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Putting their lives on the line, part two

By Glen Goodhand/Hockey Historical Highlights

A totally different kind of motivation prompted the cowardly act of death threats in 1974. Mike Marson became only the second player to break the colour barrier in the NHL, when he joined the Washington Capitals. Being ill-treated by opponents, whose racial bias prompted them to slash and spear him protesting his “contaminating” the league as a “coloured” player was bad enough. But, when he received a such a warning after his debut, in the form of a note constructed with letters from a magazine, it nearly cut his heart out. It read: “You’re on thin ice black boy! This n----- is going to die!”

His teammates were of little help. When another forewarning was phoned into the Philadelphia Spectrum they joked about not sitting near him on the bench.

The opulent ‘80s, as they have been tagged, produced an unusual number of incidents of this nature. Probably the most publicized involved the New York Islander’s slick sniper, Mike Bossy. On January 10, 1981, as he walked into the Nassau Coliseum for the morning skate, he was met with news that a phone call to the arena sounded the alarm that someone was going to kill him that night.

Fortunately, nothing happened, and the following game was out of town. But when he reported for practice back in the Big Apple there was another threat waiting.

“You won’t make it home from practice,” it said. It ended up amounting to nothing, but not before “the Boss” and his wife nearly has nervous breakdowns. It was assumed that since he was near to matching “Rocket” Richard’s 50 goals in 50 games, some disgruntled Canadien’s fan was responsible.

In 1983 the Sabre’s Danny Gare was informed that if he played a certain game, “it would be his last.” Five years later Glenn Anderson of the Oiler’s, whose abrasive personality rubbed a cross section of fans, players, and journalists the wrong way, received several “poison pen” notes.

The list goes on. In 1979 Marcel Dionne was warned that if “he scored any goals tonight he would get his head blown off!”

During the 1993 post-season, Marty McSorley managed to attract no less than 97 such  verbal blackmails. The loveable Claude Lemieux, a skater everybody “loved to hate,” required guards at hotels wherever he stayed during his slam-bang approach to the game.

Even the “Great One,” Wayne Gretzky was not immune. If anything, his high profile life opened the door for more such menacing communications. In his autobiography (with Rick Reilly) he wrote: “I don’t see much hate mail, and there’s plenty of it. The nut letters, people threatening my life, Michael (his secretary) sends directly to the police.

The day after Edmonton won their second consecutive Stanley Cup in 1985, he was informed that two people had threatened his life. And, when the city of Edmonton erected a statue in his honour, he was worried that his so-called “disloyalty” in going to Los Angeles would spark these portents again. After all, there had even been one on his wedding day.

The last recorded incident of a personal death threat directed at an NHL’er took place in 2009. A foolhardy 17-year-old boy, who lived near Pittsburgh, posted a warning on the Penguin’s message board: “I’m killing Ovechkin (Washington’s star). I’ll go to jail! I don’t care anymore!”

Playing at the game’s top level involves more than great conditioning, bumps, bruises, and cuts.
Sometime’s it’s literally worth somebody’s life.


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