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Rink Rat

By George Johnson ESPN The Magazine

His friends call him Mush, and you didn't know that, did you? That he had friends. What everyone else calls Bryan Marchment is not fit for print. Marchment belongs on Twisted Minds Week on A&E's Biography series. You know, wedged somewhere between Jack the Ripper and Albert DeSalvo.

Really, get a search warrant and check for a collection of knees mounted on the wall of the Marchment family den: Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk, Kevin Dineen. In hockey circles, those are big names. In hockey circles, Bryan Marchment is a big-name hunter.

"Hey, I'm not a hit man for the Mob," Marchment protests. "I mean, it's not as if some guy walks up, taps me on the shoulder, hands me $500, points and says, 'Okay, him.'

"I don't single guys out, pick and choose. If they're there, I hit 'em. I've got some pretty close friends in hockey and -- you ask them -- if I had a chance to send them into the fourth row, I'd do it."

Ah, an equal-opportunity assassin.

Yet Marchment, the consensus Players' Choice award winner as the most loathed man in the game (with apologies to nefarious Darius Kasparaitis), is fully at peace with himself, his reputation and his value to the San Jose Sharks. "Do I sleep at night?" he repeats, surprised that you would ask. "Why, yes. Very well. I mean, I must be doing something right. Would the Sharks sign me to a very nice contract [five years, $12 million] if I was some bum not doing his job?"

Marchment, 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds of mean muscle, understands full well that he's reviled throughout the league. He's even OK talking about it in interviews. He is not angered, amused or remorseful. The contempt simply exists and therefore must be dealt with. "Hey, you guys got a job to do, too," the defenseman says, shrugging.

Often, when Marchment is the topic, that job tends to get personal. Witness this opening paragraph from Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the morning of April 23, after the Nieuwendyk incident: "If Bryan Marchment wasn't already a marked man, he slithered out of Reunion Arena last night wearing a bull's-eye right between his beady reptilian eyes."

Those eyes may not be exactly beady, as described, but they do light up when he sees some poor, unsuspecting shnook in a different-colored jersey drifting aimlessly, glancing at his feet to inspect the quality of the ice.

A knee-on-knee collision turned one of Modano's knees into Chef Boy-ar-dee, triggering a three-game suspension for Marchment and a 10-game absence for Modano. Seventeen days later, Marchment tagged Modano's teammate Greg Adams, blowing out -- you guessed it -- another knee and knocking Adams out for 19 games. Earlier in his career, he collapsed one of Mike Gartner's lungs with a withering check. He rammed Nieuwendyk from behind during the playoffs last spring, shattering one of Joe's knees, effectively ruining Dallas' chances of a Stanley Cup. As you can imagine, they adore Marchment in Big D. He gets death threats there. "They bothered my wife," says Marchment, "but I honestly didn't give them a second thought. I'm sure I'm not the first NHL player to receive a death threat."

Other Marchment victims include Peter Zezel, Pavel Bure and Wendel Clark. In 1995, a Marchment hit wrecked Winnipeg Jet hopeful Jason Simon, who had to undergo reconstructive knee surgery. Quite the little roll call of dishonor, even he has to admit.

Ask Ken Hitchcock about him. "Marchment is a sick guy who has no respect for the other players in the league," the Dallas coach says. "Beating him up doesn't help. He's been beaten up many times. He's been crushed many times. But the only way he knows how to survive in the game is to do this stuff."

Perry Mason couldn't successfully defend this guy. Yet the man accused just gives one of those well-whaddaya-expect waves in rebuttal.

"This isn't Slap Shot," Marchment insists. "I've got a job to do. It's taken me a long time to get to this level. I'm not a stupid person. Not many guys in the league anymore do what I do -- step up and make open-ice hits. You can count those guys on one hand."

Marchment feels he's decidedly out of place in the politically correct, get-in-touch-with-your-feelings '90s. He's quite sure he'd have been more comfortable in the good old, bad old days -- when there was no overt advertising on the boards, no names affixed to the backs of sweaters, and the code was hard, even vicious, but honorable.

"Ask the old-timers. They will tell you there used to be five or six guys on every team hitting the way I do. If I was playing 20 years ago, do I think I'd be singled out like I am today? No. Do I think I'd have to fight more? Certainly. But those guys, back in the old days, they played like men."

But is Marchment a legitimate throwback? Or just a throwaway? How on earth can you possibly cheer for someone who once uttered, "I've never, ever sent a 'Get Well' card," or "When it comes right down to it, it's a game. If you can't play it, get out. Might as well go play tennis."

Still, sitting around shooting the breeze with Bryan Marchment belies much of the image the public has formed of him. He doesn't froth at the mouth. Or answer questions in guttural, one-syllable grunts. He doesn't own an extensive collection of Marilyn Manson CDs, store boxes of Mace in his basement or even much like Freddy Krueger slash 'n' splatter flicks. Surprise, surprise, he likes nothing better than to spend time with his wife, Kim, their daughter, Logan, and son, Mason. Recreation for the Minister of Mayhem is six or seven hours by himself out on a boat, tossing a lure into Crow Lake, the fishing spot near his home in Ontario.

"He's really just a normal kind of guy," says Jason Wiemer of the Flames, a teammate of Marchment's in Tampa. "But on the ice he's developed this persona, and he takes advantage of it. Does he purposely go out trying to injure somebody? No, I don't think so. But you definitely know as an opponent when he's on the ice. Any chance at all to hit you, he's game. If you value your knees, he and Kasparaitis are never very far from your thoughts."

It is precisely that preoccupation that gives Marchment an edge. As Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) said, explaining his motives after the famous wild-man routine at the weigh-in for his first title fight against Sonny Liston: "Only a fool ain't afraid of a crazy man."

And the opposition clearly thinks Marchment is crazy when he steps up into a hole to deliver. Coldly, clinically crazy. "People are always talking about how I make guys pay with my hits," he snorts. "Well, what about me? I've paid too. Close to $200,000 in fines. "Am I dirty? No. Is what I do premeditated? C'mon, gimme a break. The game is far too fast, things happen too quickly, for anyone to seriously believe that."

Oh, but they do believe, Bryan. They believe fervently. To most coaches, he's little more than a placid assassin, the potential wrecker of careers, a cold-hearted, calculating crippler. Mention Marchment and watch people go all apoplectic, bursting blood vessels in their temples.

John Ferguson's eyes, though, soften around the corners when the name comes up in conversation. In his day, Genial John was one of the most feared heavyweights in hockey, a man whose immense, intimidating presence opened up whole vistas of ice he otherwise might not have enjoyed. Fergie, now the Sharks' senior professional scout, just happened to be the general manager in Winnipeg when the Jets made Marchment the 16th overall pick of the 1987 entry draft.

"I went to a game in Cornwall," the old tough guy reminisces, "and they had to call in the police. I mean, Marchment had started a riot. I looked down at all that mayhem on the ice and said to myself, 'I gotta get that guy.' My scouts advised me to draft Bryan Deasley. Well, I wanted Marchment, and I got him. Anybody remember Bryan Deasley?"

No one can seem to forget Marchment. He's no All-Star. You don't want this guy carrying the puck up ice. He survives as a niche player. Any team that needs to toughen up its defensive corps -- and so far Winnipeg, Chicago, Edmonton, Tampa and San Jose have felt the need -- will take a chance on Mush. The pattern, though, is that he comes, he plays, and he leaves fairly quickly; the longest he's been with any club is three full seasons. Marchment's value is strictly as the Man You Love to Hate -- his career totals add up to 25 goals and 1,430 penalty minutes in 478 games. As such, argues San Jose coach Darryl Sutter, there are no benefits of the doubt when his guy is involved in a fender-bender. "Only thing about Mush that worries me is the [men at NHL headquarters] in New York," Sutter says. "If you get my drift."

"He's just an old-fashioned body-checker," says Ferguson. "Like Bobby Baun used to be. Mush will hit anyone, anytime. That's really a breath of fresh air after all the NHLPA brotherhood stuff we keep hearing."

While Marchment is famous (infamous?) for having no regrets for his deeds, he will accept blame for the hit involving Carolina's Dineen, a knee job that wound up costing Marchment eight games without pay. "I knew right away I was cooked," he recalls. "The ref only gave me two minutes, but I knew sitting in the box that I was in trouble. Dineen is a veteran, a hard-nosed player. The type I think everyone respects. And when I saw the tape afterwards, I stuck my knee out. He was past me, so I stuck my knee out. I'm man enough to admit it was bad." Bad enough to spark a tinge of regret? Marchment considers the concept a moment. "Well, that would be kinda like wanting my cake and eating it, too, wouldn't it? I mean, my job is to step up and hit people. I'll admit that I enjoy hitting people."

Believe it or not, not everyone outside Silicon Valley views him with utter disdain. Marchment is fond of telling people how Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin, before an interview in Tampa, whispered to him: "Bryan, do me a favor: Don't change the way you play. It's a lost art."

"Not bad, huh?" Marchment prods. "A player of that caliber. Obviously, he had loads more talent than I do, but if you study the tapes, Potvin played hard and physical too." apes are a preoccupation with this guy. And not only the half-dozen or so sent to the league offices as evidence against him every season. He spends a great deal of time breaking down tapes of big hits and big hitters --looking for tendencies, combing for clues he can incorporate into his own game. Sort of like a budding art student studying canvases by Monet. Or, in this case, maybe Hieronymus Bosch. "I would love to have Bryan on my team," Brett Hull once said. "And I don't agree with anyone who says he's a cheap shot. He's got that hip check. Sometimes it looks a little dirty, but that's part of the game. I think he's a great player."

Marchment has one recurring dream -- besides launching hockey's first man into space. "I would love to play a game at strong safety in the NFL," he says. "Just one game. Man, that would be a blast, seeing if I could stand up to that kind of hitting. Because, actually, I'm just like the guy on the defensive line, trying to get the QB. That's what I am as a hockey player."

What he is as a hockey player would be cause for a highly explosive debate. It's a cliché, but Marchment is the classic example of the love-him-on-your-team, hate-him-on-any-other-team player. One thing seems certain, though. The man isn't about to back off, despite the ever-increasing storm of controversy that is his constant companion.

"It takes a certain mindset to play the way he does," says Ferguson. "Playing a tough, physical, uncompromising style every night isn't easy, believe me. To hit people the way he does, well, you're laying your body on the line too. It's all a question of appetite.

"And Mush," Ferguson concludes with a cackle, "still looks pretty hungry to me."