Commentary: Twilight Of The Hockey Goons? Don't Bet On It

Time to bring out the blood-splattered jerseys: Hockey season is here. But this year, there will be no slashing, no cheap shots, no plasma-letting bursts of anger. Got it?

Months after Boston Bruins penalty-box warmer Marty McSorley whacked Vancouver Canucks enforcer Donald Brashear with a two-handed stick swing to the head, the sheriff has supposedly arrived to clean up ice town. In a September memo to all 30 teams, the National Hockey League announced its intention to severely discipline players who attack opponents. There will now be two referees at every game, and with the league looking over their shoulders, they will be expected to make more penalty calls.

Players in pre-season games have already been sent to the penalty box for hard slashes to an opponent's stick. New York Islander Oleg Kvasha was fined $1,000 and suspended for three pre-season games for an elbow to the head of a Philadelphia player. And All-Star Paul Kariya of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim was suspended indefinitely for slashing the Minnesota Wild's Aaron Gavey.

TOUGH TALK. Once the regular season starts, though, enforcement will soften. Fans and coaches won't be able to endure seeing marquee players like Kariya sitting out too many games. Besides, McSorley's slap-on-the-glove sentence after being found guilty of assault in Vancouver, B.C., on Oct. 6 makes the get-tough-on-violence policy of dubious value. The NHL's tepid reaction to mayhem on skates was one reason Canadian authorities stepped in and charged McSorley. But by granting him probation with the possibility of having his record expunged, the court largely undermined the power of the case as a deterrent.

Still, the judge would have had trouble throwing the book at McSorley after listening to testimony about the integral role of violence in pro hockey. New York Rangers General Manager Glen Sather, the first defense witness, pointed out that so-called enforcers have a role to play. Challenging the other team's tough guys is an expected--and respected--part of the game. "It's never really spoken about, but it's there," Sather said. "There's a lot of grabbing and pulling. The odd time there are broken noses."

A string of witnesses from coaches to linesmen to players also testified at the five-day nonjury trial that punches, slashes, cross-checks, and slams into the boards are standard fare. Even Wayne Gretzky, one of the game's most gracious players, showed up to support McSorley.

McSorley was Gretzky's protector when the Edmonton Oilers dominated the NHL in the mid-to-late '80s (Sather was the coach), and for 17 years in the league, he has known his job. So at 36, with few, if any, seasons left, McSorley understood why he was put on the ice in the dying minutes of a game already lost by the Bruins.

Before the game, Bruins coach Pat Burns stressed how physical a team the Canucks were, reminding his players that some might have to fight. Brashear taunted the Bruins bench and trash-talked his opponents on the ice. After he crashed into goalie Byron Dafoe, Burns shouted: "Are we going to take that?" That's when McSorley hit the ice to savage back some honor for the Bruins.

Canadians complain that Americans have roughed up their sport, and some fans wax poetic about the genteel European style of play. But brawling sells tickets. In fact, according to league research, nearly two-thirds of fans think eliminating fighting would not increase interest. "You can't market hockey as a wimpy sport...," says Joel Cohen of Cohen Marketing Group, a Houston firm that helps hockey teams draw bigger audiences. "No one wants to watch hockey players doing pirouettes."

That's evident in the NHL-licensed electronic game Rock the Rink. Players can choose between nine fantasy teams with names such as Psycho Delics, Demons, and Demolition. One ad for the game has players body-slamming opponents to the ice, feeding them fistfuls of leather, or dropping them with a wicked clothesline tackle. Best of all, the game promises, none of the moves will land a player in the penalty box. Sounds a lot like the real world.

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