V A N C O U V E R, British Columbia, Sept. 27, 2000 -- A veteran National Hockey League brawler calmly explained the ritualistic world of hockey fighting today, but said the on-ice attack that landed him with an assault charge was an accident.
Marty McSorley, the first NHL player since 1988 to face criminal charges for an on-ice incident, admitted he swung his stick to provoke a fight with fellow hockey “tough guy” Donald Brashear but was “absolutely not” aiming for his head.
Answering questions from his attorney, the 17-year NHL veteran defended the use of fighting in hockey and said he saw his role as that of a “policeman” who protected his teammates and honor of his team.
“I think that fighting comes from the heart,” said McSorley, whose fighting skills have also made him the third most penalized player in NHL history.
Fight Sparks Debate
McSorley, who played last season for the Boston Bruins, was charged with criminal assault for a stick attack at the end of a game on Feb. 21, that left Brashear of the Vancouver Canucks bleeding and unconscious on the ice.
Fights are relatively common in professional hockey games, but the slashing incident’s apparent viciousness sparked debate about hockey violence — especially in Canada where the sport is close to a national religion.
Replays of the slash have been shown over and over again on Canadian television.
The attack happened in the closing seconds of game won by Vancouver and during which the men had already fought once and which Brashear had also collided with Boston’s goalie — which caused an uproar among Boston’s players.
Aiming For the Shoulder
“It became pretty obvious to me that I was put out there to confront Donald,” McSorley answered when asked why Boston’s coaches had put him back on the ice with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game.
McSorley, testifying with the aid of a slow-motion video recording of the event, said as he swung his stick at Brashear from behind he was aiming for the shoulder and did not know he had hit Brashear’s head until after Brashear had fallen.
“I can’t say I know exactly what happened … it all happened so fast,” he said at his trial in British Columbia Provincial Court, which was packed to overflowing with reporters, lawyers and hockey fans.
With nobody denying that the slashing took place, the legal question facing the judge hearing McSorley’s case is whether he intended to hurt Brashear and if his actions were within the norms of what happens in sporting events.
Tough Guys Rule of Conduct
Fighting is against the rules in hockey, but unlike in other professional sports where it is also banned, NHL teams openly keep players on their rosters whose primary skills are with their fists rather than the puck.
“Personally to me it is to keep a great hockey game going. Not to let lesser skilled players bring your skilled players down to their level,” McSorley said when asked how he saw the role of players like himself.
McSorley “tough guys” within the league have their own unspoken rules of conduct, including how to turn down a fight when a player knows that taking a penalty will actually hurt his team.
“You acknowledge the guy and say ‘I can’t fight now, but I’ll be back,’” he said.
McSorley said he started the first fight against Brashear to fire-up Boston emotionally after Vancouver had scored an early goal. Brashear won that fight but McSorley said that did mean anger motivated a rematch.
“You can’t be angry, because if you are angry in the middle of a fight you’re going to take a dumb suspension,” he said.
McSorley’s articulate testimony contrasted with that of Brashear, who was on the witness stand for only a few minutes Tuesday and admitted he did not want to be there.
Brashear and the NHL officials have said they would rather the incident be handled within the league’s disciplinary system. McSorley was suspended for the rest of the season last year and has not re-signed with a new team this year.