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Original Issue

Hooked On Hockey

Marty McSorley, the Pittsburgh Penguins' new $10 million man, is an enforcer who can actually play the game

The story doesn't ring true. It's offered as one of those defining moments, an event so powerful that it forever molded Marty McSorley's character: tough guy, heavyweight, enforcer. All because one day, on the McSorleys' farm in Cayuga, Ont., the family hound retreated from a coyote. The story is that Marty's dad, Bill, grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck, lifted him out of the truck and fired him back into the fray. And this is supposed to explain Marty McSorley's particular brand of toughness.

But it doesn't make sense. Where were the McSorley boys when this happened? There were seven of them. Maybe not all, but certainly a forward line's worth of them were around that day. It's just impossible to imagine the boys not pouring out of the truck, pausing to shake off their gloves in that distinctive McSorley way and giving chase. "Pa, I'll get 'im." Maybe fighting each other over who would actually bring down the coyote. "That bag of fur is mine." It wouldn't have been like them to miss out on any kind of competition. In real life the dog does not get another chance.

Another story, less apocryphal: Marty and his older brother Chris—a former minor league player who now coaches for Toledo in the East Coast Hockey League—were playing golf a few summers ago. There were some bucks involved. Chris was trying to get out of the rough, and Marty broke into a somewhat distracting karaoke act. Chris is not a man to distract. In the minors he once bit the tip off the nose of a player who tried to distract him, which is all the more astonishing if you know that Chris did not play the game with a full complement of teeth. He must have had to gnaw the poor fellow's schnoz off. ("I'm not proud of that," Chris says.) Anyway, back on the golf course, Chris drilled Marty in the leg with a three-iron shot, and Marty crumpled onto the fairway. Then he straightened up, ran for Chris's bag and threw it into the water hazard. They shrugged and went for ice cream.

About all that can be said of the outing is, good thing they weren't driving carts, what with lost security deposits and everything. But Marty is surprised to hear something like that. He's dealing with someone who doesn't know the McSorley boys. "Oh, we could never rent a cart," he says. "We'd have fought all day over who'd drive."

So maybe the golf story, more than the dog story, gives you an idea of what the rest of the NHL is up against. A McSorley is insanely competitive, brooks no nonsense, reacts swiftly and inappropriately, sometimes bites off more than he can chew. A McSorley is dangerous to be around.

These characteristics are of some worth in the NHL. How much worth was revealed this past summer when the St. Louis Blues offered Marty, a defenseman who was a restricted free agent, $10 million over five years to provide them with what is euphemistically called a presence. The Los Angeles Kings, who had enjoyed McSorley's presence for five seasons, matched the offer and then, to cut their bulging payroll, traded him to Pittsburgh, which is glad to have him lurking in the background, scoring a goal or two and watching Mario Lemieux's back.

The contract was astounding for a 30-year-old player who, by his own admission, is incompletely skilled. But it seems that after McSorley participated in two Stanley Cup triumphs with the Edmonton Oilers (1986-87 and '87-88) and helped the Kings get into their first-ever Cup final last season, his worth to a talented team—as a tough guy who can play—was finally recognized.

What McSorley does is not complicated, although it's not as simple as it sometimes looks. He is not a goon, a firebomb lobbed onto the ice to enliven the occasional dull game. He is not a terrorist meant to spread fear through the league. He is not an assassin. It's true—every once in a while he'll become so unhinged that he plunges the league into a self-righteous funk. "We're disturbed about the number of fights," a league official said after a McSorley rampage in 1990 that included a vicious slash. ("I'm not proud of that," Marty says, ever a McSorley.) But mostly his violence is calculated.

"Listen," says McSorley, who is so boyish-looking and mild-mannered as to invite doubt concerning his league-leading 399 minutes in penalties last year. "I would love to go out there and just play the game. But what you have sometimes is a condition of unbalanced talent. You'll have a less-talented guy, who's trying to make a living, after all, trying to check a Wayne Gretzky or a Mario Lemieux, harassing him, slashing him, intimidating him. A big guy can step up and shift that balance of power, keep everybody honest. If there's a fast game, a finesse game, you'll rarely see a fight. Last year there was a fight in every 1.24 games—really not that many fights."

Of course, as one of the four or five genuine heavyweights in the league, McSorley was in many of those fights. At 6'1", 235 pounds, he is a capable regulator, a forceful reminder that his team's goal scorer is off-limits. No wonder Gretzky insisted on taking McSorley with him in his famous trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988. "Do I need a guy like that?" asks Gretzky, who for the first time in eight years will be without his old friend. "Everybody needs a guy like that. You have to have a presence out there so they don't take that extra liberty."

When McSorley observes that liberty being taken, he is deeply disappointed. He would rather it never came to this, but.... "I'll have to call, say, Wayne's rightwinger off the ice, and all of a sudden the guy checking Wayne has me beside him for 10 or 15 seconds, and he doesn't know where I came from," McSorley says. "And then, just as suddenly, I'm back on the bench."

That must be extremely unsettling to the guy checking Wayne. But sometimes the reminder alone is not sufficient, and McSorley must drop his gloves and pair off with the other team's heavyweight—it's a matchup that is unspoken and automatic. "I always know who 'mine' is," he says. And then the league is plunged into introspection. But McSorley believes the game's purity is actually restored after each melee. "A lot of times there's a fight on the ice, and you'll find the game will become clean," he says. "A fight has the ability to remind everyone that there are big guys out there, and if you want to keep messing around, the big guys will know where to find you. I just wish it didn't have to happen."

The way McSorley tells you this, you almost feel sorry for him. The reluctant enforcer, the dutiful destroyer. Chris McSorley says his brother is actually quite "docile" and wouldn't be mixing it up all the time if he didn't believe that that was the only way he could stay in the league. In fact, says Chris, Marty was told at his first pro camp, in 1981, that he would have to "play mean" if he wanted to stick.

Then again, you're talking about a brood that has turned everything but contract bridge into a collision sport. Chris admits to contact golf, among other family pastimes. "You know," he says, "when you're leaning over a four-footer and you get slashed across the forearms with a nine-iron?"

Marty admits that "getting dirty" was instinctive to him. It had to do with survival among six brothers, maybe playing tennis-ball hockey in a converted chicken coop and not finishing one game—not one, ever. "A team would be losing," McSorley sighs, "and something would happen." (On the other hand, getting dirty was not nearly as instinctive to Marty as it was to Chris, now 31, who became a minor league legend. " 'Goofy,' " says Marty, "is all I'll say about him. Let's just say he got a lot of room on the ice")

But Marty wanted nothing so desperately as to play hockey, and he understood his role early. "I remember trying out as a 17-year-old in Hamilton," he says, "and my mother came to see me play. She was late, and I had already been asked to leave the game. The poor woman didn't know which team to root for."

Undrafted that year, he showed up in Belleville, Ont., the next year to try out for the town's team, an expansion club in the Ontario Hockey League. "And thank god they were an expansion club," he says. Even so, he didn't make the team right away. He allowed his family to believe that he did, and he stuck around Belleville, paying his own way, practicing on his own until injuries to other players opened a roster spot. Once on the team, McSorley quickly recognized that he got playing time in direct proportion to his willingness to drop his gloves.

"And then I got to Pittsburgh [in 1983, his first time around, when he signed as a free agent], and I saw there was room for a guy to step up and be tough," he says. "As soon as the exhibition season started, I let them know I was willing to drop the gloves and be counted."

Still, the miracle is that through all this carnage McSorley has become a solid player. While leading the league in penalty minutes last season, he had 15 goals and 26 assists—and another 10 points in the playoffs. "He's the best at what he does," says Gretzky, "because first of all, he can play. He can play right wing or defense, kill penalties, play a bit on the power play."

This represents quite a leap in McSorley's game. Gretzky likes to say, "I knew Marty before he could skate," but it was even worse than that. When Pittsburgh first signed Marty—the guy voted least likely to twirl Dorothy Hamill in the Ice Capades—the idea was so galling for the McSorley household that Chris, who was working in a steel mill at the time, threw his lunch bucket away and went to the NHL draft to insist on a try-out, which he got with the Philadelphia Flyers.

"You see, everybody in my family had so much respect for the NHL," says Marty, "until I got in."

But once in, he worked harder than anyone else. "Guys like Marty," says Gretzky, "those are the guys people should look up to. Guys not overly talented, but guys who will work every day." Even when McSorley was traded to the Oilers, in 1985, he continued to work. He didn't get much ice time in Edmonton—the Oilers of the mid-'80s were among the most talented teams in NHL history—so after practice and even after games he would skate at one of the community rinks and play with all the college kids.

And nobody wants to win more. That might account for last season's Crooked Stick Affair, in which a check of McSorley's blade in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals showed that it was curved a fraction of an inch beyond what the rules allow. The ensuing penalty gave Montreal a late power play, a tie and, in overtime, a victory. Some observers believe that swing in momentum cost the Kings, who had won Game 1, the Cup.

In fact, a number of NHL players use an illegal stick, an infraction that is rarely called because a team must ask the referee to measure the blade. If the stick is legal, the team that asked for the measurement is penalized for delay of game. McSorley happened to be the unlucky one that night. He hasn't found much humor in the penalty and its aftermath, but he does draw a comic picture of the Kings between periods that night, frantically trying to straighten their blades.

But McSorley's obsession with winning, like his violence, is often calculated. In a game against the Minnesota North Stars several years ago, when Gretzky's line came off the ice, McSorley suddenly erupted. "Take your equipment and get out of here," he screamed, "you're embarrassing us." For emphasis he broke his own crooked stick and told Gretzky he didn't want to play with him anymore.

"Sometimes," explains McSorley, laughing, "150 points a year just isn't good enough."

The real joke, of course, is that McSorley would give almost anything to score just a third of those points, to be the guy skating circles around a confused goalie, deftly snapping the puck into a corner of the net. He says it's the secret kept by every heavyweight, every glove-dropping maniac, every goofy, nose-biting torpedo who ever laced skates. McSorley knows what most people see when he takes the ice—a blood-clotting skate-by. In his mind, though, he's a skater, the go-to guy, a figure-cutter, "the guy who always plays in the last two minutes."

Hearing him say that, you can think only one thing: Wait till the McSorley boys read this.



McSorley (left) is a stickler for tough defense.



McSorley's illegal-stick penalty in the Stanley Cup finals turned the momentum against L.A.



Having protected Gretzky for eight seasons, McSorley (top right) is now giving the shirt off his back for Lemieux (left).



[See caption above.]