McSorley Puts Hockey on Trial

by Howard Fienberg
September 26, 2000

Picture this: you walk into work one morning, pick up a large blunt object, swing it two-handed and clock a co-worker upside the head. The blow knocks him out and puts him in the hospital. Plus, you have a record as a violent offender. What might the consequences be?

In the real world, a trip to Sing-Sing. In the National Hockey League (NHL), on the other hand, you could look forward to a wink, nod, and casual slap on the wrist. Last season, Marty McSorley of the Boston Bruins viciously assaulted the Vancouver Canucks' Donald Brashear, clubbing him with his hockey stick, and was suspended for the rest of the season. But the Vancouver police got involved this time, and on September 25 McSorley will get his day in a real court. He should be thrown in jail as a lesson to all of hockey.

The NHL insists it can handle the case, arguing that violence is a part of the game and it can take care of its own business, thank you very much. Unfortunately, this is merely one of many examples that the NHL couldn't manage a hot dog stand.

Did our perpetrator have a history setting him apart from the average player? Witness his suspensions for spearing Calgary's Mike Bullard in the stomach in 1988 and his cross-check to Boston Bruin Darren Bank's head in the 1992-93 season. A "clean" Marty McSorley would never have survived in hockey because he lacked talent. He was always on hand to protect the real talent - Wayne Gretzky with the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings and Mario Lemieux with the Pittsburgh Penguins. I suppose he was at a loss last season, given the lack of talent worth protecting on the Boston Bruins. But listlessness and a fading sense of purpose do not excuse his attack.

McSorley is a product of a league which has made only faint attempts to distinguish itself from Paul Newman's parody movie, "Slapshot." Sure, things have improved since the bloody 1970's. There are no more bench-clearing brawls and there are fewer hockey players whose IQ points outnumber teeth. Still, violence - mean, brutal and debilitating - remains a major part of the game because the league refuses to penalize it. The referees choke on their whistles so often they can hardly breathe. That lack of oxygen to the brain must be to explain why they don't think to call penalties on most dangerous plays. Unfortunately, the more likely explanation is that the NHL likes being professional wrestling on skates - and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman feels that trash sells.

The NHL regularly suspends players for speech that could be offensive and enrolls offenders in diversity awareness counseling. What punishment gets meted out to a player who crunches an opponent into the boards head-first, risking a broken neck? A couple of games suspended, if any. In any normal place of business, offenders, if not fired outright, would be enrolled in course like "How To Play Nice With Others," "How To Body-check Intelligently," and "How Not To Kill My Co-workers." Such double standards must make sense ... after enough two-handed stick slashes to the side of your head that your brain ceases to function.

McSorley will probably escape any harsh sentence in the real world and most likely just retire from the NHL. And the league will go on its merry way, leaving mayhem in its wake.

Steve Thomas of the Toronto Maple Leafs defended McSorley, saying "I think everyone in this league... has had that point in a game where you just want to take somebody's head off." True, Steve. I occasionally have that impulse in real life. But I don't give in. Should abject emotional immaturity excuse a crime?

And what kind of example does this set for kids playing the sport? Lower leagues always emulate the NHL, whether it is good sportsmanship or relentless brawling. Which would we prefer? Now don't get me wrong. Non-contact hockey, like kissing your dog, tastes nasty. But contact sports do not require that players try to murder their opposition. Until the NHL figures this out, I say keep the real cops at the ready. The cops in charge of hockey are Keystone.

- Howard Fienberg is a former columnist for the LCS: Guide to Hockey

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