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Enforcers must find new roles

Marty McSorley's trial symbolizes a new attitude toward violence in hockey.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000


When Peter Worrell goes to work, he knows someone is likely to throw a punch at him.

Someone may threaten him with a stick or whack him with one across the back or arms. He may have to beat someone up. He may be bloodied. At the very least, he will be bumped, tripped and elbowed.

It's all part of his job as a hockey player, in which actions that would get you in a heap of trouble on the street are part of the game.

"Once you get out in the dimensions of the ice, to a certain degree, some rules in life have to be thrown out," the Panthers tough guy said.

That is why Worrell is worried about what is happening in Vancouver, where, beginning today, Marty McSorley will stand trial for his on-ice assault of the Canucks' Donald Brashear.

McSorley, 37, then a member of the Bruins and a notorious enforcer, clubbed Brashear, another enforcer, across the head with his stick during a Feb. 21 game. Brashear sustained a concussion. McSorley, now a free agent, was indefinitely suspended.

The trial will examine if McSorley's action can be considered assault with a weapon. It is the first on-ice incident in the courts since 1988, when Dino Ciccarelli, then with the Minnesota North Stars, received a day in jail and a $1,000 fine for belting Luke Richardson repeatedly in the head with his stick.

"It's not something you want to happen or should (have) happen in a game," Worrell said. "But it opens up a can of worms, and it's something that, as a player, I'm scared about. Maybe there is a borderline clean hit. How do you know they won't decide it's something they want to bring into court?

"I just want to play and move on and let that go and hope the league will be responsible enough that they will punish the person fittingly."

Truth be told, the NHL already is moving on from the days of the classic fight-first-ask-questions-later enforcer. Fights occurred in 64.3 percent of regular-season games last season -- a 20-year low -- and are almost non-existent in the playoffs.

Much of that is due to the instigator rule that mandates, in its most benign form, an extra two-minute penalty and a 10-minute misconduct to the player who starts a fight.

"The player who can do nothing else but fight and goes out there and grabs someone and beats him up, that isn't okay anymore," Lightning general manager Rick Dudley said. "I think it's a good thing."

The effects can be startling.

"Fifteen years ago, when somebody put a good hit on you, it was almost a duty (to fight)," former NHL referee Andy Van Hellemond said.

Today, said Van Hellemond, now the league's director of officiating, if you refuse a challenge or you turtle under a fusillade of punches, "you are deemed a smart player" for drawing a penalty.

With fewer opportunities to fight, teams are less willing to hold roster spots for players who display no other skills. That is why tough guys like Worrell, Washington's Chris Simon and Tampa Bay's Kyle Freadrich have worked so hard to refine their games.

Even McSorley, whose 3,381 penalty minutes are third all time, could do more than brawl. The defenseman had 10 goals or more in five of his 17 seasons and last season was plus-2 in 27 games.

Simon is the standard-bearer, scoring 29 goals with 20 assists last season after scoring 43 goals in his previous seven. His 146 penalty minutes were miles from his high of 250 in 1996-97.

Dudley likes Worrell, even though he has had his share of run-ins with the Lightning and last season had 169 penalty minutes in 48 games.

"He's a guy who can really scrap, and he can hit," Dudley said. "But he has worked hard at becoming a player. They can play him on the No. 3 line and they won't suffer."

The 6-foot-6, 235-pounder said he was pigeonholed into the enforcer role in juniors because of his size. After losing his first fight, Worrell became proficient and battled his way through the minors and into the NHL.

"I was never a guy who was interested in fighting. I enjoyed watching them. I just didn't enjoy getting punched in the head," Worrell said. "It's not an easy job, fighting. I don't care who it is. I don't think many guys enjoy it. It's something that got me into the league, but I don't want it to define me as a player."

Not all tough guys like the trend. Former Islanders enforcer Clark Gillies said the instigator rule slows games because players stand around jawing in hopes an opponent will take a poke at them and be penalized.

He also said the lack of fighting contributes to player frustration, which leads to incidents in which sticks are used or players are checked from behind into the boards.

"It's terrible and stupid looking," he said of the scrums. "I think we handled it better. If some guy was running around taking advantage, we tuned him up and that would be the end of it. Now, all it takes is a so-called enforcer to get an extra two minutes and he's back on the pine and you never see him again."

Which is why enforcers need to be more than fighters -- like Gillies, who scored 319 goals in 14 seasons with New York and the Sabres. On the other hand, Gillies remembers fondly a 1980 playoff series with the Bruins in which he fought Terry O'Reilly in four of five games.

Dudley said the game is better without that kind of intimidation.

"Clark didn't want to fight some of those fights, and he was one of the toughest guys who ever played," Dudley said. "But he wasn't allowed to play. Terry was doing his job. But if somebody obviously goes out of his way to initiate fights, there should be a price to pay, and there never was. He should have been thrown out of the game, and Gillies should have been allowed to play."

But don't get the idea today's players are soft.

"I'll tell you what's tough now. It's contact," Dudley said. "The intimidation has become the contact. Your defensemen who play against teams that bang had better have courage because you are going to get hit. That's more intimidating than fighting."

Dudley pointed to the Blues' Dallas Drake.

"He's one of the most intimidating players in the game," Dudley said. "He's not very big, but he hits like a tank."

Dudley said he wants the 6-7, 250-pound Freadrich to be the same way.

"We don't want Freddy to be a pugilist," Dudley said. "We want him to be a player who when the puck is dumped in, the defenseman is going to say, "Oh, my god, get me the hell out of here' whether there is a fight or not.

"He will respond if he's challenged, but we want him to get in there and bang, too."

It's all part of the (new) job.

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