent the teams to their locker rooms and called out the Zamboni. Fifteen minutes later the sides returned to the ice, completed the period and proceeded into the third. There was another lengthy brawl 8:33 into the third period. Finally, with the last seconds of the game ticking away, McSorley tried to pick a fight with the Oilers' Esa Tikkanen, who had been shadowing Wayne Gretzky for most of the game. Edmonton's Steve Smith intervened, and yet another brawl began, this one involving nine players. When this dark and gloomy game finally drew to a close, the Kings were on top by a score of 4-2.
"I think it got a little out of hand," says Los Angeles assistant coach Cap Raeder. "But sometimes [fighting] can bring a team closer together. Everyone stuck up for everyone else, and that's what it's all about."
Added McSorley, who received an automatic three-game suspension for collecting his fourth and fifth game-misconduct penalties of the season, "When you win a real emotional game, with a lot of fights, you go home and you feel a little closer to your teammates. I thought the fights made it a real spiritual game."
As if the Oilers-Kings affair wasn't enough violence for one week, the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs were assessed a combined 66 penalties, totaling 272 minutes, on Friday night in the Red Wings' 3-2 victory at Joe Louis Arena. A few days earlier, the Red Wings had promoted tough guy Chris McRae, who had accumulated 290 penalty minutes at their Adirondack farm club. The Leafs, in preparation for a home-and-home series against Detroit, thereupon recalled Tie Domi, who had 226 penalty minutes with their Newmarket, Ont., minor league club. "We have to send a signal out," said Toronto coach Doug Carpenter on Friday morning. "I'd like to see a tough, physical game." He got one. Domi drew 37 minutes in penalties during his two minutes on the ice.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg, no fewer than five players were ejected from the Jets-Kings game, which Winnipeg won 5-2. Jet center Doug Evans was handed a five-minute major and a game-misconduct penalty with 1:57 to go in the second period for spearing Gretzky. The Great One had to be helped to the locker room, but he returned for the third period.