San Jose Sharks defenseman Bryan Marchment, who has been
suspended more times than disbelief, laments that he was born 20
years too late. He considers himself an anachronism, a blueliner
who would have prospered when men were men, hits were hits and
cheap shots were addressed in five-on-five donnybrooks instead
of in the NHL office. Marchment is old school, and he seems to
have missed some classes. In anatomy, for example. His purported
hip checks sometimes resemble dangerous knee-on-knee hits. And
in spelling. Some opponents are convinced that when Marchment
recites the alphabet, he begins, "A, C, L."
In a game in which pain is the common currency, no one inflicts
more of it than Marchment. He prowls the ice in search of the
bone-shakin', arena-quakin', highlight-package-makin' perfect
hit that might turn a match around, but he'll settle for an
imperfect hit, which is why the citizens of Dallas, in
particular, are so incensed with him. During the 1997-98 regular
season, Marchment, then an Edmonton Oiler, rubbed out Dallas
Stars left wing Greg Adams for 20 games and sidelined center
Mike Modano, the NHL's leading scorer at the time, for 10, with
knee-on-knee hits. Then, in the playoff opener at Dallas,
Marchment dashed the Stars' Stanley Cup chances when he rode Joe
Nieuwendyk into the end boards, blowing out Nieuwendyk's right
anterior cruciate ligament.
No penalty was called, but Marchment says he received a written
death threat the next day and two threatening phone calls at the
Oilers' hotel. Signs in Reunion Arena for Game 2 read KILL
MARCHMENT. NHL justice, administered by Brian Burke, then the
league's senior vice president and director of hockey
operations, was more restrained. Burke, now the general manager
of the Vancouver Canucks, let the hit against Nieuwendyk slide,
but he had already suspended Marchment twice in 1997-98: three
games and a $1,000 fine for the hit in December on Modano, who
was trying to dance away from a check, and eight games and a
$1,000 fine for a knee-on-knee collision two months later with
Carolina Hurricanes right wing Kevin Dineen. Marchment has been
suspended six other times for more prosaic reasons during his
seven full seasons in the NHL, including a checking-from-behind
incident and leaving the bench to fight.
"People think I hurt opponents on purpose," Marchment says. "Not
true. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want them to feel the
hits. I want to make sure they feel them, because every time I
hit somebody, I feel it. But I don't want people to think I'm a
guy who wants to end somebody's career. There's not one guy in
the league I don't have respect for."
Marchment delivers this apologia in the quiet monotone of a man
tired of explaining himself, his eyes wandering to a passing
trolley car outside the San Jose hotel lobby in which he is
sitting. They are not the beady, reptilian eyes described by a
Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist after the Nieuwendyk hit.
Rather, they are a soft, almost beatific blue. His oft-broken
nose--"The number is somewhere in the high teens," Marchment
says--swings to the right at the bridge and then gently back to
the left at the tip, further softening his features.
For the most dangerous player in the NHL, he is, at first
glance, strikingly average. He's ordinary in size for a
professional hockey player (6'1", 205 pounds), puts up
unremarkable numbers (13 points and 144 penalty minutes in
1997-98), is just a fair skater and has limited puck skills.
"The only time he passes tape-to-tape is when the other team's
on a line change," one general manager says, "and all he does
with the puck in his own zone is go hard around the boards."
He's just 29, but the Sharks, who signed him to a five-year, $12
million deal last summer, are Marchment's sixth NHL team. Darryl
Sutter, his coach in San Jose, calls him "a solid citizen, a
fourth or fifth defenseman."
Of course, Marchment is the only fourth or fifth defenseman in
the NHL who is part of every opponent's game plan, a player who
must be accounted for at all times, like a Gretzky, a Jagr or a
Selanne. Those guys hurt opponents with a goal or pass, but
Marchment just hurts them. He waits for an opponent to curl over
the blue line, lugging the puck, head down, so he can step up and
go kerblooey! Or Marchment holds his position in neutral ice to
see if an opponent will pursue a loose puck rolling along the
boards or behave with circumspection.
When Marchment was in Edmonton, he would remind his roommate,
Ryan Smyth, a swift, slippery left wing, to keep his head up at
all times. In training camp Marchment would occasionally clobber
Smyth as a public-service announcement. Before the Sharks'
training camp formally opened this season, Marchment would watch
the rookie scrimmages and salivate. "I hope some of those guys
stick around," he said. "I need to get my timing down."
Marchment is dangerous not only when he connects--his clean
check on Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mike Gartner in 1995
partially collapsed Gartner's left lung--but also when he
misses, because he often sticks his leg out, an act that can
impede, even cripple, a player. "Dineen cut back, made a
beautiful move," Marchment says of that play last season. "Your
brain's telling you to stick your leg out because he'll get by
you, have a breakaway, make you look like an idiot. If that's
something dirty, so be it."
"When his reputation as a hitter grew, players had to be alert
to where he was on the ice," Burke says of Marchment. "They
learned to take evasive action. If Marchment was beaten at the
blue line, caught flat-footed, his leg would go out. This isn't
premeditated. This is just how he reacts. Some players react by
turning and skating back into the play; he does it by sticking
his leg out. But there's a fine line between keeping an element
in the game that every general manager wants--the pancake
hit--and sticking out your knee."
Marchment is a wanted man. Indeed, many have wanted him, which
accounts for his odyssey through the NHL as much as the lack of
nuance in his game does. "He plays with a lot of guts and
determination," says Edmonton general manager Glen Sather. "I
didn't agree with all the suspensions, but one of the reasons I
had to trade him is that any time an opponent got hurt, he'd get
suspended. That was hurting the team."
Even Dallas general manager Bob Gainey, who decries Marchment's
excesses--"Rugged hockey means you challenge your competitor,
not disable your competitor"--considers Marchment a strong,
productive player. Therein lies the moral vacuum at hockey's
core. The darkness in Marchment's play that might make him
repugnant as an opponent makes him valued as a teammate. He
might stick out his leg against them, the thinking goes, but he
will stick out his neck for us.
"I've seen it. After the game, after Marchment has taken another
run at somebody on your team, you're in the locker room, and
some guy says, 'That s.o.b.,' and somebody else pipes up, 'Nah,
I played with him. He's a helluva guy,'" says Sharks right wing
Tony Granato. "Players talk, and word gets around that he's O.K."
Not only does everyone in the NHL know Marchment, but he also
seems to know everyone. He looked around at an NHL Players'
Association meeting in Toronto during the 1994 lockout and
recognized almost all of the 200 players in the room. "And I'd
only played for three teams by then," Marchment says. When
Marchment struck his head on an open penalty-box door and went
into convulsions on the ice in Dallas during the 1997 playoffs,
Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig, who had met him through Chicago
Blackhawks blueliner Chris Chelios, took Marchment's clothes
from the arena and brought them to the hospital.
Marchment inherited his nickname, Mush, and his toughness from
his father, John (a.k.a. Big Mush), who recently retired as a
manager for Scarborough Hydro outside Toronto. One day Big Mush
was splitting some railroad ties in the backyard when the tip of
his chain saw struck a chain-link fence. The saw began to dance
up and down on his left arm, the blade stopping at bone before
leaping up and striking elsewhere. Bryan, then eight, was
dispatched to the pool shed to fetch a towel, and one of his
sisters was sent to tell their mother, Jo-Anne, that Big Mush
would need a ride to the hospital. When Bryan came back, his
father calmly told him, no, not a white towel, a colored one,
because he was bleeding. "My father never screamed or even let a
tear come to his eye," Bryan says.
"Ah, it was just a chain saw, what the hell," says John, who
needed about 160 stitches to close the wounds.
Big Mush became the touchstone for Little Mush, the final
arbiter of right and wrong. The father frequently has been
critical of the son, although never once about any of the plays
that got Bryan suspended. John has been more concerned about his
son's occasional off-ice flare-ups, like the time after warmups
when then Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan told Bryan he would not
be playing in that game. Marchment stormed out of the dressing
room and into the weight room, hoisted a dumbbell and heaved it
through a huge mirror. Instead of suffering seven years of bad
luck, Marchment received a few days suspension from Keenan.
"Stuff like that plays into the coach's hands," Big Mush says.
"You're supposed to use emotion on the ice." For the rest of the
season Sutter, then Keenan's associate coach, would place
weights in front of the stall of a player who was scratched.
That was the Blackhawks' little joke.
Now Marchment, who keeps people in stitches, must hope that Colin
Campbell, Burke's successor as the NHL's dean of discipline, has
a sense of humor. He can't recall having a conversation with
Campbell other than the one in which Campbell, then coach of the
New York Rangers, yelled at him from behind the bench, something
about Marchment's having no respect for his opponent. Marchment
responded with a two-word witticism.
Marchment isn't about to change his game--"At this point in his
career, what he does with his leg is ingrained," Sather
says--but the NHL might try to change it for him. The league
keeps rumbling about ratcheting up the punishment for dangerous
"Anything I get, I expect," says Marchment, who knows he will be
watched closely. "I might whine about it a bit, but I expect it.
You can't give without taking. If I go into a building and give
something to a guy, I don't expect one guy to come after me. I
expect every guy on that team to take advantage of me if they
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BURGESS [Bryan Marchment]
COLOR PHOTO: GLENN JAMES EXHIBIT A Pushing the envelope As Guy Carbonneau of the Stars found out, Marchment will put a good lick on a foe even when he's behind the net and out of the play. [Bryan Marchment checking Guy Carbonneau]
COLOR PHOTO: ERIC GAY/AP EXHIBIT B Vulnerable position Nieuwendyk was knocked out of the '98 postseason by this hit, which didn't get Marchment a penalty or suspension. [Bryan Marchment checking Joe Nieuwendyk]
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER EXHIBIT C A helmet popper Opponents know if they forget to keep sight of Marchment, he'll come seemingly out of nowhere to make memorable contact. [Bryan Marchment checking player against boards as referee watches]