The story doesn't ring true. It's offered as one of those defining moments, an event so powerful that it forever molded Marty McSorley's character: tough guy, heavyweight, enforcer. All because one day, on the McSorleys' farm in Cayuga, Ont., the family hound retreated from a coyote. The story is that Marty's dad, Bill, grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck, lifted him out of the truck and fired him back into the fray. And this is supposed to explain Marty McSorley's particular brand of toughness.
But it doesn't make sense. Where were the McSorley boys when this happened? There were seven of them. Maybe not all, but certainly a forward line's worth of them were around that day. It's just impossible to imagine the boys not pouring out of the truck, pausing to shake off their gloves in that distinctive McSorley way and giving chase. "Pa, I'll get 'im." Maybe fighting each other over who would actually bring down the coyote. "That bag of fur is mine." It wouldn't have been like them to miss out on any kind of competition. In real life the dog does not get another chance.
Another story, less apocryphal: Marty and his older brother Chris—a former minor league player who now coaches for Toledo in the East Coast Hockey League—were playing golf a few summers ago. There were some bucks involved. Chris was trying to get out of the rough, and Marty broke into a somewhat distracting karaoke act. Chris is not a man to distract. In the minors he once bit the tip off the nose of a player who tried to distract him, which is all the more astonishing if you know that Chris did not play the game with a full complement of teeth. He must have had to gnaw the poor fellow's schnoz off. ("I'm not proud of that," Chris says.) Anyway, back on the golf course, Chris drilled Marty in the leg with a three-iron shot, and Marty crumpled onto the fairway. Then he straightened up, ran for Chris's bag and threw it into the water hazard. They shrugged and went for ice cream.
About all that can be said of the outing is, good thing they weren't driving carts, what with lost security deposits and everything. But Marty is surprised to hear something like that. He's dealing with someone who doesn't know the McSorley boys. "Oh, we could never rent a cart," he says. "We'd have fought all day over who'd drive."
So maybe the golf story, more than the dog story, gives you an idea of what the rest of the NHL is up against. A McSorley is insanely competitive, brooks no nonsense, reacts swiftly and inappropriately, sometimes bites off more than he can chew. A McSorley is dangerous to be around.
These characteristics are of some worth in the NHL. How much worth was revealed this past summer when the St. Louis Blues offered Marty, a defenseman who was a restricted free agent, $10 million over five years to provide them with what is euphemistically called a presence. The Los Angeles Kings, who had enjoyed McSorley's presence for five seasons, matched the offer and then, to cut their bulging payroll, traded him to Pittsburgh, which is glad to have him lurking in the background, scoring a goal or two and watching Mario Lemieux's back.
The contract was astounding for a 30-year-old player who, by his own admission, is incompletely skilled. But it seems that after McSorley participated in two Stanley Cup triumphs with the Edmonton Oilers (1986-87 and '87-88) and helped the Kings get into their first-ever Cup final last season, his worth to a talented team—as a tough guy who can play—was finally recognized.
What McSorley does is not complicated, although it's not as simple as it sometimes looks. He is not a goon, a firebomb lobbed onto the ice to enliven the occasional dull game. He is not a terrorist meant to spread fear through the league. He is not an assassin. It's true—every once in a while he'll become so unhinged that he plunges the league into a self-righteous funk. "We're disturbed about the number of fights," a league official said after a McSorley rampage in 1990 that included a vicious slash. ("I'm not proud of that," Marty says, ever a McSorley.) But mostly his violence is calculated.
"Listen," says McSorley, who is so boyish-looking and mild-mannered as to invite doubt concerning his league-leading 399 minutes in penalties last year. "I would love to go out there and just play the game. But what you have sometimes is a condition of unbalanced talent. You'll have a less-talented guy, who's trying to make a living, after all, trying to check a Wayne Gretzky or a Mario Lemieux, harassing him, slashing him, intimidating him. A big guy can step up and shift that balance of power, keep everybody honest. If there's a fast game, a finesse game, you'll rarely see a fight. Last year there was a fight in every 1.24 games—really not that many fights."
Of course, as one of the four or five genuine heavyweights in the league, McSorley was in many of those fights. At 6'1", 235 pounds, he is a capable regulator, a forceful reminder that his team's goal scorer is off-limits. No wonder Gretzky insisted on taking McSorley with him in his famous trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988. "Do I need a guy like that?" asks Gretzky, who for the first time in eight years will be without his old friend. "Everybody needs a guy like that. You have to have a presence out there so they don't take that extra liberty."