Nobody deliberately started it, of course. Nobody ever does. According to NHL statistics, approximately two out of three fights occur without instigation by any of the parties involved. So when right wing Marty McSorley of the Los Angeles Kings and center Mark Messier of the Edmonton Oilers dropped their gloves and began swinging at each other on Feb. 28 at the L.A. Forum, their fight may have been, in the league's eyes at least, an understandable, spontaneous eruption on the part of two frustrated and angry players.
But this punch-up couldn't be explained away so easily. Its timing—only 1:35 into the first period—seemed curious, and Messier, an MVP candidate, appeared to have been targeted by McSorley, a candidate to fight Buster Douglas. The incident touched off a riotous evening that would culminate in 86 penalties, the most in a game in the NHL's 72-year history. It also set the stage for numerous other scraps, one of which sent the Kings' Tomas Sandstrom to the hospital. In the wake of the 3½ hours of mayhem, which ended in a nine-player melee with 26 seconds to play, even the league, long accused of looking the other way when it comes to violence, admitted that its house may not be entirely in order.
"There is no question about it, this [kind of fighting] adds nothing whatsoever to the game," said Brian O'Neill, the NHL vice-president in charge of discipline. "Earlier this season, fighting was down 23 or 24 percent [compared with 1987-88], but after recent games, we can't say that right now. We thought we were moving in the right direction with fighting. Now we have to examine who is doing the fighting, and maybe bring in additional penalties."
Although the Oilers-Kings debacle didn't establish the record for the most penalty minutes in a game—a 1981 Boston Bruins-Minnesota North Stars matchup that featured 406 minutes' worth of penalties still has that honor—last week's 356 minutes' worth made for as sorry a spectacle as one can imagine. Nineteen seconds after the McSorley-Messier bout, L.A. right wing Dave Taylor and Edmonton defenseman Craig Muni dropped their gloves.
With 3:22 remaining in the second period, an eight-player brawl erupted. During that one the Oilers' Glenn Anderson punched Sandstrom in the face. Sandstrom lay on the ice for several minutes before being taken to the hospital. He was treated for a fractured facial bone, a scratched right cornea, bleeding inside the right eye and a gash—which took four stitches to close—below that same eye. Sandstrom underwent laser surgery on his eye as an outpatient last Friday.
Although the second period wasn't over, referee Denis Morel sent the teams to their locker rooms and called out the Zamboni. Fifteen minutes later the sides returned to the ice, completed the period and proceeded into the third. There was another lengthy brawl 8:33 into the third period. Finally, with the last seconds of the game ticking away, McSorley tried to pick a fight with the Oilers' Esa Tikkanen, who had been shadowing Wayne Gretzky for most of the game. Edmonton's Steve Smith intervened, and yet another brawl began, this one involving nine players. When this dark and gloomy game finally drew to a close, the Kings were on top by a score of 4-2.
"I think it got a little out of hand," says Los Angeles assistant coach Cap Raeder. "But sometimes [fighting] can bring a team closer together. Everyone stuck up for everyone else, and that's what it's all about."
Added McSorley, who received an automatic three-game suspension for collecting his fourth and fifth game-misconduct penalties of the season, "When you win a real emotional game, with a lot of fights, you go home and you feel a little closer to your teammates. I thought the fights made it a real spiritual game."
As if the Oilers-Kings affair wasn't enough violence for one week, the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs were assessed a combined 66 penalties, totaling 272 minutes, on Friday night in the Red Wings' 3-2 victory at Joe Louis Arena. A few days earlier, the Red Wings had promoted tough guy Chris McRae, who had accumulated 290 penalty minutes at their Adirondack farm club. The Leafs, in preparation for a home-and-home series against Detroit, thereupon recalled Tie Domi, who had 226 penalty minutes with their Newmarket, Ont., minor league club. "We have to send a signal out," said Toronto coach Doug Carpenter on Friday morning. "I'd like to see a tough, physical game." He got one. Domi drew 37 minutes in penalties during his two minutes on the ice.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg, no fewer than five players were ejected from the Jets-Kings game, which Winnipeg won 5-2. Jet center Doug Evans was handed a five-minute major and a game-misconduct penalty with 1:57 to go in the second period for spearing Gretzky. The Great One had to be helped to the locker room, but he returned for the third period.
At week's end O'Neill was still investigating the violence in the Edmonton-Los Angeles game. However, he admitted that fighting is "sometimes used as a tactic. While it's not used to take out the better players [O'Neill was interviewed before the spearing of Gretzky], it is used against the more aggressive players. What they [the intimidators] seem to be doing is trying to stir up their team. They think the team needs a lift, so those players are encouraged to be more aggressive.
"We're all disturbed about the number of fights, no question about it," O'Neill continued. "There are very strong feelings among the owners that this type of fighting has no place."
Be that as it may, the league has traditionally taken the position that hockey is a frustrating game, played in close quarters by men wielding sticks, and that compared with players' swinging sticks at one another, fighting is the lesser of two evils. One only has to look at collegiate hockey to realize that this is not a totally absurd premise. Under NCAA rules, officials are required to eject anyone involved in a fight, but stick fouls aren't dealt with nearly as severely. The result is that fighting is rare in the college ranks, but sticks can often be heard clattering across face shields and helmets. Obviously, if the NHL were to make the penalties for fighting and high-sticking costly enough, both forms of mugging would stop—and all the more swiftly if teams were banned from bringing up replacement fighters from the minors when the resident pugs receive suspensions.
One factor contributing to the high level of violence in the NHL is that the players are bigger, faster and more skillful than in the past. The exceptionally talented little guy can still function, but the undersized player with fair-to-middling ability no longer occupies the 16th, 17th or 18th place on a roster. That spot may well be taken by a player with no redeeming skills or social value—your classic goon.
In late January, for instance, the Montreal Canadiens, facing a series of intradivisional games, called up Steve Martinson, a career minor leaguer who had played in 35 NHL games before this season and had spent 171 minutes in the penalty box in those games. Martinson has had one function—that of intimidation. His "finest" hour may have come on Jan. 29, when he sought out and roughed up Boston's Bobby Gould, a relative pacifist. Over in the Norris Division, whose teams have been involved in a disproportionate number of offenses punishable by suspension this season, trouble is always just one shift away.
Like the Toronto-Detroit mess and other fight-marred games of late, the Smythe Division's Oilers-Kings slugfest may have been induced by the approaching playoffs, in which L.A. may meet Edmonton in the first round. In the postseason, teams are more careful about drawing penalties. It's the posturing leading up to the playoffs, particularly between intradivisional rivals, that has the greatest potential for violence.
"It seems like everybody is rearming themselves," said Montreal coach Pat Burns last week. Actually, most teams have plenty of weapons on hand. On Feb. 27 in Landover, Md., Scott Stevens of the Washington Capitals and Dave Manson of the Chicago Blackhawks engaged in an altercation that will almost certainly bring discipline from O'Neill. Stevens gouged Manson's eye and Man-son, who had already been suspended this season for pushing a linesman, bit him on the hand.
Manson and Stevens are gifted players with hot tempers, though Stevens has learned to control his ire. The same can't be said of the 6'2", 220-pound McSorley, who has perhaps the friendliest off-ice manner in the league. McSorley isn't as talented as either Manson or Stevens, but with 11 goals, 17 assists and 290 penalty minutes at week's end, neither is he a mere goon. A former Oiler and teammate of Messier's (he was traded to the Kings along with Gretzky in 1988), McSorley would not have gotten to compete in the NHL if he hadn't been handy with his fists. Now he has become a competent player as well.
So last week the tasks of challenging Messier—and of lighting a fire under the fourth-place Kings—fell to McSorley. Most of the spectators at the Forum saw McSorley give Messier an additional shove after they jostled each other and toppled onto the ice. Messier, who has two suspensions on his record, is no wallflower, but this was his first fight of the season. If the Kings used fisticuffs to accomplish a short-term objective, the "real spiritual" experience may have backfired on them: Sandstrom, a key player, will miss a minimum of 10 days.
Not always are star players brought down as abruptly as Sandstrom and Messier were. Generally, a goon glowers from the bench at the other side's hardworking checker, who has been trying to contain the goon's star teammate. If the star should be bumped, the opposition coach sends out his gorilla, who in hockey's hoary ritual, proceeds to seek out the toughest guy on the ice and start a fight. In theory, the team whose tough guy wins the bout gains an edge.
In 1986 the NHL tightened its rules concerning fighting. An obvious instigator, for instance, now draws a two-minute penalty in addition to whatever other punishment may be meted out to him. But as last week's melees demonstrated, additional measures are needed.
Inasmuch as image is a big part of what a professional sports league sells, the point has often been made that by allowing fighting, the NHL is selling exactly the image it wants. "There is no question that image is a concern of ours," says league president John Ziegler. "I've said this to the board every year: We can work on our image all year long, and all it takes is one stupid night like the one in L.A. to wipe it all out."
Yet Ziegler remains unconvinced that the NHL's image is damaged by the league's refusal to do away with fighting altogether. After the Oilers-Kings game, O'Neill, Ziegler's top aide, remarked with seeming pride that in half the NHL's games there isn't as much as a single fight. What Ziegler refuses to face up to is the need for the NHL to set an example for all hockey leagues to follow. Right now the league is sending out the wrong message.
"There is no consensus," Ziegler says, "toward eliminating fighting completely. I have an opinion on the matter, but my responsibility on an issue that is so debatable is to allow the teams a fair debate and a fair decision on the issue. If it was threatening our business or sport, I would organize or galvanize toward my point of view, as I have done on critical issues in the past. But I don't look at this as a threat."
Hence one can come to no other conclusion than that NHL owners believe violence sells—and who cares if Peewee Leaguers beat up one another too.
"I think that's overstating it," says New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello. "Some people in the game may want to keep it [violence] because they think it sells. But there are also those within the game who don't think we can justify it at all.
"Whether getting rid of it will increase the risk of high-sticking, or whether it will hurt our image, I don't know," he adds. "I coached in college, so I believe more sticks would be used. I'm not persuaded that fighting, if it's controlled, is a negative part of the game. But I do know this about fighting in the NHL right now: As a tactic, it works."