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McSorley Is Prospering in the Security Business

You give a kid a last name like McSorley, raise him on ice skates in Canada with six tough brothers, let him grow to about 6 foot 1 inch and 230 pounds, you’re not going to wind up with another Brian Boitano, know what I mean? This guy’s not going to turn up in the Ice Capades, twirling Snoopy.

He’s going to be a hockey player in the NHL, and his specialty is likely to be protection and intimidation. He is going to provide a presence.

Marty McSorley is Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard, but that’s an oversimplification. McSorley is a good hockey player. He skates a regular shift for the Kings. He’s not one of those human hockey torpedoes who are kept in the tube and fired into action only when drastic measures are called for.

But Marty does bump, and he does fight.

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He set down the McSorley Theory of hockey violence, which states that the reason there is so much fighting in the NHL is that the referees break up the fights too soon.

McSorley came to Los Angeles from the Edmonton Oilers in The Trade, because Wayne Gretzky strongly recommended that he be included. No way was Gretzky coming to Los Angeles without protection. A guy could get hurt.

You know what Gretzky has done for L.A. hockey. Maybe you don’t know what McSorley has done. Maybe I don’t, either, so I invited McSorley out to breakfast to discuss his job.

I asked him if it bothers him to be referred to as Gretzky’s bodyguard.

“I don’t mind that,” said McSorley, a bright and honest man. “The tag goon is a little tough to take. If players look at you as a bodyguard, there’s a certain degree of respect, and I like to be respected as a player. I want to be considered as a guy out there willing to play, not solely looking for trouble.

“But I also have to make sure nothing happens to our goal scorers. I have to keep an eye on them, give them room, give them confidence that nobody’s going to bother them.”

The previous night, for example, the Kings had beaten the Oilers in overtime at the Forum. McSorley had scored a big goal in the third period, a rarity for him, but he had provided other services less obvious to the casual observer.

“Bernie Nicholls went and gave a hard check to one of their guys, a very tough kid, and Bernie shook the guy up,” McSorley said. “Right away I’m ready to go on the ice on Bernie’s next shift, make sure the (other) guy’s not going to do anything. And when I go out, I have to be aware of where they both are. I can’t let him get to Bernie. Bernie’s a rugged player, but I have to give him the confidence he can play his game, not worry about them coming back at him.

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“I’ve got to get in (the opponent’s) way. If he makes a motion like he’s willing to fight me, more often than not, I’ll fight. Win or lose, it’s much better that he fight me than Luc (Robitaille) or Bernie.

“If the guy is upset (by Nicholls’ check), I might go over to him and say, ‘Listen, leave him alone,’ get in his face a little. You can do a lot verbally without ever taking a penalty, but you have to drop the gloves a few times. You can’t live on reputation; you have to let everyone know you’re still involved.”

The difference between a goon and a bodyguard is the difference between instigation and retaliation. McSorley likes to think he dispenses justice, not gratuitous cheap shots.

“The little spears, the little jabs,” McSorley said, speaking of what opponents do to such guys as Gretzky, thereby pushing Marty’s button, “they really bruise ‘em up. Your guy, every time he touches the puck, they’re banging him. It’s within the rules, but it’s not within our rules. You have to react.

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“Sticking up for Bernie and Wayne and Lucky (Robitaille) and those guys, I’m there for everybody. They hit Wayne or Bernie, I have to take that personally.”

On occasion, McSorley has overreacted. In the playoffs last season, he speared Calgary’s Mike Bullard and was suspended for 5 games.

“I’m not proud of that,” McSorley said. “I got rattled hard into the boards. I lost my cool, did something I should never have done. There are so many better ways it could have been handled. I don’t think it was good for the game of hockey.”

McSorley is aware of his tough-guy reputation. It tends to work to his advantage on the ice, but there is a down side. One day not long ago, he walked into the Kings’ practice rink and saw two boys, maybe 8 years old, in full hockey gear. They were with their mother, who recognized McSorley, smiled brightly and said: “Marty, you gonna beat someone up next game?”

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She meant it as a compliment. So do all the fans who ask McSorley to autograph photos of himself fighting, and who compile and send him videotapes of his fights--Marty McSorley’s greatest hits.

“That bothered me,” Marty said of the incident with the mother and the boys. “I played the game as a kid because I loved to play it. The physical stuff started later. I wanted those two kids to play good hockey, to think of hockey as a sport of fun and great skill. You have to allow fights--it’s part of the NHL game--but hockey is a great sport.”

Politely--because he is a very polite man off the ice--McSorley told the woman that he did not intend to beat anyone up in the next game. Chances are, though, that he did.

He is a fighter. Fighters are a subspecies of hockey player. They play a game within a game, a war with its own unwritten rules.

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“When you retaliate and get a penalty, it can be a good penalty. The message is felt all around the building,” McSorley said. “I’ve learned how a really good body check, or at times a fight, can change the momentum of a game.”

McSorley said that he doesn’t keep track of his fights and doesn’t watch the videos sent to him, but that it’s important not to let your fighting skills rust. Some players tend to fight less as they get older, and they get out of trim, becoming easy marks.

“I’m in good shape, and if a fight starts, I’m fight-sharp,” he said. “I’ve seen big guys get hurt because they weren’t sharp.”

McSorley likes to think he fights clean.

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“I think people look at me, they don’t think I’m a saint. But I hope they think I’m an honest fighter. I won’t get you when your back’s turned, won’t sucker-punch you. Honest fighters will turn you around, let you know--'It’s happening.’ ”

Marty watches other games to scout the league’s fighters.

“If two guys have a fight, I’d like to know what went on,” he said. “A fight makes ‘em into different players. They’ll be different the next time you see ‘em, depending on what went on in that fight. . . . You watch. You want to know if a guy’s right- or left-handed, you wanna know things like that, you really do . . . “

It’s important to win a fight.

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“There’s a lot of pressure every time you go out and drop your gloves. If you lose, you can lose the confidence of the fans. I’ve seen it happen. If you lose a fight bad, there’s more of a chance you’ll get in fights the next few games.”

A smart enforcer picks his spots, uses strategy and logic. If your Wayne Gretzky gets hammered, immediate retaliation is not always wise.

“A lot of times (your star goal-scorer’s) gotta suck it up and take it,” Marty said. “When the time is right, things get straightened out.”

Sometimes, though, the fighter’s automatic reflex kicks in.

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“One time I caught an elbow in the chops,” McSorley said. “It shook me silly. Next thing I know, I’m halfway through a fight.”

What about the McSorley Theory of hockey violence, which puts a measure of blame on the officials?

“A fight can keep the game from getting dirty a lot of times,” McSorley said. “Do the officials break up fights too soon? Definitely. You have to evaluate the two guys out there. If two guys are willing to go, let them fight, if they’re fairly even in size.

“I’m not saying let everybody go out and fight, but in instances where it’s inevitable, let ‘em go. If two guys stand there and have a good fight, the game will go on without another one. If you break it up, 10 minutes later they’re back at it again.”

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Off the ice, McSorley is an amiable, low-key guy who takes great pains to avoid violence. If you swagger up to him in a bar and challenge him to a fight--something that happens to him not infrequently, especially in Canada--he’ll offer to buy you a drink, try to calm you down. He wants to be known as a good citizen, a good athlete, a credit to hockey.

But if you mess with Wayne Gretzky, Marty McSorley will punch your nose on the ice, and he will not buy you a beer afterward.

“No way,” he said, shaking his head. “I play hockey for fun, but the physical part is not fun. It’s not funny. I take it personally, I really do. I do (fight) because I mean it, not because I have to.”


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