For years, the fourth of the 10 McSorleys wondered, Why is it
always Marty? Marty, the promising rookie, the famous NHL
player, the Stanley Cup winner. Marty! Marty! Marty! So when a
reporter calls the office of the International Hockey League's
Las Vegas Thunder and asks to speak with Chris McSorley, the man
himself replies, "You sure you don't have the wrong McSorley?"
There is no mistake. The Thunder, coached by the 34-year-old big
brother of New York Rangers defenseman Marty McSorley, had the
best regular-season record (57-17-8) in the IHL this year and
aims to win the league's championship Turner Cup. After besting
the Phoenix Roadrunners three games to one in the first round of
the playoffs, the Thunder is favored over the Chicago Wolves in
the best-of-seven conference semifinals. No, there's no
mistaking Chris McSorley.
In his five previous seasons as a head coach McSorley won a pair
of East Coast Hockey League championship Riley Cups with the
Toledo Storm, in 1993 and '94, and he was the ECHL alltime
leader in coaching wins (193) when he left in '94. During the
summers he has also been involved in Roller Hockey
International, the first pro in-line hockey league, since its
inception in 1993. McSorley coached the Anaheim Bullfrogs to
RHI's first championship, and when the league added 12 teams in
'94, he became the coach of the expansion Buffalo Stampede and
led it to RHI's second crown. Although he left the Stampede when
he moved to Las Vegas last year to take the Thunder coaching
job, McSorley wouldn't--or couldn't--quit moonlighting. So he
rejoined Anaheim as its director of player personnel and put
together a team that earned the best regular-season record in
the league before losing in the Western Conference finals.
"You know why I hired him?" asks Thunder general manager Bob
Strumm. "Because he's won wherever he's been. Great players
don't make great coaches, because things came easy to them.
Chris had to learn the game to survive."
McSorley's education in sports Darwinism was homespun. On their
650-acre farm in Cayuga, near Hamilton, Ont., Bill and Ann Marie
McSorley drove their seven boys and three girls hard. Every
family activity, from softball, soccer or hockey games to
chores, was charged with the intensity of a Stanley Cup
showdown. "In the mornings we'd work in the barn," says Marty,
who is 14 months younger than Chris. "When we finished, we'd
come in for lunch and race out to play until Dad corralled us
all to get to work again. My mother was a very good softball
player. She'd take us out and pitch to us, show us how to catch,
and there'd be a baby hanging on her leg." Every Christmas the
kids would sneak into the local rink to play with the new hockey
equipment left under the family tree. "We battled each other
pretty hard," Marty says. "Every one of us wanted to make the
Alas, only Marty made it--signed as a free agent by Pittsburgh in
1983, then traded in '85 to Edmonton, where he was part of the
Wayne Gretzky-era Stanley Cup champions. Chris's NHL dream had
come to a shattering halt in 1979, his last year of high school,
when he was 17 and playing for the local Junior A club. One
morning he was driving to school in his '72 Chevy Bel-Air. He
never saw the milk tanker on the road, hidden by the crest of a
hill. Three vertebrae in his lower back were fractured in the
crash. He couldn't bend without severe pain for six months, and
he wore a back brace for the better part of three years.
During his long recovery Chris enrolled at nearby Mohawk
Community College and earned an associate's degree in industrial
instrumentation technology. Then he found a job as a laborer at
Stelco, a steel mill on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. To tone
his aching body and to give himself a competitive outlet, he
took up the martial art of Wado-Tyu and earned a brown belt, but
it didn't satisfy him. So when he learned that his dojo
sponsored a hockey club, he returned to the ice. He never
cleared it with his doctor; he just played, fighting his pain.
At about the same time, Marty and his dad, Bill, gave Chris a
McSorleyan form of career counseling. Marty bought Chris a
Barbie lunch pail to make fun of his despised 9-to-5 grind at
the steel mill. Then Marty would phone Chris from wherever he
happened to be during his rookie NHL tour and tease his big
brother brutally. When Chris sought the comfort of home, Bill
doubled his farm chores. "They were convinced I could do more
than I was doing," Chris says. "They basically shamed me into
Thus provoked, Chris attended the 1984 NHL draft, cornered
Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke and talked his
way into a tryout. Three months later the 22-year-old from the
steel mill showed up in Philadelphia to audition. Though a bit
rusty, he did well enough to hook up with his first minor league
outfit, the Kalamazoo Wings, then a Flyers affiliate in the IHL.
He signed for $350 a week.
Thus McSorley, a 5'11", 185-pound defenseman, embarked on a
five-year, seven-team career of banging around the minors. He
gained his greatest notoriety with the Toledo Goaldiggers in
1985 when he bit an opponent's nose during a fight on the ice.
"I'm not very proud of that," McSorley says. He adds, "He bit me
first, although they never proved it."
McSorley lacked finesse but not determination. In 1986, playing
for Toledo, McSorley totaled 55 points in 75 games and earned
the IHL's Most Improved Player award. (He also led the league in
penalty minutes, with 545.) That got the attention of the Los
Angeles Kings, who offered McSorley a contract. But the
Hollywood ending was not to be. McSorley wasn't invited to suit
up for the Kings, and he would never put up numbers worthy of
another shot at the NHL.
It was a painful cut. Only stubborn pride kept McSorley from
returning to the steel mill. His brother was not surprised. "I
remember when Chris was five or six, and people would come to
the farm to buy eggs," says Marty. "Dad caught Chris throwing
eggs against the side of the house. Chris got a pretty good
whuppin' for it. The funny thing was, five minutes later he was
standing there, tears running down his face, two more trays of
eggs, throwing them against the house."
Reminded of the episode, Chris nods bashfully. "My mother always
told me that if I ever drowned, I'd float upstream," he says.
Sure enough, after he was released by the Kings, he fought the
current during three more seasons in the bush leagues.
In 1989 McSorley was with the IHL's Indianapolis Ice, his
seventh club. One day the coach of a rival team mentioned that a
bench job was opening up with the ECHL's Winston-Salem T-Birds.
McSorley applied for the position. The T-Birds took a chance on
the 27-year-old journeyman.
He returned the favor by hitting the books, studying scouting
reports and stat sheets. He drove the team bus and even put up
young players who were away from home for the first time. One
night in Nashville he caught the eye of Carrie Folks, an
aspiring young country singer who was performing the national
anthem for the Nashville Knights. She and Chris were married
three years later. For Chris hockey was, once again, a family
Which for a McSorley means not just something beloved but also
something fiercely competitive. Putting together his talented
Las Vegas roster is McSorley's proudest accomplishment. He keeps
a ledger of scouting reports from far-flung hockey outposts, and
his living room is strewn with so many hockey books that it
looks like a college student's room the night before final
exams. "If you own a stick and skates," he says, "it's my job to
know you're out there." He's meticulous in practice as well,
recording every minute of every team session in a calendar.
A Thunder workout is not all boot camp, though. McSorley is as
likely to hold a four-on-four intramural tournament as to drill
his team in game situations. The key is competing. "A lot of
teams play badly one night and the coach says, 'Aw, it was just
one of those games,'" says Thunder captain Greg Hawgood. "Chris
doesn't let us blow off a bad effort."
He won't let his players give up, and he won't give up on his
own NHL dream. What Chris McSorley wants is a job in the
NHL--like Marty has. He wants his name on a Stanley Cup--like
Marty has. "But now I'm focusing only on the Turner Cup," Chris
says. "I'd rather be a star among bums than a bum among stars.
I'm like a junkie. Winning is my fix."