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McSorley Incident Leaves Questions but Few Answers

What next?

How does the NHL repair its image in the wake of Marty McSorley’s slash of Donald Brashear?

What is McSorley’s hockey future after having been suspended for the rest of the season and the playoffs?

His Bruin contract expires after this season, and if he wants to play again--his agents say he does--he must get approval from Commissioner Gary Bettman. Who will sign a 37-year-old with diminished skills and a blot on his record even he can’t explain?

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Will Brashear be able to resume what was a respectable season? He had a career-high 11 goals and moderate 132 penalty minutes before being hit in the temple by McSorley’s stick last Monday; he reportedly had a seizure and has a concussion that may idle him six weeks.

The biggest question may be answered late this week, when Vancouver police are expected to conclude their investigation and report to the Crown attorney, which will decide if an assault charge will be filed.

The NHL hopes the courts stay out of it. But even if there’s no criminal charge, discussion of the incident will rage on.

A member of Parliament from Toronto told Canada’s National Post he will introduce a private member’s bill to criminalize fighting in hockey, although such bills rarely go far.

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“This is a drastic step, but the NHL refuses to deal with the issue of violence,” John Nunziata said. “In fact, they condone it. The NHL thinks this sells the game. I think they’re wrong and I think the time has come for a public debate on this.”

Players and coaches don’t see fighting as a factor in this incident, and fighting is down in the NHL. Through Sunday, 62.5% of games were fight-free, compared with 48% for the 1996-97 season.

Those who support fighting say it vents emotions that boil over when big men collide on small rinks, and many fans watch hockey because of the fights, not despite them. Measure the cheers after a goal and a fight. The decibel levels will be close.

“There have been fights in hockey forever,” said Colin Campbell, the NHL’s director of hockey operations. “We haven’t got to the point where we say they should be illegal. And it’s not something we’re concerned about and I don’t think I’ve ever, ever had a player come up to me and say we should get rid of fighting. . . . I just don’t see any comparison in a fight as compared to what happened the other night.”

Wayne Gretzky agrees. In his weekly column in the National Post--OK, it’s ghostwritten--he deplored McSorley’s action but said he admires his pal for apologizing and taking responsibility. Not that McSorley could have avoided responsibility in the presence of TV cameras and witnesses. And why should being accountable merit admiration? It should be a given.

Gretzky also hopes law enforcement agencies bow out.

“That’s a bit of a dicey issue, I realize. We say in hockey that there are times when two guys can square off and fight and get the aggression out, but if two guys square off and fight in a park to get the aggression out we want the authorities involved,” he said. “But if the authorities get involved every time something bad happens in hockey, where does it all end? It’s something that has to be considered.”

Mighty Duck left wing Paul Kariya, who suffered a concussion when he was cross-checked in the jaw by Gary Suter two years ago, said fighting isn’t the issue here.

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“I don’t know if stick incidents would go down if there was no fighting,” he said, citing protection that makes players feel invulnerable. “The thing I would like to see the league start doing is punishing the hit, not the injury.”

In deciding the suspension, Campbell considered whether Brashear and McSorley should have been on the ice because they had fought once, McSorley had challenged Brashear to a rematch and neither is a scorer. Campbell didn’t fault Vancouver Coach Marc Crawford or Boston Coach Pat Burns, because the players had been taking regular shifts.

Was the punishment appropriate? That’s debatable. But it’s clear players must be able to play without fear of being attacked from behind--and aggressors must know they will pay dearly. Being sorry isn’t enough.

MARK HIS WORDS

Trade rumors have Mark Messier going to New York, New Jersey and Buffalo, where Michael Peca has volunteered to give Messier his captaincy.

But Messier, 39, has a no-trade clause in his contract and hasn’t asked Vancouver General Manager Brian Burke to waive it. Although he’s not the offensive factor he once was--he takes 12 goals and 39 points into the Canucks’ game against the Kings tonight at Staples Center--he is still a fiery leader and he feels some obligation to guide the Canucks through their rocky rebuilding.

“I’ve really enjoyed it there,” he said of Vancouver, where he signed as a free agent in 1997. “It’s a great place to play hockey, the facilities are great and the team treats you first class. It’s been really enjoyable. Everyone keeps saying I’m heading here or there, and it’s a little frustrating. But it’s part of the game now. There’s a lot of movement. Contracts come up and money is an issue with a lot of teams.”

Two New York Post writers are campaigning to bring Messier back. One suggests daily that only Messier will solve the Rangers’ woes, while another says Messier is bound for New Jersey. Asked about returning to the Rangers, whom he led to the Stanley Cup in 1994, Messier smiled but was evasive.

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“I’m enjoying the game and I want to play, so that’s the most important part,” he said. “Competing is still fun. I haven’t had any discussions with Brian. We’ve left it as we’re trying to get this team into the playoffs. Obviously, it’s a lot more fun when you’re winning.”

TRADE WINDS

The trading deadline is noon, Pacific time, March 14, and as usual, rumors are percolating.

The Montreal Canadiens must decide if they’re close enough to a playoff spot to go for it or if they should move defenseman Vladimir Malakhov and winger Shayne Corson, potential unrestricted free agents. Malakhov is often injured, but he can help anyone’s power play and the Florida Panthers inquired about him. Corson is willing to take a pay cut from $2.5 million to $2 million, but the Canadiens are offering $1.5 million plus bonuses. If he won’t agree, they might trade him and could get a lot.

The Carolina Panthers may trade Mike Vernon or Trevor Kidd; Phoenix General Manager Bobby Smith may trade the rights to holdout goalie Nikolai Khabibulin or try again to sign him. The Red Wings, concerned about the stamina of their defense, are seeking a rugged defenseman. But they won’t be as active as last season, when they acquired Chris Chelios, Bill Ranford, Wendel Clark and Ulf Samuelsson and kept only Chelios. They are also more cost-conscious because owner Mike Ilitch is building a baseball stadium for the Tigers in downtown Detroit.

SLAP SHOTS

ESPN and ABC, the NHL’s TV rights holders, provided extensive coverage of the McSorley incident. On ABC’s “World News Tonight,” correspondent John McKenzie (not to be confused with former Bruin Johnny “Pie” McKenzie) summed up the issue well.

“The dilemma for hockey is how do we keep players like McSorley under control without losing some of the violence many fans find appealing?” he asked.

ESPN gave former King Coach Barry Melrose a chance to defend McSorley, whom Melrose backed for the Norris Trophy in those heady days when the Kings went to the 1993 Cup finals.

Hockey players also do many good deeds: Ranger forward Adam Graves won the third annual NHL Foundation Player Award to honor his work with various charities. The award, which carries a $25,000 prize, had been won by Buffalo’s Rob Ray and St. Louis’ Kelly Chase--enforcers both.

General managers began meetings Monday in Palm Springs. No rule changes are likely, but they will discuss the state of the game and the McSorley incident. NHL Players Assn. boss Bob Goodenow is expected to join them today.

The Edmonton Oilers, who passed Colorado for the Northwest lead last week, are optimistic they can hold onto a playoff berth. “Our season has been battle after battle,” defenseman Janne Niinimaa said. “We have a lot of division and conference games left and a lot of home games, so that’s good. I trust this team. The last two years, we had a good run at the end of the season. I’m confident.”

The International Ice Hockey Federation has threatened to keep NHL players out of the 2002 Olympics, partly because it wants the NHL to increase transfer fees it pays foreign federations when NHL clubs draft European players. Soon, they’ll realize the exposure is too good to pass up and will reach a compromise.

Ivan Hlinka, who coached the Czech Republic to an Olympic gold medal at Nagano, has joined Herb Brooks behind the Pittsburgh Penguins’ bench. Hlinka is expected to take over next season, but he asked Brooks to stay on and tutor him for the rest of this season.


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