Sports Nut

Policing the Hockey Rink

Marty McSorley, the former Boston Bruins hockey player who took a stick to opponent Donald Brashear’s noggin, faces up to a year and a half in prison if Vancouver, British Columbia, authorities prove that he committed assault with a weapon. But the harsher judgment could be against the NHL and its ability to regulate hockey.

The NHL already suspended McSorley for 23 games, the longest ban ever handed down by the league and potentially a career-ender. This internal system of regulation allows hockey players to take the ice knowing that brutal attacks like McSorley’s won’t be commonplace. And it’s respect for that system that’s led most people associated with the NHL to question the legal case against McSorley. Both Donald Brashear and his coach, Marc Crawford, testified that McSorley’s act was unacceptably violent. But Brashear, Crawford, and the Vancouver Canucks organization have all said that McSorley should be disciplined by the NHL, not by the courts.

What the league and its players and coaches understand is that professional sports are conducted according to a set of ground rules different from those that govern everyday life. The very essence of hockey—launching a small, rubber projectile at another person—would be illegal outside the arena. Likewise the regular groping, shoving, checking, and poking required to gain an advantage on the ice. And it’s not a condition unique to hockey, or even to professional sports. As Canucks General Manager Brian Burke told CNN’s Greta Van Susteren, “It’s the same reason they have different rules of conduct in the military than they do for civilians. It’s a different way of making a living.”

Of course, some civil boundaries must be respected. Had Brashear died on the ice as a result of a premeditated attack, McSorley would be facing even more severe legal ramifications than he faces now. And rightly so. The critical question to ask in these situations is: Was the transgression against a player or against a man? Did McSorley swipe at Brashear because of the circumstances of the game or simply because he intended to injure another person? Clearly, McSorley was picking a fight with Brashear because of their history on the ice (Brashear had trounced McSorley in an earlier fight), not because he had a personal desire to harm him.

But would McSorley’s baiting have had a place in baseball? Definitely not, as there’d be no reason for a player to ever touch an opponent with his bat. In football, where the players aren’t outfitted with potential weapons, roughhousing is commonplace, and gruesome injuries often occur. But if a linebacker attempted to snap a quarterback’s neck, he’d have a tough time justifying his act as a part of the game.

Donald Brashear himself came up with what might be the best solution to McSorley’s case—a lifetime ban from the NHL. It’s probably fitting, given the severity of the incident. But while Marty McSorley has shown himself unable to abide by hockey’s rules, he hasn’t shown himself unable to abide by society’s. McSorley is not a threat to the people of Vancouver or of any other jurisdiction. Rather than obscuring the line of separation between church and sport, the authorities would serve hockey well by understanding the distinction.