Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Punishment Fits the Crime

On February 21, 2000, Boston Bruins defenseman, Marty McSorley, bludgeoned Vancouver’s Donald Brashear across the right temple with his hockey stick, leaving Brashear lying on the ice twitching, with blood flowing from his nose. Two days later, the National Hockey League suspended McSorley for the remaining 23 games of the regular season plus any playoff games Boston would play. Based on the nature of the game, the league’s history of disciplinary action, and the manner in which other professional sports have handled similar incidents, the punishment the NHL dealt Marty McSorley was appropriate.

Marty McSorley is a veteran of 17 NHL seasons. During those 17 years, McSorley can best be characterized as a tough guy, an enforcer if you will. His job hasn’t been putting the puck in the net or setting up teammates with scoring chances. His job has been to protect to protect his teammates so that they can make the pretty passes and score the big goals.

The most well known player that he has provided this service for has been Wayne Gretzky. McSorley spent 11 seasons with the Edmonton Oilers and the Los Angeles Kings as the personal bodyguard for the Great One, keeping the league’s other tough guys occupied, allowing Gretzky to work his magic and artistry. This was the job expected of McSorley.

The brand of hockey played in the NHL is physical and hard-hitting, with large men, like McSorley, colliding at high speeds, trying to gain possession of a small piece of vulcanized rubber, so they can advance it into their opponent’s territory.

Enter into the equation the fact that these athletes are carrying sticks and it is easy to see just how uncommon professional hockey is. Hockey is unique in many aspects, for example, the rules and penalties, the different roles of the players, and even the terms broadcasters use when describing a game on television. What other sport has a penalty called butt-ending?

It would be fair to assume that McSorley has been called for butt-ending a few times during his career. In the NHL, when a player is penalized, his team loses his services and must play short-handed. There are minor, major, misconduct and match penalties.

Examples of minor penalties are holding, tripping or cross-checking; a player hit with a minor penalty goes to the “sin bin” for two minutes. Fighting, maliciously slashing or spearing, are infractions that will earn a major penalty and five minutes. Misconducts are worth ten minutes and a match penalty gets the offending player an early shower, along with 20 minutes added to his penalty minutes total.

The NHL does a nice job of keeping track of player statistics and penalty minutes served is just one of the many it keeps track of. In the 17 years he has played in the NHL, McSorley has played in 961 games. During those 961 games, he has accumulated 3381 minutes of penalty time and received seven suspensions, which includes the one for the Brashear incident.

During the 11 seasons that he served as Gretzky’s personal bodyguard, McSorley amassed 2393 penalty minutes while scoring 93 goals and recording 196 assists. Over the course of those same 11 seasons, Gretzky put in 400 goals, registered an astonishing 1065 assists and was whistled for a measly 280 minutes worth of penalties.

Because McSorley was doing his job, Gretzky was able to do his. They both were playing in the same league, for the same teams, but each had distinctively different roles that made their teams very successful.

The average sports fan knows the names Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and perhaps Alexander Ovechkin. They were all, or are, highly skilled hockey players, often having been featured on the highlights on ESPN, scoring dazzling goals or making breathtaking passes.

Ask that same sports fan who Marty McSorley, Bob Probert, Donald Beashear and Tie Domi are and they likely couldn’t tell you. The only time these guys show up on ESPN is when they are involved in an ugly skirmish. Then, more often then not, they are labeled as goons.

Certainly there are players in the league who qualify to wear that moniker, but it is not the case with McSorley. He is respected around the NHL for his toughness, not only by current players in the league, but also by Hall of Famers who offered their support after the incident with Brashear. Hockey has a unique fraternity that is often misunderstood.

Because hockey is such a physical and a times, violent game, emotions often run high. It is a game of grace, power, skill, intimidation and control all wrapped into one not-so-neat package.

Most players in the NHL began playing the game as soon as they have learned to skate, which typically occurs shortly after they take their first steps. They develop a deep love for the sport at a very young age.

McSorley, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, falls into this category. Despite the ferocious hitting and physicality that sometimes leads to fisticuffs, hockey players have a deep respect for their opponents.

This respect can be truly appreciated at the end of a playoff series. Two teams have been battling tenaciously with each other for four or more games and are physically spent. They have built up a strong dislike for one another, yet after the final horn sounds, both teams line up and shake hands, often embracing emotionally. The emotions in hockey are unlike that of other sports.

On Saturday, I will compare the emotions of hockey to those of other sports in part two of my column on the Marty McSorley case. Until then…from the booth.

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