One of the things I like about covering hockey — two years writing about the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and occasionally about minor league hockey for the last 15 — is what I see as the fundamental decency of the players and others around the game.
In my experience, NHL players didn’t end up in the police blotter all that much and when they did, they appeared to be genuinely contrite about it. I remember then-Penguins’ general manager Craig Patrick seeming sincerely embarrassed when he talked to reporters about his DWI arrest during the 1993-94 season. I always contrast that behavior with then-Carolina Panthers player Jason Peter, who went on talk radio a couple days after his DWI arrest in 1999 and laughed about it.
And even many of the “tough guys” of the sport seemed to have a good heart. If you’re an NHL fan, you may remember a player named Marty McSorley, who made a good career out of making sure guys on the other team didn’t bother Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux when he was a member of the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings and the Penguins.
That career was essentially ended in 2000 when, playing for the Boston Bruins, he was charged with assault for hitting Vancouver’s Donald Brashear in the head with his stick in the closing seconds of a game. The impact caused Brashear to fall to the ice and suffer a concussion. A jury convicted McSorley and he was sentenced to 18 months probation. The NHL suspended him for a year and he never played another game in the league.
Anyway, what I remember about McSorley was what a nice guy he was off the ice. He seemed to genuinely like talking to reporters and actually remember their names, asking about their families and so forth, and chatting me up one day when he found out that I was a working reporter with a Ph.D. I particularly contrasted my experience with the poor guy on our paper who covered baseball’s Pirates and was forced into daily interaction — or futile attempts at it — with moody slugger Barry Bonds. I certainly got the better end of that deal.
I was reminded of what I liked about hockey players when I watched some of yesterday’s Stanley Cup playoff game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks. In that game, Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith was hit in the face by a flying puck that a Sharks’ player was trying to clear out of his defensive zone on a power play. Keith lost seven teeth and suffered cuts around the mouth, but news accounts matter-of-factly noted, he returned before the period was over and helped his team beat San Jose 4-2 for a series sweep.
(A few things to note about hockey players, pucks and teeth, other than the lack of pearly whites that some players exhibit. It’s a hazard of the game — most NHL media guides will list a team dentist in addition to a team physician. I once asked a Penguins’ player if he ever worried about the possibility of being hurt. “If I worried about it, I couldn’t be out here,” he said. Covering a Penguins skate before a playoff game, I once got hit just in the calf with an airborne puck that wasn’t shot that hard. It hurt for a couple of days.)
Now let’s face it, if Keith’s injury happened to a major league baseball player, the guy would be out for the rest of the season. The NFL or NBA, at least for a few games. But not only did the Chicago player return for the rest of the game, but he talked to the media about it, joking that he’d be in for a “long evening at the dentist” and revealing that two of the teeth that got knocked out were fake anyway.
“I’ll take all my teeth out if we continue winning in the playoffs,” he said.
Words that I’m sure were never spoken by Barry Bonds.