The embodiment of NHL evil has blue eyes, blond hair and cheeks
that are pink from the sun. He wears a silver ring on the little
finger of his right hand, and he eats salad and quiche for lunch.
He's 37 years old, stands 6'1", weighs 235 pounds, and his name
is Martin James McSorley, though he's better known to fans,
league executives and Canadian prosecutors as Marty.
This is an article from the Nov. 20, 2000 issue
McSorley lives with his girlfriend, Leanne Schuster, in a
three-bedroom condominium just off the shores of Manhattan Beach
in Los Angeles. Besides eating right, he works hard to keep in
shape. Last Thursday night, for example--58 hours after NHL
commissioner Gary Bettman extended McSorley's indefinite
suspension to one year, or until Feb. 21, 2001--he played pickup
hockey at a rink in El Segundo. He strapped on the Boston Bruins
helmet that nine months ago he'd worn as a teammate of Raymond
Bourque, and joined a collection of firemen, policemen and out-of
work actors. Even after his team had lost 4-2, McSorley stayed on
the ice with the last stragglers, chatting and circling about,
not wanting to get off. "No matter what happens," McSorley says,
"I will always have hockey."
Whether McSorley skates again in the NHL, where he has played for
the past 17 seasons, is another matter. At around midday on Nov.
7 the phone rang in McSorley's kitchen. It was Bettman. "Marty,"
he said, "I have some news that I don't think you're going to
like." The call came 20 days after McSorley had requested
immediate reinstatement to the NHL. He'd been banned last
February after striking Canucks forward Donald Brashear in the
head with his stick during a game in Vancouver. The incident was
so heinous that in addition to the league ban, McSorley was
prosecuted in provincial court in British Columbia. On Oct. 6,
after a nonjury trial, Judge William Kitchen found McSorley
guilty of "assaulting Donald Brashear with a weapon, a hockey
That ruling stung McSorley but had little tangible impact on his
life. He served no jail time, and he's not on probation. In
sentencing McSorley, Kitchen issued a "conditional discharge,"
which stipulates only that for 18 months McSorley must not
"engage in any sporting event where Donald Brashear is on the
opposition." If McSorley doesn't violate that condition, his
criminal record will be wiped clean in the spring of 2002.
Now, with Bettman's call, McSorley's career hung in the balance.
Bettman and McSorley spoke for some 45 minutes as McSorley, in
gym clothes, leaned on his kitchen counter. "Marty was calm, as
he usually is," says Schuster. "I couldn't tell by his reaction
what the ruling was. Then, while they were talking, the league
faxed us the decision. It was eight pages. I went straight to the
Bettman banned McSorley for "one calendar year," by far the
longest suspension for an on-ice infraction in NHL history. The
previous record was in 1993 when Bettman suspended Washington
Capitals forward Dale Hunter for 21 games--or roughly two
months--for a blind-side hit on the New York Islanders' Pierre
Turgeon while Turgeon was celebrating a goal in a playoff game.
Turgeon suffered a separated shoulder and missed the remainder of
the playoffs; Brashear not only sustained a grade 3 concussion
but also a grand mal seizure immediately after hitting the ice.
McSorley, a free agent, can now sign with an NHL club. He may not
train with a team until after Jan. 1, however, and may not appear
in a game until Feb. 21, the anniversary of his hit on Brashear.
While McSorley says only that he is "disappointed" in Bettman's
ruling, his lawyer, Paul Kelly of Boston, speaks more pointedly.
"Should Marty have been suspended? Absolutely," Kelly says.
"Should he have been suspended for what amounts to 82
regular-season games, plus playoffs, plus training camp and
preseason? That's absolutely unfair."
You've probably seen the footage. The video clip of the blow led
not only sports highlights shows that evening but also late news
telecasts across North America. McSorley, skating through the
neutral zone, approaches Brashear, who is gliding without the
puck, from behind. With a quick, hard swing of his stick,
McSorley clubs Brashear on the side of his face. Brashear's 6'2",
225-pound body drops like a sack of stones. His helmet springs
loose and, upon landing, the back of his skull hits the ice.
Brashear lies motionless for a moment and then begins to
convulse. He would be carried off on a stretcher, spend the night
in a hospital and miss 20 games.
Even against the backdrop of other violent acts in hockey--and
scores of them occur each season--this was extraordinary. The
moment Brashear went down, the slash became the defining moment
of McSorley's long career. "If McSorley plays another game in
this league, then this league is a [bleeping] joke," Canucks
defenseman Mattias Ohlund told The Vancouver Sun after the game.
"It was the worst thing I've ever seen. That guy [McSorley]
should be treated the same as if he tried to kill a guy on the
British Columbian prosecutors felt strongly enough to charge him
with assault with a weapon. McSorley's slash became the first
on-ice NHL misdeed to be tried in court since 1988, when Dino
Ciccarelli of the Minnesota North Stars spent a day in jail for
hitting Luke Richardson of the Toronto Maple Leafs twice in the
head with his stick, causing no injuries to Richardson. In
McSorley's case Kitchen's finding of guilt rested in his judgment
that "Brashear was struck as intended."
McSorley hates that characterization. He says he never meant to
hit Brashear in the head. He says he was aiming for a shoulder in
an attempt to goad Brashear into a fight. In fact a slow-motion
replay of the video shows that McSorley's stick did brush the top
of Brashear's right shoulder before crashing into his face. Last
week McSorley spoke with SI in his first extended discussions of
the incident since his conviction.
"Yes, I meant to slash him," says McSorley. "Did I mean to hurt
him with my stick? No.
"Look, I take responsibility for what happened. I feel bad that
Donald got hurt. But when somebody says that I intentionally
struck him in the head with my stick, I have an issue with that,
because that goes to the core of who I am and the player I've
been over the years."
McSorley's 3,381 career penalty minutes are the third most in NHL
history. Before the Brashear incident he had been suspended seven
times by the league for acts ranging from cross-checking an
opponent in the forehead to gouging a rival's eye during a fight
to spearing. McSorley is a thug. "I have no halo," he says.
Yet in the vigilante world of the NHL it is no paradox that many
executives, coaches and players still respect McSorley. During
his prime he was one of the best fighters in the game. As Wayne
Gretzky's teammate for three seasons with the Edmonton Oilers and
another eight with the Los Angeles Kings, he regularly punched
out players who dared rough up the Great One. McSorley also
taught himself to play well. Though he possessed marginal talent
and was never drafted, his unwavering work ethic enabled him to
develop into one of the league's better defensemen. He won the
Stanley Cup with the Oilers in 1987 and '88 and went to the
finals with the Kings in '93. In 1990-91 he tied for the league's
best plus-minus rating. McSorley takes pride in his hard-earned
ability to pass, puckhandle and defuse oncoming rushes, yet he
harbors no illusions. Would he have reached the NHL without his
fighting ability? "I would not have made Junior A," he says.
No one understands the enforcer's role better than McSorley, and
no one understands better why, on the night of Feb. 21, he was
sent onto the ice in the final seconds of a game the Bruins
trailed 5-2. According to McSorley's trial testimony, coach Pat
Burns had gathered the Bruins before the game to address
Vancouver's toughness, adding, "Some of you guys might have to
The events leading up to McSorley's fateful blow seem more suited
to a Saturday-morning cartoon show than to an NHL game: 1) On his
first shift McSorley clearly lost a fight to Brashear, who then
played to the crowd and embarrassed McSorley by dusting off his
hands; 2) later in the first period McSorley cross-checked
Brashear to provoke him into a rematch, but Brashear didn't bite;
after the whistle McSorley was assessed a 10-minute misconduct
penalty; 3) while McSorley was serving that penalty, Brashear was
battling for position in front of the net and fell on top of
Bruins goalie Byron Dafoe, injuring Dafoe's knee; and 4) in the
third period Brashear skated near the Boston bench and taunted
the Bruins by flexing his muscles. After that, according to
McSorley's testimony, Burns yelled at his players, "Are we going
to take that, or are we going to stand up for ourselves?"
With less than a minute remaining in the game, Canucks coach Marc
Crawford sent Brashear onto the ice. Immediately, as McSorley
testified, Bruins assistant Jacques Laperriere said to him, "Mac,
Mac, you're up. You're going. You're going." By any educated
reckoning the implication was that the coaches wanted McSorley to
fight Brashear. (Laperriere, who is still with Boston, didn't
return calls for comment, while Burns, who was fired last month
by the Bruins, could not be reached.)
McSorley was playing with a battered left shoulder that he could
barely raise, an injury that he says limited his control over the
stick. (Bruins' trainer Don DelNegro testified in court about
McSorley's ailment.) When he stepped onto the ice, he was
desperate to fight Brashear, not only to do what he thought was
his coaches' bidding, but also to help save his career. Weakened
by a long string of injuries, his effectiveness had been
dwindling in recent years. He was on a one-year contract, and he
was playing for his fifth team in five seasons. McSorley knew
that the fighting ability that had gotten him into the league was
what would keep him there. He had to stand up to Brashear but had
little time to engage him before the game ended.
With three seconds remaining, he came upon Brashear, whose back
was turned. Then McSorley swung his stick. "Marty plays on the
edge," says the Philadelphia Flyers' feisty right wing, Rick
Tocchet. "That's his role. He got too close to the edge, and a
bad thing happened. It was bad, but anyone who says that those
kind of things never happen in hockey, well, that's just bull."
For all the impact that hockey's culture of violence had upon
that night, the event, finally, comes to this: Intentionally or
not, McSorley bludgeoned Brashear, who might have died. "I still
get headaches; I still get tired," Brashear said by phone last
Saturday night from Vancouver, where he had just assisted on a
goal in the Canucks' 5-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues. "I want to
put this thing in the past, but it keeps following me. You never
recover 100 percent from a thing like that."
"Donald never asked for this to happen to him, and I bear him no
ill will," says McSorley. "I'm not comfortable with what
happened, but I am comfortable with what I intended to do." The
two have not spoken since the blow, nor do they intend to.
The McSorley matter is the highest-profile disciplinary case of
Bettman's eight years as commissioner, and he has seized upon it
to render a punishment unprecedented in its severity. "If this is
interpreted as raising the bar," Bettman says, "that's all right
It's not all right with everyone. "Marty should have been
reinstated last week," Ian Pulver, associate counsel of the NHL
Players' Association, said on Friday. Then Pulver, stressing that
he was not speaking on behalf of the union, alleged that Bettman
may have had a motive stemming from McSorley's activism during
the 1994 owners' lockout. "Marty was a vocal leader on behalf of
the players in '94, and he was involved in many disputes with
people on the other side, including Gary," says Pulver. "This
probably has an impact on Gary's dealings with Marty."
Bettman calls Pulver's allegation "insulting."
Hockey players have been clubbing one another since the game
began, and there have been numerous indefensible fouls during
Bettman's regime. McSorley's punishment resulted partly from his
status as a repeat offender and partly because of what his hit on
Brashear wrought. In the words of New York Rangers general
manager Glen Sather, "The image of Brashear lying on that ice had
a lasting effect on all of us."
Bettman, who rejects the suggestion that McSorley's court
appearance put "hockey on trial," takes the opportunity to make a
larger point. "This decision will constitute an important
statement about the game itself, and, more specifically, why
parents should be comfortable knowing that their children can
play hockey," Bettman writes in his ruling.
"That really makes me shake my head," says McSorley. "I'm with
kids all the time."
McSorley had surgery to repair his left shoulder last March, and
since then he has kept himself in excellent condition. While some
players have distanced themselves from him, many would welcome
him back. "We treat him the same as we always did," says Kings
defenseman Rob Blake, who skates and plays beach volleyball with
McSorley. "A lot of us would like him to come back and end on a
Whether he would be effective after missing a full year is
uncertain. Would any team take the public relations gamble of
signing him? While several general managers--including Sather and
Boston's Mike O'Connell--speak favorably of McSorley's ability,
they stop short of saying they would sign him. "Marty's more
melancholy than he used to be," says John Silva, 38, a neighbor
of McSorley's. "You'll be talking to him on the street, and you
can see he's distracted."
As much as McSorley loves to Rollerblade for miles along the
beach or spend a quiet evening with Schuster or punish his body
at a gym in Hermosa, he's still the farm boy from Hamilton, Ont.,
who played his first games on a frozen canal and who would give
anything for a few more NHL shifts. "I'd love to play again," he
says, "but if I can't, I'll go on. I believe that my peers and
the people in the game understand what happened that night. What
anyone else thinks, I can't control."
HIM WITH MY STICK? NO"
ON A GOOD NOTE"