The deaths of three NHL enforcers -- Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak -- since May shed light on the issues and dangers that enforcers face on and off the ice. Brent Severyn, Belak's teammate on the 1996-97 Colorado Avalanche, had a 328-game NHL career with six teams that began with the Quebec Nordiques in 1989 and ended in 1999 with the Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars. Now the owner of the Dallas-area business Severyn Sports, Severyn took time to tell SI.com's Adrian Dater what it's really like to fight for a living in the NHL.
The day I became a "goon" is pretty clear. In September 1996 -- seven years into my NHL career, the same season that Wade Belak was turning pro and joining the Avalanche -- I got a call from Colorado. "We need a fourth-line forward to protect our guys, are you interested?" After a 15- or 20-minute conversation, I decided I would give it a shot.
It was my dream to be playing in the NHL and I was willing to do anything to stay there. Being an enforcer was the toughest job I had to do. Protecting your teammates by fighting is a physical and mental battle waged daily with opponents and within your own head. The actual fight on the ice is not the worst part. It's thinking about the fight. A mental vise grips you at training camp and doesn't let go until the end of the season. Fighting permeates every aspect of your thoughts. A slow boil of fear is always under the surface of your life.
Fighting was not enjoyable, but it had always earned me respect and room on the ice. When I joined Colorado, I had been working to establish myself as a stay-at-home defenseman in the NHL. I was known as a guy who could handle himself, but I generally left the heavy lifting to my team's enforcer. I didn't know much about the forward position. Frankly, I did not have the stick-handling ability for it. I was excited to play on a team that had just won the Stanley Cup and had an outstanding chance to repeat, but I did not realize that my life as a hockey player and how I would be viewed for the rest of my career would be altered forever.
Skilled players use the preseason to get their timing back, work the power play and get into game shape. Tough guys have to be on at all times, ready to handle every new young player who wants to take their jobs and livelihoods. Training camp may be the only time these kids can impress the people who make personnel decisions. In camp with Colorado, there were several tough guys ready to take my role. I was fortunate to have [veteran winger] Mike Keane as my mentor to guide me on positioning and puck management in my new position. What Mike could not prepare me for was the demands of being the enforcer. I was being asked to replace Chris Simon, a monster of a man, an intimidating presence on the ice. This weighed on me heavily during that camp.
I had to fight a couple of times and I sensed players on other teams would use me to make an impression on their coaches. I felt their eyes burning the back of my head during the warm-up skate before games. That was the time to get a read on a player. You learn quickly to pay attention to little things that might give you an edge in a fight: body language, skating ability and sweater-size were indicators of a pugilist who would test me. I always looked to see what hand he used to take off his helmet during the national anthems. If he held it with his left, he would most likely hold my shirt with that hand and punch with his right. If he held his helmet with the other hand, he was a dreaded lefty and would have to be dealt with another way. If you are not prepared for something like that, your fight will be short and humiliating.
An enforcer must also have a feel for how a game is unfolding and continually take stock of his team's emotional state. Are the guys skating well? Do they seem up? If they need a wake-up call, you fight. If the other team has the emotional edge, you fight. The score also determines when you apply your trade. The minute the other team gets a two-goal lead, it's time to dust off your knuckles as your coach may put you in to stop your opponents' surge. Up three or more goals, you get more ice time as you have to be out there to keep the peace.
Being an enforcer was exhausting emotionally. I was always mentally taking note of my upcoming dance card -- the guy I had to fight next. I lay awake at night and tried to remember what he did in our last fight, his strengths and weaknesses, and how to protect myself. Joe Lozzito, a friend, spent hours tracking fighters and putting them on video. If you wanted your fights or needed the "book" on a new guy, Joe was the guy to ask. Now, the website, hockeyfights.com, is the library of fighter information.
A typical road trip scenario from my years as a fighter: I'm on a plane to Toronto. Their enforcer is Tie Domi. He throws both hands and loves to chirp. Man, he's so strong. If I release my grip too early, I'm done. I've got to throw for his chin as he has a very hard head. After Toronto, we play Ottawa and Dennis Vial: unpredictable, a big-time gamer. Then it's two games from hell. In St. Louis, Kelly Chase challenges anyone and will not tolerate anything out there. Tony Twist is big and strong with devastating punches that can cave your face in a second. After that, Detroit: Bob Probert (legendary tough guy with stamina, strength and power) and his sidekick Joey Kocur, whose right hand is the size of an anvil. Didn't he break some guy's helmet in two?
Sitting on the bench during those games, a sick feeling washed over me. My stomach churned with fear, anxiety and anticipation. I felt my teammates' expectations as they looked at me. They knew I was going to stand up for them, and I had a sense of pride in my role and responsibility.
I'd go in cold, my legs and back a little sore from sitting most of the game. There were 20,000 people in the building, but only one had my attention. I might as well have left my stick and gloves on the bench. The joke around the dressing room was that tough guys don't even see the puck. "You handle it like a manhole cover," my teammates joked. It's true. Like a magnet, you are always drawn to your counterpart on the other team.
Once the gloves are off, the pressure, tension and mental energy explode in a huge release of violence. Your instincts and strategy take over. I fought so often that I could feel my adversary's movement and tell you what hand he was throwing, I didn't have to look. When your punch connects, you feel it in your hands and through your body. I also knew if I was throwing wildly. You sense when you are off-balance or your rhythm is wrong. Being unsettled in a fight usually portends danger. The first rule of the fight club is to never look down. If you do, you are open to a devastating uppercut. Sometimes when I really got tagged I would see a bright starburst in my head, almost like lightning. I thought I was soft and it was a sign of weakness until I interviewed Ultimate Fighting champion Matt Hughes years later and he said he felt the same thing when he was hit hard.
If I lost a fight, I felt terrible that I let the team down. Embarrassed and pissed off, I'd stew in the penalty box. I'd hear it from friends at home. My mom would call to make sure I was all right. But coaches, the other players, and management aren't concerned that you just got your ass handed to you. It doesn't matter that you have a broken nose and lacerations on you cheek. You're expected to smile and like it. Your job is to keep everyone else up and it makes no difference if your hands are busted up so bad that you can't hold a soda can.
If I really beat up a guy, I was happy I got away unscathed, but I felt bad. I knew he'd have to handle the same embarrassment and dirty looks from his coaches and teammates, and hear from fans about how he'd had his clock cleaned. I felt oddly emotional if my opponent had to be carted off because he was injured. We fight as part of our living, but we do not want to interrupt or ruin anyone's career. It's a crazy fraternity.
In 1998, I was with Anaheim when we played Dallas and tensions were rising to a boiling point. Defenseman Craig Ludwig took out his frustration by running our star, Teemu Selanne, in a 5-1 game the Stars were leading that was essentially over. I heard our coach call my line and took the ice with our other ruffians. We lined up for the face-off in Dallas's end of the ice. I looked at who Dallas had sent out and tried to get their coach's attention -- I knew he did not recognize what was about to happen and had the wrong lineup on the ice.
The puck dropped and we launched our attack. I got paired with Stars defenseman Darryl Sydor, but that didn't matter to him. He was a warrior in his own right. I threw him to the ice and tried to find their enforcer. Darryl got up and jumped on my back. I got him off and fired one of the hardest lefts I have ever thrown and it hit the side of Darryl's head. The fight was over. Darryl was helped off the ice and the game came to a merciful end with only two players left on the benches. To this day, people in Dallas approach me and want to discuss that fight.
I sat on the bus after the game and thought about what I had done. I'd lost it and hurt someone. I was literally sick to my stomach. I can still see and feel that punch connect. I did not sleep well for several nights. Still, I could not let anyone know how I felt. I followed up to make sure that no permanent damage had been done to Darryl and prepared for my next bout.
As fate would have it, I played for Dallas the next season (1998-99) and my seatmate on our plane was Darryl. In your first introduction after something like that, you smile, make light of it, say you're sorry, but it hurts you. The memory of our fight made me feel even worse when I got to know what a great guy he is. The person you try to beat on one occasion becomes your teammate and friend the next. It's a crazy job!
As enforcer's ice time decreases as his fights increase. No matter how hard you practice, your foot speed, stick-handling, reads on the ice and overall performance go in the toilet fast. You need a game pace to stay sharp. It's a vicious cycle. You lift weights to become stronger, but as you get bigger, you get slower, thus decreasing your effectiveness. An inferiority complex can set in.
The best coaches and many GMs and owners are savvy enough to let their enforcer know he is a valued member of the team. After a fight -- win or lose -- you yearn for a pat on the back. Sometimes you don't get that acknowledgment from the coach, and it's generally someone who never played in the NHL or had been a small offensively-gifted player. Those coaches consider enforcers to be meatheads and whipping boys, but they will not take that attitude with a first-liner or top scorer. I've seen superstars tell coaches on the bench to f--- off, throw sticks at them in the dressing room and belittle them in front of everyone. Enforcers are the team's biggest, baddest guys, but they can never express themselves like that. If they do, they are considerd distractions to the team.
Here's the paradox: You must work yourself into a frenzy of emotions to fight, but outwardly curb those feelings. You still have to get through your day and do all the things that normal people have to do --- laundry; go to the grocery store, etc. -- while the frenzy inside your mind builds. But you can't expose it to the rest of the world. It's only acceptable to express it on the ice.
I first hurt my neck while fighting in juniors, and the constant tugging and punches to the head during my pro career caused issues that resonate to this day. My neck muscles still lock up and spasm.
While playing for Dallas in Oct. 1998, I fought Probert and fell backwards into the boards, striking the back of my head and jamming my chin into my chest. This injury ultimately put me out of the NHL.
I did everything trainers, doctors, and specialists suggested -- chiropractic, acupuncture and homeopathic care. One trainer said I was having difficulty healing because I was so wound up emotionally. I had a lot of things going on in my personal life and was struggling to get back into the lineup and frustrated mentally because every minute away meant someone else was filling my spot.
I worked frantically to get back onto the ice with my team and made it for a Feb.15, 1999 game against Edmonton. My reward was a date with hulking Georges Laraque at center ice. Unfortunately, my injury had taken away my biggest asset: strength. My timing was also off and I missed my jersey-grab on his big left arm. Georges proceeded to use my face as a speed bag and I never got set. I suffered a on home ice, a cut across the nose and a black eye.
If you get beaten up like that, you have to fight again to save face for yourself and your team. If you don't, you're considered soft. Embarrassment makes you angry and your fear is pushed aside. So after five minutes in the box, I went straight for Georges on the very next shift. Most people don't remember our second fight. In my own scoring system, I call it a draw. At least I was able to trade with him and score a few points in the bout.
I could sense the end of my NHL days was near after gooning it up for the Stars in 1999. All the healthy scratches and injuries had made it one of the toughest years of my career. I wasn't looking forward to another year of sitting, watching and getting punched in the face. Finding no takers in the NHL, I headed to Europe. It was a chance to get back to playing hockey as defenseman again. The German League had very little fighting and a big ice surface with little contact, so I could relax and enjoy the game. It was also a chance to restore some of my dignity. After three years of being labeled a goon, it was time to contribute to a team in other ways. Even with all that, two years in Germany was enough.
When I retired, my mind and body wanted to get away from the physical pain and mental pressure. During the transition to my new life, my bouts of restlessness increased. I had strange dreams and nightmares about fighting. What got me through was a post-hockey plan and a good family support system. My wife Jill has been my biggest supporter. However, after you decompress, you start to miss the physical activity and competition. I even missed the pressure and being sore.
Enforcers are a small, proud fraternity called to do something that is against society's norms. Intimidation is part of hockey life and fighting has a place our sport. It keeps the game in check with fewer stick incidents and runs at guys, and it's a great release valve in a pressure-filled contest. The dirtiest, nastiest, most dangerous hockey I've played was in leagues that didn't have fighting. I even think there should be more of it and everyone should be responsible for taking care of themselves. I hate that only a few guys are asked to do nothing but fight.
I look at my career as a great success. It was tough and I hurt almost every day, but I'm proud that I had the guts and drive to battle. If you were to ask me to do it all over again, I would be up for the challenge. But I still get nervous for guys when their gloves come off. I catch myself holding my breath and twitching a bit as a fight develops. I know these fighters are doing everything they can to stay in the game.