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Sticking It Out

Enduring the infamy of his on-ice assault, McSorley gets second chance, returning to hockey as a coach

October 09, 2002|JERRY CROWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He had weathered the shame of a criminal conviction that earned him everlasting infamy far beyond the NHL, horrific images of him chopping down an opponent with his stick flickering across the nightly news and forever branding him a thug.

He had quietly sat out a yearlong suspension, by far the longest in league history for an on-ice infraction, biting his tongue while pundits besmirched his reputation from Malibu to Moose Jaw, Hawthorne to Halifax.

Happily engaged to a professional beach volleyball player, he was contentedly ensconced in Manhattan Beach, one of the world's loveliest addresses, and building a palatial beachfront home in neighboring Hermosa Beach.

Financially, he was set for life.

So why would Marty McSorley want to return to professional hockey, to revisit the ignominy of his painful exit from the sport?

And why, in turn, would professional hockey want him back?

The answer to the first question, McSorley says over coffee during an interview not far from the ocean in Manhattan Beach, is simple enough: He loves it.

"There's a spark there that I really can't extinguish," he says.

That's why, instead of relaxing on the beach with his wife, Leanne Schuster, this winter or traveling the world, as he did during his hiatus from the game, the newlywed McSorley will slog through 16-hour days coaching the Springfield (Mass.) Falcons, American Hockey League affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes.

You read right: McSorley, a former King perhaps best known in the Southland as the saboteur who derailed the club's championship hopes when he was caught using an improper stick in the 1993 Stanley Cup finals, is a coach.

As to why the Coyotes would entrust him with their top prospects, one step removed from the NHL, they say that answer is simple too.

They know him.

McSorley served long and hard as an on-ice bodyguard for Wayne Gretzky, co-owner of the Coyotes, keeping bullies like himself off the Great One's back. His agent was Mike Barnett, now general manager of the Coyotes.

They say there is more to McSorley, 39, than those unforgettable images of him striking Donald Brashear of the Vancouver Canucks in the head with his stick during a game at Vancouver, Canada, two years ago--an incident so brutal that McSorley was prosecuted in provincial court in British Columbia.

They consider McSorley an ideal choice to work with young, impressionable prospects, the very picture of perseverance and dedication when he played.

Though not drafted and only marginally talented, McSorley battled his way through 17 seasons with six NHL teams, winning two championships with Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s and racking up 3,381 penalty minutes, more than all but two other players in NHL history.

"Marty McSorley may be the best example today of a player who enjoyed a stellar career yet willed himself into the league," Barnett says. "He was never drafted, yet the commitment he made to himself to try and improve every day, every month, was something he could never waver from if he wanted to play in the National Hockey League. Once he got into the league, he was bound and determined no one was going to take that away from him.

"That's the understanding he's going to impact on our players. At the minor league level, that's first and foremost, that you need to make a commitment to yourself and pay a price to maximize your physical potential as a National Hockey Leaguer."

McSorley scored a career-best 15 goals and 41 points for the Kings in the 1992-93 season, one of three seasons he ranked among the league's top 10 defensemen in goal scoring. First and foremost, though, he was an enforcer.

"I went out on the ice to fight sometimes," he says, offering no apologies for a career that, before the Brashear incident, included seven other suspensions for acts ranging from cross-checking an opponent in the forehead to eye-gouging during a fight. "Everybody in the building knew I was out there to fight."

The night of Feb. 21, 2000, was one of those.

Playing for the Boston Bruins against the Vancouver Canucks, less than a minute remaining and the Bruins trailing, 5-2, McSorley was sent into the game to fight Brashear, McSorley later testified. Earlier, Brashear had inadvertently injured Bruin goaltender Byron Dafoe, then taunted the Bruin bench.

What happened next was caught on videotape and replayed ad nauseam for months:

From behind, the 6 foot 1, 235-pound McSorley approaches the 6-2, 235-pound Brashear, who is skating without the puck, and clubs him on the side of the face with a quick, hard swing of his stick.

Brashear crumbles to the ice. The back of his skull hits the frozen surface as his helmet pops loose and, after lying motionless for a moment, he begins to convulse. He is carried off on a stretcher and taken to a hospital to spend the night, having suffered a concussion that will sideline him for 20 games.

The Canucks were justifiably outraged, the general public horrified.

Even McSorley's wife-to-be, watching on television, was incensed.

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