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It's Still a Big Sticking Point

When McSorley was caught using an illegal stick, it changed the course of the finals and is remembered as one of NHL's biggest gaffes.

June 08, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

If the Kings had killed off the penalty, then it never would have become instant word association among hockey fans in North America, even 10 years later.

Or, if they had won that particular game in overtime. Or, if they pulled out one of the next two games at home in overtime during the Stanley Cup finals....

If, if, if.

None of those things happened, unfortunately for Kings' fans, so here it goes, again.

Marty McSorley: Stickgate.

"There's certain things that will always be," said former King coach and ESPN analyst Barry Melrose. "The long shot from Jacques Lemaire against Tony Esposito, [Boston Coach Don] Cherry's too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty and our stick measurement."

And, even though he links McSorley's gaffe to two other memorable stumbles in the playoffs, Esposito in 1971 and Cherry in 1979, Melrose remains one of McSorley's biggest defenders, saying there was no way the Kings would have reached the finals in 1993 without his contributions.

The memory remains painfully vivid for fans.

Close your eyes and you can probably still see referee Kerry Fraser measuring the curvature of McSorley's stick blade in the waning moments of Game 2 in Montreal. There was little doubt; the stick exceeded the permitted curvature of one-half inch by about a quarter of an inch.

That quarter-inch put the Canadiens on the power play, and it became a six-on-four advantage when Montreal Coach Jacques Demers pulled goaltender Patrick Roy. Defenseman Eric Desjardins scored, only 32 seconds into the power play, erasing the Kings' 2-1 lead, and then had the game-winner 51 seconds into overtime.

The implications were large and lasting. Instead of traveling to Los Angeles, trailing, 2-0, Montreal left home, tied in the series, 1-1. The Kings never led again and it would be another five years before they even made the playoffs again. They wouldn't win a playoff round again until 2001.

McSorley said it was a "mistake," that he wasn't "avoiding responsibility" on the night of Game 2. He now says he was probably the player best equipped to handle the proverbial heat and insists that the issue has been "way overplayed."

"In essence, I'm kind of glad it was me, rather than an Alex Zhitnik or somebody," he said. " ... Montreal had knowledge that there were several guys with illegal sticks. How would a rookie have responded? If you kill the penalty off, it doesn't mean a thing."

Melrose said they had been worried about the sticks of other players, not McSorley's.

"The stick we were always worried about was Zhitnik's, and we always checked Zhitnik's at the end of the second period, and Alex's stick was fine," he said, laughing. "I never once thought Marty. We were always worried about [Luc] Robitaille's stick or [Tomas] Sandstrom's stick or Zhitnik's stick, and those were all fine.

"I always remember when Luc came back to the bench because Luc was over at the penalty box [for the call], and I said, 'Was it over?' And he started laughing. I said, 'Oh, oh, it ain't even close.' "

Montreal's actions too have been scrutinized. Various theories have surfaced over the years, one being that the Canadiens knew because of their own illegal sticks.

"We had some on our side too," said Guy Carbonneau, the Canadiens' captain and center in 1993, who spotted McSorley's illegal stick and brought it to Demers' attention.

"Everybody has one stick that's legal, depending on whether you are winning by one or losing by one," he said. "Marty was the only one that did not change and he happened to be on the ice. Obviously it worked well."

Said Robitaille: "It's really hard to pick an illegal stick. If you're going to take that chance, you have to be pretty darn sure. They either knew something or they were heck of a gamblers. Sometimes they show it on ESPN Classic and if you watch, exactly when they measured Marty's stick, they show Barry Melrose's face, and then they show Jacques Demers' face. Then you see two or three [Montreal] players giving their sticks to the trainers, switching sticks."

Wayne Gretzky said that after the second period, he'd asked his teammates if their sticks were legal, knowing the Canadiens would try to call for a measurement.

"We just got caught napping a little bit," Gretzky said. "And as Montreal people will tell you, they could have caught one of four or five guys. It happened to be Marty who got caught."

Gretzky said the Kings were aware, as Carbonneau said, that Montreal had illegal sticks too, and thought about countering with their own measurement after the McSorley penalty but chose not to make that risky move.

"What can happen is, you're down one, you don't want to call their guy, then you are two men short," he said of the move, if it failed. "If they score one goal, regulation ends, and you go into overtime short-handed. We knew they had a couple of guys that were like that and we didn't want to mess with it because we wanted to kill the penalty. That was the decision not to check one of their guys."

Carbonneau, now an assistant with the Dallas Stars, assessed the situation succinctly.

"That was the turning point," he said. "They were never able to recover."

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