EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Somewhere in Marty McSorley’s home in Hermosa Beach is a hockey stick with a blade that’s curved at least a quarter-inch more than the legal limit.
The longtime NHL tough guy doesn’t keep the most infamous stick in Los Angeles Kings history on display, saying it’s not important enough. He’s probably correct: The stick’s proper place is near the billy goat, the Bambino, the cover of the Madden NFL video game and every other supposed curse-carrying item in sports history.
That stick, and McSorley’s resulting penalty for using it, turned the 1993 Stanley Cup finals in favour of the Montreal Canadiens, who knocked off the Kings in Los Angeles’ only previous trip to the finals before this season. The Kings will take their second shot at their first NHL title starting Wednesday at New Jersey.
McSorley has grown weary of talking about that Game 2 disappointment over the past 19 years, yet he also believes the full story of the Canadiens’ skullduggery isn’t known. He hopes the current Kings’ run will help fans finally straighten out their bad feelings about the illegal curve, which gets far too much attention, he insists.
“I think there’s been a degree of sensationalism, a big degree of sensationalism, and I don’t think there’s been a lot of honesty,” McSorley said Sunday. “Did I have an illegal stick? Yes, I did. Did I stand up after the fact and say, ‘Listen, I had an illegal stick?’ Yes, I did. The things that have transpired since then, I don’t think there has been a lot of honesty.”
McSorley quickly makes it clear he’s referring to the widespread belief that the biggest penalty in Kings history was the result of an inside job.
As the much-disputed story goes on Los Angeles’ side of it, the Canadiens did a sneaky investigation of the Kings’ sticks earlier in the series when Los Angeles’ portable stick rack was in Montreal’s locker room—or maybe when the Kings just weren’t looking. Habs coach Jacques Demers knew exactly which sticks to challenge at a key moment, violating all sorts of unwritten codes about sportsmanship and trade secrets.
“I think that (then-Kings coach) Barry Melrose, I think that Luc Robitaille, (former Kings trainer) Peter Demers, different guys around, have basically said what happened,” McSorley said. “We all know they basically pulled the stick rack into their locker room. That’s honest and that’s frank. Am I sitting here complaining? No. But that is what happened. Is it disappointing for me? Yes.”
The Canadiens have long denied it, with Demers crediting captain Guy Carbonneau for spotting McSorley’s illegal stick on the ice. The Kings hear otherwise: Robitaille says he was told by a Montreal policeman that the Canadiens checked out the Kings’ sticks on the sly, while McSorley says he has heard from “three or four” former Canadiens over the years who say they knew of five or six Kings sporting illegal sticks.
“That was an awfully gutsy call without having any information,” McSorley said, laughing.
However Montreal got its info, Demers used it at the perfect time. Los Angeles had won Game 1 in Montreal and was up 2-1 in Game 2 with 1:45 to play when Demers called for a measurement. With McSorley serving his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Demers pulled goalie Patrick Roy, setting up Eric Desjardins’ 6-on-4 tying goal. Desjardins scored again early in overtime, and the Canadiens roared through the following three games to claim the Cup.
McSorley readily acknowledges his stick violated the rules, yet he insists he didn’t make it that way: That’s how the sticks arrived from the factory, and other players used the same curve without ever getting penalized. In fact, McSorley says he used sticks with the same curve in the next two finals games with no penalty.
“I think we kind of treated it, at that time, as almost George Brett’s pine-tar (bat),” McSorley said, referring to the infamous 1983 controversy around Brett’s ninth-inning homer at Yankee Stadium, which was erased by a technicality and subsequently restored. “That’s kind of how we treated it. To make a call like that is really, really gutsy. To find out later that they knew, and how they knew, was really, really disappointing.”
McSorley still hears about the stick and the penalty when he appears with Kings alumni. He blames the media for keeping the story alive, yet most Kings fans acknowledge they don’t need the help—there’s even a blog named after McSorley’s stick.
Other fans postulate that Montreal has been hit by a curse every bit as sticky as the Kings’ problems. The Habs haven’t won a championship since raising the Stanley Cup for the 24th time that season, not even making the finals again—and no Canadian team has won the Cup since 1993.
Although McSorley’s broadcasting work regularly takes him to Canada, the Ontario native still lives by the beach with his wife, a former pro volleyball player, and their three young children, including a 3-year-old son who wears his Kings jersey constantly and plays hockey with his dad.
A regular at Staples Center, McSorley is enjoying the Kings’ playoff run every bit as much as his son is.
“It’s a great time for us as alumni to come back,” McSorley said. “We do feel partly responsible, in a really good way. We believe that we’ve helped to grow the fan base and part of the history of this team. That’s a great, great feeling. … It validates to people outside L.A. how strong hockey is here. People are ravenous here for tickets right now.”
He’s also hoping a championship banner would reduce that stick in his closet to a twig in Kings lore.
“If it went to bed, I’m fine with that,” McSorley said.