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McSorley Incident Leaves Questions but Few Answers

February 29, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT

What next?

How does the NHL repair its image in the wake of Marty McSorley's slash of Donald Brashear?

What is McSorley's hockey future after having been suspended for the rest of the season and the playoffs?

His Bruin contract expires after this season, and if he wants to play again--his agents say he does--he must get approval from Commissioner Gary Bettman. Who will sign a 37-year-old with diminished skills and a blot on his record even he can't explain?

Will Brashear be able to resume what was a respectable season? He had a career-high 11 goals and moderate 132 penalty minutes before being hit in the temple by McSorley's stick last Monday; he reportedly had a seizure and has a concussion that may idle him six weeks.

The biggest question may be answered late this week, when Vancouver police are expected to conclude their investigation and report to the Crown attorney, which will decide if an assault charge will be filed.

The NHL hopes the courts stay out of it. But even if there's no criminal charge, discussion of the incident will rage on.

A member of Parliament from Toronto told Canada's National Post he will introduce a private member's bill to criminalize fighting in hockey, although such bills rarely go far.

"This is a drastic step, but the NHL refuses to deal with the issue of violence," John Nunziata said. "In fact, they condone it. The NHL thinks this sells the game. I think they're wrong and I think the time has come for a public debate on this."

Players and coaches don't see fighting as a factor in this incident, and fighting is down in the NHL. Through Sunday, 62.5% of games were fight-free, compared with 48% for the 1996-97 season.

Those who support fighting say it vents emotions that boil over when big men collide on small rinks, and many fans watch hockey because of the fights, not despite them. Measure the cheers after a goal and a fight. The decibel levels will be close.

"There have been fights in hockey forever," said Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of hockey operations. "We haven't got to the point where we say they should be illegal. And it's not something we're concerned about and I don't think I've ever, ever had a player come up to me and say we should get rid of fighting. . . . I just don't see any comparison in a fight as compared to what happened the other night."

Wayne Gretzky agrees. In his weekly column in the National Post--OK, it's ghostwritten--he deplored McSorley's action but said he admires his pal for apologizing and taking responsibility. Not that McSorley could have avoided responsibility in the presence of TV cameras and witnesses. And why should being accountable merit admiration? It should be a given.

Gretzky also hopes law enforcement agencies bow out.

"That's a bit of a dicey issue, I realize. We say in hockey that there are times when two guys can square off and fight and get the aggression out, but if two guys square off and fight in a park to get the aggression out we want the authorities involved," he said. "But if the authorities get involved every time something bad happens in hockey, where does it all end? It's something that has to be considered."

Mighty Duck left wing Paul Kariya, who suffered a concussion when he was cross-checked in the jaw by Gary Suter two years ago, said fighting isn't the issue here.

"I don't know if stick incidents would go down if there was no fighting," he said, citing protection that makes players feel invulnerable. "The thing I would like to see the league start doing is punishing the hit, not the injury."

In deciding the suspension, Campbell considered whether Brashear and McSorley should have been on the ice because they had fought once, McSorley had challenged Brashear to a rematch and neither is a scorer. Campbell didn't fault Vancouver Coach Marc Crawford or Boston Coach Pat Burns, because the players had been taking regular shifts.

Was the punishment appropriate? That's debatable. But it's clear players must be able to play without fear of being attacked from behind--and aggressors must know they will pay dearly. Being sorry isn't enough.

MARK HIS WORDS

Trade rumors have Mark Messier going to New York, New Jersey and Buffalo, where Michael Peca has volunteered to give Messier his captaincy.

But Messier, 39, has a no-trade clause in his contract and hasn't asked Vancouver General Manager Brian Burke to waive it. Although he's not the offensive factor he once was--he takes 12 goals and 39 points into the Canucks' game against the Kings tonight at Staples Center--he is still a fiery leader and he feels some obligation to guide the Canucks through their rocky rebuilding.

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