The NHL's Dirty Little Secret: Violence Sells

  • Share
  • Read Later
On Tuesday, one of the National Hockey League's most notorious old-line thugs lined up against one of its most notorious new-line thugs. The outcome was an attack so sudden and violent that it's impelled police in Vancouver, where the game was played, to consider criminal charges. Meanwhile, on Wednesday the NHL suspended Boston's Marty McSorley for 23 games — until the end of the season — for his hit on Canuck Donald Brashear. The incident raises questions on where to draw the line between sports violence as an occupational hazard and as a criminal act, and what measures professional sports organizations are willing to take to curtail violence.

But if history is any guide, the NHL, beyond the suspension, will do little or nothing to address these questions. Certainly they don't want police involved; a top official in the Canucks organization has already asked that prosecutors not pursue the case. Meanwhile, referees routinely allow players to fight each other until they are spent. "Whatever the league says, fighting is allowed because it sells tickets," says hockey historian Stan Fischler, whose book "Hockey's Greatest Fighters" profiles both Brashear and McSorley. In Tuesday's game, McSorley and Brashear first fought just two minutes into the contest. Brashear, a muscular 28-year-old, was clearly winning, but the referees allowed the fight to proceed and the veteran McSorley was humiliated. McSorley, a battered 36-year-old with bad wrists and a bum shoulder, said after the game that it was his frustration with the fact that he can no longer fight the way he once did that drove him to the sneak attack. Brashear's helmet flew off as he crashed to the ice, causing a severe concussion.

Fischler said the league dealt relatively harshly with McSorley — 23 games is a record — "because he's an easy target. He's... at the end of his career and he committed hockey's only sin: He didn't drop his stick." But that doesn't mean we can expect a rules change. "Every two months the NHL seems to make a decision to crack down on [fighting]," says Fischler. And then it's quickly forgotten.