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Judgment Day for McSorley and Also the NHL

October 04, 2000|ELLIOTT TEAFORD

He's guilty, plain and simple.

Marty McSorley is guilty of clubbing Donald Brashear in the head in the final seconds of a game McSorley's team, the Boston Bruins, lost by a three-goal margin to Brashear's team, the Vancouver Canucks, on Feb. 21.

McSorley is guilty of giving Brashear a concussion. He's guilty of giving the NHL another black eye. He's guilty of turning stomachs from coast to coast every time the images appear on the TV screen. And don't they pop up again and again these days? He's guilty of keeping all of us up at night wondering what in the world he was thinking that night inside General Motors Place.

Most of all, McSorley is guilty of stupidity.

It doesn't particularly matter what a judge in Vancouver believes. Or whether the judge tosses McSorley into the clink for a day and a half or the year and a half that is the maximum he could sentence the former King, Oiler, Shark, Penguin, Ranger and Bruin defenseman.

The judge, who is expected to announce his verdict Friday, could convict McSorley of assaulting Brashear, and given the amount of attention the case has received on each side of the border, it wouldn't be surprising if McSorley is sentenced to hard time.

Many would argue this case doesn't belong in court. McSorley has been punished, quite severely, in fact, by the NHL, they'll say. McSorley was suspended for the final 23 games of last season, the longest suspension for an on-ice incident in league history. He must apply to the league for reinstatement, although for all intents and purposes, his career is over. He is 37, has lost a step or two or three and has this assault charge to boot. He is, in fact, a dinosaur.

Many also would say it's the NHL that is on trial. For years, the league was lax in policing itself, to the point it seemed brawling was encouraged. Perhaps the McSorley case is a long-delayed payback to the league from a disapproving judicial system.

After all, it wasn't so long ago that every NHL game seemed to spin wildly out of control. Don't remember those days? Watch a videotape of "Slap Shot," if it's not already checked out at Blockbuster. Sure, it's a funny commentary on the violence in the game at the time. But as Times columnist Mike Downey once said without a trace of humor, "It's a documentary."

In the 1970s, the heyday of brawling in the NHL, teams such as the Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers fed off intimidation. If that didn't work, they simply beat up opponents, tactics that run afoul of the rules of sportsmanship and fair play.

Times changed. The NHL sought to distance itself from such cartoonish displays of violence. In the 1980s, there were great offensive stars to showcase. Wayne Gretzky began rewriting the record book. New fans were attracted to the game in new cities as the league expanded. Many members of the old guard, who were reluctant to change, were forced out.

Gary Bettman became commissioner in the early 1990s and the game went global, adopting slick marketing campaigns appealing more to the mini-van-driving suburban family of four than the Joe Lunch Bucket crowd. The league cracked down on brawling. Thuggery was discouraged. Huge suspensions loomed for those guilty of violating the league's kinder, gentler guidelines.

Privately, the league did not frown on a fair fight. Me against you, two tough guys going at it with officials there to ensure the fight didn't get too lopsided before stepping in to break it up. The fans still enjoyed it, and it served a purpose. It was a way for large men to vent frustration.

Indeed, McSorley and Brashear had done just that earlier in that Feb. 21 game. No harm, no foul. Brashear had "won" the fight and with the Bruins hopelessly beaten in the final seconds, McSorley went looking for a rematch.

What he got was infamy.

Perhaps almost as sad as the incident itself is that McSorley, a stand-up guy for Gretzky in Edmonton and with the Kings, will be remembered for this for the rest of his life. It will overshadow his brilliant play in helping to lead the Kings to their only Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1992-93. His open-ice hit on Toronto's Doug Gilmour in Game 1 of the conference finals helped to swing the momentum back in the Kings' favor for Game 2 after they were blown out in the opener.

By all accounts, McSorley is a kind man, a gentle soul off the ice, a common trait among the NHL's toughest players.

In the minds of many, none of that matters now.

McSorley pleaded not guilty to the charges, which is ludicrous. It doesn't matter that McSorley testified that he attempted to strike Brashear in the upper torso in order to provoke a second fight. It doesn't matter that McSorley feels sorry for the pain and suffering his actions have caused.

In the end, it doesn't particularly matter whether he goes to jail. It doesn't matter if the NHL never lets him play again.

The bottom line is that he's guilty of betraying the game of hockey and the fans of hockey. He has to live with it for the rest of his life, which is punishment enough.

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