Cover

BLOOD SPORT

When Marty McSorley whacked Donald Brashear, he dealt a devastating blow to hockey

James Deacon March 6 2000
Cover

BLOOD SPORT

When Marty McSorley whacked Donald Brashear, he dealt a devastating blow to hockey

James Deacon March 6 2000

It was probably inevitable that Marty McSorley and Donald Brashear were going to butt heads. They came from different backgrounds: Brashear was born in Bedford, Ind., but was abused by his father and was eventually sent by his mother, a Quebecer, to live with a foster family in Montreal; McSorley had a happy family life on his parents’ farm in Cayuga, Ont. But in their hockey careers, they had much in common. Both were self-made, having earned their way to the National Hockey League as fighters before refining their talents to become useful, regular-shift players— Brashear as a forward, McSorley on defence. Since 1996, they fought practically every time they faced one another—five times in all. The last of those battles came last week, barely two minutes into the first period of a game between Brashear’s Vancouver Canucks and McSorley’s Boston Bruins. As usual, Brashear was the clear victor.

What was not predictable was how the next McSorley-versus-Brashear confrontation would conclude. The first-period beating burned McSorley, and he repeatedly tried to goad his foe into a rematch later in the game. Brashear wouldn’t bite— why bother when his Canucks were building a solid 5-2 lead—but he did taunt the entire Bruins’ bench with an exaggerated flex of muscles midway through the final period. That just seemed to make McSorley angrier. In the hockey fighters’ code of honour, showboating is a cardinal sin and offenders must pay.

So, with less than a minute on the score-clock and Brashear already on the ice, McSorley jumped over the boards intending, he said later, to provoke another fight. But instead, in a grotesque lapse of character, McSorley skated up from behind and, with just 2.7 seconds left, clubbed Brashear in the right temple with a vicious two-handed slash of his stick. The Vancouver forward dropped backward like a felled tree. Making matters worse, his helmet slipped off just before impact, allowing his head to bounce sickeningly on the ice. McSorley was immediately besieged by several Canucks, while Brashear—unconscious, his body twitching ominously, blood seeping out of his nose—was treated by emergency medical staff and rushed away on a stretcher. “It made me sick to my stomach,” said Canucks forward Markus Naslund. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. The slash was, I think, bad enough to kill someone. I’m just happy that he’s OK.”

Miraculously, the 28-year-old Brashear soon regained consciousness and may be able to return to action in a matter of weeks, depending on how quickly he recovers from a severe concussion. Thanks to that durability, the National ffockey League dodged a deadly bullet in Vancouver last week. The force of McSorley’s blow and the place on the head where it hit might have easily killed Brashear. Fans, officials and players all condemned the attack, and Vancouver police launched an investigation that could yet result in charges this week.

The league, meanwhile, suspended the 36year-old McSorley for the Bruins’ remaining 23 regular-season games and for the playoffs, should Boston qualify. That is the longest suspension in NHL history for an on-ice infraction—but not nearly long enough for many critics. “You’ve got to talk years with that kind of thing,” said Dallas Stars forward Mike Modano, himself a victim of a now-infamous hit that kept him out for 10 days earlier this season. “You’re not talking games. You’re talking a twoor three-year ban.” 1 he league added that, if McSorley wants to play again next year, he must apply to commissioner Gary Bettman for reinstatement. Amnesty, league sources made clear, is not guaranteed, but they say they cannot be more specific because, at this point, McSorley does not have a contract for next season.

In public-relations terms, the league plainly suffered a severe concussion, too. The attack was replayed endlessly on TV networks and Web sites all over North America, reinforcing among casual viewers—especially in the all-important U.S. market—the stereotype depicted in the 1970s cult classic, Slap Shot, which portrayed hockey as a violent fringe sport more closely aligned with wrestling and roller derby than with baseball, basketball and football. “For the fan who maybe doesn’t see the game a lot,” said Anaheim Mighty Ducks star Paul Kariya, “this is what they are going to focus on and this is what the papers are going to push. For our league, this type of criticism is horrible.”

Hockey is hardly the only sport plagued by violence. Baseball players have had their careers endangered by intentional beanball pitches. Basketball fans recall the blindside punch that Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers threw to the face of the Houston Rockets Rudy Tomjanovich in 1977. The blow, which fractured Tomjanovich's jaw, nose and skull, punctured his brain cavity and tore a tear duct, drew a 26game suspension—roughly comparable to what McSorley will serve, and less if the Bruins make the playoffs.

There is no question that the NHL has made some effort to curb violence. It has changed rules, toughened suspensions and gone to a new two-referee system to dramatically reduce the number of fights and serious fouls in recent years. But the league still allows fighting, and while stick fouls such as McSorley’s are rare, vicious cross-checks and slashes are not. Elbows to the head are still too common, as are hits from behind, which may be the most dangerous foul of all. The worst recent example occurred last October, when Anaheim defenceman Ruslan Salei sent Modano, at high speed, twisting headfirst into the boards.

That incident was just as career-threatening as the McSorley attack, and its replays were just as stomach-turning. Modano, one of the games brightest stars, somehow escaped with only strained neck muscles and a concussion, but he understood how close he had come to losing his career, or even his life. He called on his fellow players to show more respect for each others safety, and threatened to quit if the violence did not decline. “If things continue, I’m not going to play anymore,” he said, adding: “I still have the rest of my life to live.”

Is there something about the culture of the game that actually encourages extremely violent behaviour?

For the league and its players, the lingering debate is not over what to do about McSorley. It must address why such extreme acts of violence happen at all. Are they simply inevitable in fierce contact sports such as hockey? Or is there something about the culture of the game that encourages extreme behaviour? Former Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden, now the Toronto Maple Leafs president, says the answer is somewhere in between. “Bad things can happen in great games,” he says. “And good people sometimes do bad things.”

Even Marty McSorley admits there is no excuse for what he did. “I got way too carried away,” he said in his solemn post-game apology to Brashear. All he wanted to do, he said, was start a fight. His oldest friends in the game, including icons such as Mark Messier of the Canucks and the retired Wayne

Gretzky, said the incident was unconscionable. Former teammate and fellow tough guy George Laraque of the Edmonton Oilers was emphatic: “I would never allow him to play again. I wouldn’t even let him enter a rink again.

Just as tellingly, no one, not even McSorleys legal representatives or his team, challenged the suspension. In fact, McSorley did not attend his disciplinary hearing at the NHLs New York City headquarters where league vice-president Colin Campbell announced the decision. He gave no public explanation for his failure to appear, although sources close to him said he was advised against making any public statements while he was still under police investigation in Vancouver.

Whatever, McSorleys senseless act may well be his last in the NHL. The Ontario farm boy has struggled in recent years to find employment in the NHL, and his current notoriety is not likely to help his cause even with two talent-poor expansion franchises joining the league next season. And without somewhere to play, McSorley will have little chance to redeem himself in the eyes of sports fans—or in his own.

It could have been a much happier ending. McSorley is the quintessential rags-to-riches hockey player. With only modest abilities, he offered to do his teams’ dirty work as an enforcer, first in Pittsburgh and then, more gloriously, alongside Gretzky in Edmonton and Los Angeles. Through sheer hard work, McSorley became a solid player in the middle years of his career, playing key roles on the power-play and penalty-killing units. He would wear out trainers and assistant coaches by insisting on staying late at practices, working on passing drills or improving his fitness. Soft-spoken and articulate, he took a keen interest in the business of the sport and became a vice-president with the NHL Players’ Association. He hoped to run a team someday, using what he learned from examining hockey from the bottom up.

But along the way, things took a turn for the worse. Feeling McSorley had lost a step and was becoming less proficient as a regular defenceman, his previous employers in San Jose and then Edmonton (his second stint there) began using him more in his original role, as a fighter. He didn’t like the inglorious demotions, or the assessment that he no longer had the skills to make it without fighting. Then, this season, he did not land a job until December when Boston picked him up on a one-season contract. Again, his role was to add toughness to a team in decline. So, when Bruins coach Pat Burns and the rest of the team bristled at Brashear’s taunts, McSorley was the stand-up guy who answered the bell. And then he did something terrible. “I’m in shock with what I did,” he said afterwards. “That’s not the way I want to be remembered as a hockey player.”

One insider who has known McSorley for his entire career, and who asked to remain anonymous, says the tough guy probably stayed in the game too long. Enforcers are supposed to intimidate their counterparts on other teams, and when they are no longer able to do that, they either get out of the game or resort to ever more dangerous tactics. McSorley alluded to that possibility himself, saying ruefully: “I guess I’m trying to write cheques my body can’t cash.”

Still, it is misleading to view the McSorley-Brashear incident in isolation. Sure, Brashear was an antagonist and, certainly, McSorley must be held accountable for his actions and pay the highest price. But the coaches bear responsibility, too, for allowing those players on the ice at that time. They had fought before; there was bad blood; the game was already decided; the only possible outcome was fighting for fighting’s sake—or worse. “You have to know,” says Dryden, “that when you send out your goons and they send out their goons, something out of your control is going to happen.”

Traditionalists insist fighting is part of the game, but if that were really true, then Russians and Swedes would be good at it

But then, the NHL has its traditions. Just about every team holds at least two roster spots for so called tough guys. The league insists fighting is part of the game, and that it helps discourage other dangerous fouls. All evidence to the contrary: if fighting were really an essential part of the game, then the Russians and Swedes would be good at it. And if it discouraged serious fouls, then Chicago’s Gary Suter would not have ended Kariya’s season with Anaheim two years ago with a cross-check to the face. And Mike Stapleton of the Atlanta Thrashers would not have crunched his elbow jarringly into the face of Colorado’s star center, Peter Forsberg, just last week. And so on. And in the McSorley case, fighting was clearly part of what led to the brutal slashing.

The NHL is left with a contradiction. It suspends players for high sticking, boarding and elbowing fouls, but it tacitly condones bare-knuckle fighting by levying only five-minute penalties against players who drop their gloves. In a pre-season game in 1997, Ryan Vandenbusche of the New York Rangers knocked Toronto’s Nick Kypreos unconscious with a single punch. Kypreos, like Brashear, fell to the ice, suffered a massive concussion and was forced to retire. Kypreos was a veteran tough guy who fought knowing the risks. But that incident demonstrated that fighting can be as dangerous as McSorley’s stickwork, particularly since today’s enforcers are bigger and better brawlers than they were a generation ago.

The league doesn’t see it that way. During a conference call announcing McSorley’s ban, Campbell said changing the rules on fighting was “not something we are concerned about.” Market research reveals that while fans deplore dangerous stick work, a high number—too many to risk losing, apparently—like fighting. “We have not got to the point,” Campbell said, “where we say fights should be illegal.”

The league cannot be expected to control the actions of all its players. But if it wanted to stop the fighting, it obviously could—-by ejecting fighters instandy like every other major sport. Instead, its teams pay pugilists handsomely: Toronto tough guy Tie Domi, for instance, rakes in more than $1.5 million a year. When the game rewards men for beating on each others’ heads with bare fists, should we be surprised when fighters occasionally resort to sticks?


Tales of two hockey dads

Violence in hockey begins at the kids’ level. Two Maclean’s hockey parents, Executive Editor Bob Levin and Senior Writer D’Arcy Jenish, reflect on what they’ve seen:

Levin: The editors had just decided to do a hockey cover last week when I mentioned to my boss that, speaking of violence, I was a little concerned about my son’s game that night. It was a critical contest, possibly deciding the final spot in the playoffs, and previous games against this team had been down-and-dirty affairs. We’re talking about 11-year-olds, what’s called Atom A, where full body contact is both allowed and encouraged. There was no lack of it that night, much of the illegal variety. Slashing, spearing, tripping, little skirmishes flaring up all over the rink, furious words flying like elbows—you could feel the game sliding out of control, the refs calling a few penalties but mostly letting the mayhem unfold. And with a couple of ticks left, my son was belted hard in the back—it didn’t look like an accident—his head driven forward into the boards. The buzzer sounded, the kids were ushered to their dressing rooms—our guys in the full-throated delirium of victory—and my son lay on the ice, his eyes glassy.

He’s fine. Very stiff neck; the doctor prescribed pain relievers and a couple of days’ rest. The assailant was given a three-game suspension. But the cycle continues, a new generation raised in the prevailing ethic, a fabulous game marred by a mindless adherence to the gods of rock-’em-sock-’em.

Jenish: In retrospect, the letter seems like a foolish mistake. Last October, after witnessing my 14-year-old son’s team play a 40-minute game in which there were 58 minutes of penalties and three measly goals, I fired off a letter to the editor of the home teams local newspaper decrying the thuggish play. I hoped it might lead to some soul-searching among the teams’ parents and coaches. No such luck. The next time our teams played, the kids stuck to hockey, but several parents approached me: a mother called me an “a-----e,” a father defended the on-ice rough stuff and another threatened to punch me in the face.

No one disputes that hockey is a physical game. But among elite-level peewees and bantams—the 12to 15-year-old boys I’ve watched over the past three winters—players routinely smash opponents into the boards from behind and cross-check them in the face mask. Even when an opposing player is nowhere near the puck, they hook, trip, hold and slash. Respect for an opponent? Forget it. Last December, after my son’s feet were kicked out from under him and he left the game with his arm in excruciating pain, players on the opposing bench laughed and the goalie shouted: “Go home, you faggot.”

There are nights when these kids play exhilarating hockey, when the pace is lightning quick, the passing crisp and the goals pretty. Too often, though, I’ve witnessed penalty-filled gong shows, and left the rink thinking: hockey is a diseased sport.


BOSTON BRUINS

No. 29 McSORLEY, Marty

Home town: Hamilton

Born: May 18,1963

Position: defence

Shoots: right Height: 6’2"

Weight: 235 lb.

Years in NHL: 17

Career Games: 961

Goals: 108

Assists: 251

Total Penalty Minutes: 3,381

Highlights: Wayne Gretzky’s protector for two Stanley Cup wins with Edmonton in 1987 and 1988. Traded to the L.A. Kings with Gretzky in 1988. Led the league in 1992-1993 with 399 penalty minutes. Ranks third among all-time penalty-minute leaders.


VANCOUVER CANUCKS

No. 8 BRASHEAR, Donald

Home town: Bedford, Ind.

Born: Jan. 7,1972

Position: left wing

Shoots: left

Height: 6'2”

Weight: 225 lb.

Years in NHL: 7

Career Games: 386

Goals: 39 Assists: 33

Total Penalty Minutes: 1,278

Highlights: Signed as free agent with Montreal in 1992. Traded to Vancouver in 1996. Led league in 1997-1998 season with 372 total penalty minutes. Recorded 29 penalty minutes during third period against New York Rangers in October, 1997.