Canada

Getting to the hit of the matter

A judge must determine what an NHL tough guy, charged with assault, really meant to do

Chris Wood October 9 2000
Canada

Getting to the hit of the matter

A judge must determine what an NHL tough guy, charged with assault, really meant to do

Chris Wood October 9 2000

Getting to the hit of the matter

Canada

A judge must determine what an NHL tough guy, charged with assault, really meant to do

Chris Wood

Like so much else in modern sport, the final score in the assault trial of former Boston Bruin Marty McSorley may hang on the video replay. B.C. Provincial Court Judge Bill Kitchen admitted as much last week, after hearing four days of evidence in the case. Prosecutors charged McSorley last March after he stmck Vancouver Canuck Donald Brashear in the head with his stick. The blow dropped Brashear to the ice and sent him into convulsions (he recuperated and is still on the Canucks’ roster). To millions who saw it endlessly repeated on TV news reports, there seemed no doubt what the tapes showed: a vicious, blindside attack. Prosecutors, who played the clips again in court, reached the same conclusion. But, the defence challenged, is that really what the tapes show? Possibly not.

After listening to McSorley and viewing other footage that may tell a different story, Kitchen said he would closely examine all the tapes before delivering a verdict later this week. “One of the ultimate issues of this case,” he told an overflowing Vancouver courtroom, “is to reach factual conclusions about what is shown.”

McSorley was hurting and had reason to be anxious for his future the night the Bruins played Vancouver. For most of a decade, he had been Wayne Gretzky’s on-ice bodyguard with the Edmonton Oilers and later the Los Angeles Kings. But after the Kings released him in 1996, McSorley bounced around three other teams before landing with Boston last year. By then the hits were telling on his 6-foot, 2-inch, 230-pound physique. A collision with the boards in Denver in 1998 dislocated his left shoulder, which never fully healed, in

part, McSorley testified, because “I couldn’t put a brace on it—that would prohibit me from fighting.”

Both the Bruins and the Canucks were struggling to save fading playoff hopes. Soon after the opening faceoff, McSorley squared off against Brashear, Vancouver’s tough guy. The 28-yearold Brashear pummelled the veteran.

McSorley repeatedly challenged Brashear to a rematch but he refused. By the final minute, the dejected Bruins were down 5-2 and McSorley was ready for the showers. “I was more than prepared to let that game end sitting on the bench,” he testified. But then Brashear took to the ice; Boston sent out McSorley. “With 20 seconds left, I’m the

only guy going on. Just me,” he recalled on the stand. “It became obvious I was out there to confront Donald.” He had only seconds to do so: a fight after the closing horn would draw a 10-game suspension.

By his own account, McSorley approached his target “aggressively.” When he reached out toward the Canuck with his stick, McSorley insisted, “I went basically to the shoulder area, to make him stop and fight.” But in the split second that followed, Brashear moved— or perhaps McSorley’s own weakened shoulder impaired his movements. In any case, according to McSorley, an enlarged version of one tape—entered as evidence— shows “my stick initially struck Mr. Brashear on the top of the shoulder,” before sliding up into his face. “If Donald hadn’t cut back, I probably would have cross-checked him across the back.” Whether the blow to Brashear’s head was accidental will weigh heavily on McSorley’s guilt: the Criminal Code of Canada describes assault as an “intentional” act.

Then again, in a trial the NHL— and even Brashear’s own team— opposed, the legal intersection of the Criminal Code and full-conè tact hockey is largely unmapped, f The last player charged with as^ sault, Minnesota’s Dino Ciccarelli, 5 was convicted and fined $ 1,000 in 1988. McSorley, who has not signed on to a team for the 20002001 season, has already served the heaviest suspension in NHL history— 23 games.

Now it is Judge Kitchen’s turn. Faced with two explanations for the same fraction of a second last February, he must try to draw what truth he can from the blurred frames of a sloweddown videotape. E3