Former NHL enforcer Jim Thomson: My case against fighting

Friday November 15th, 2013

The concussion suffered by George Parros (15) on opening night reignited the debate over fighting.
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Jim Thomson says that his work as an enforcer led him into a hell of fear and substance abuse.
Courtesy of Your Life Counts/SI

Jim Thomson, a journeyman winger, served 416 penalty minutes in 115 NHL games while playing for six teams during a career that spanned from 1987 to '93. Now 47, Thomson is as a traveling motivational speaker and an adviser for Your Life Counts, an Ontario-based suicide prevention charity. He recently spoke to about fighting in hockey, the difficulties of life as an enforcer, and how to make the game safer. Does fighting have a place in hockey now?

Jim Thomson: There's no need for it. I had 121 pro fights, and there was no need for it. That incident with George Parros and Colton Orr was a play where they had fought earlier. There was a scrum. Two enforcers fight again and somebody could have died. If [Parros] hits the wrong part of his head on the ice, we're talking about fighting being gone forever, and that's what it's going to take. Did you see Dylan Chanter from the USHL? He has a seizure behind the net and starts shaking. This is what, a week after that? I say this: Make the game a beautiful game. If you fight, you're ejected. There are those who say if you do take it out, the stars who don't fight will be more likely to become targets, because guys won't be in a position to stick up for them.

JT: I think it's bull. You have a Sidney Crosby who plays a physical game. There are so many cameras at an NHL rink that nothing goes [unseen]. Let the game police itself. If somebody does something to a star, they're going to pick it up and suspend a player. When is the last time the Detroit Red Wings had an enforcer? If something happens to Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk, they're team tough. You don't see Niklas Kronwall and these guys jumping into a brawl. GM Ken Holland won't have it. You say it's going to cost people jobs. Well, for every one of those players with roles that are eliminated, a new player comes in. And I always say to the guys known as fighters, the Colton Orrs and those guys, hey, improve your skills. Make yourself a multi-faceted player. If there's no fighting, you can still play. But just to have a 6-6 guy there to punch most people's faces, it has to go. Minor hockey registration is down across the board, and it's because of the violence; it's because of the fighting; it's because of the concussions. We have to clean up the game of hockey. Do you think there is any distinction between regulating the staged fights and the physical play that develops into something unplanned?

JT: It's very simple. We all know the suspects who are on the ice. The physical part of the game is great. If two guys get into a beef, they're pushing in the corner and they want to fight, they can fight, but they're going to be ejected from the game. People will think twice about it. You're going to miss games. You're going to miss the games-played bonuses and point bonuses. Players are not going to be so eager to drop their gloves and just fight if they'll be kicked out. You asked about staged fights. I was in many of them. There's no need for it. Hockey has got to get back to its roots. If fighting is part of hockey, why don't we have it in the All-Star Game? Well, we have all the best shooters, best skaters. Why don't we have the best fighters if that's such a big part of hockey?

SI: Are you worried that something really bad is going to happen?

JT: Listen, you take Parros, [and] the young boy, Chanter. One hit, maybe just a little bit harder to a different part of the head and somebody's going to die like the late Don Sanderson [the senior-league club player who hit his head on the ice and died during a fight in 2009] in Whitby. It's no different than a guy in a bar fight who's drunk, goes down, hits his head on the cement and dies. What is the difference? It's going to happen if they don't stop it.

In basketball, football, baseball, if you want to fight, you're kicked out. In hockey, you drop your gloves and away you go. I used to have three fights a game. I'd go to the box, come out and fight him again, then fight him again. Then they'd kick me out. How much violence do you need? We're looking at the long-term damage to the brain, to Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard and those guys. Why would you want to put a young kid through that? The science is in about blows to the head. When are we going to wake up?

I use this example: they used to smoke in movie theaters and restaurants. You could even smoke on airplanes. Then people figured out that it kills you. Both of my parents died from smoking. Now we can't smoke anywhere. Let's face it: we change with the times. And times have changed regarding understanding the safety in the game of hockey. People are pulling their kids out, watching that s--- on TV with the kid shaking on the ice. What do you think that does to families? I have three boys who play. I'm thinking. "Is this what I want my kids doing?" It's a joke. Some players are reluctant to come out publicly and say we should take fighting out of the game, maybe because speaking up might hurt their reputations. But when they talk off the record, the numbers seem at least a little different. Do you get a sense of that?

JT: I understand why a current guy wouldn't say it. He's sitting beside Colton Orr or John Scott in the dressing room. How could he say it? That's a death sentence for him. You've got some players, retired like me, saying, "Get it out." I was just at a Mighty Ducks reunion. Todd Ewen, an enforcer who had more fights than I did said, "Take it out." Stu Grimson said, "Leave it in." I was friends with Bob Probert, maybe the best fighter of all time. He hated it. He hated what it did to him; he hated the demons he had to live with. I could go through the list: John Kordic, Wade Belak, these guys might say something in a bar to you one night. It's BS. Who wants to go out in front of 20,000 people and bare knuckle fight and say, "I love this"? Think of the chance of getting your face crushed, getting knocked out, being embarrassed, letting your teammates down. Nobody signs up for that. I was a goal scorer who was pretty good at fighting, and see what happened: my career, turned into an enforcer's career. What was the most dangerous scrap you were involved with?

JT: I got hit in the American Hockey League so hard I got knocked out on my feet. That was Friday night. We played three games in three nights. I played Saturday and Sunday. We had a day off Monday and a practice Tuesday. At practice, I remembered nothing after that fight. I didn't remember anything. I had no recollection of playing two whole games. It was really scary. I was talking to someone about what happened when pucks would fly into the stands...

JT: And what did they do? That little girl in Columbus. Oh, let's put netting up after years of close calls. I saw some people really get messed up by pucks in my time. I saw a woman in Binghamton [N.Y.] This guy had a rocket for a shot and he exploded her face. I'm surprised she didn't get killed. So would it take something like that to force a change? Some GMs are speaking out against fighting.

JT: Yeah, and look who they are. Steve Yzerman had Joey Kocur, Darren McCarty, Bob Probert and that, but he knows he didn't need those guys. Yeah, it was nice for Gretzky to have Dave Semenko by his side, but you know what? Crosby doesn't need someone to protect him. Malkin doesn't need someone to protect him. Steven Stamkos, those guys, are strong men who can handle themselves until the cavalry gets there. Olympic hockey doesn't allow fighting and it's terrific to watch, but the argument is that you can do that when you have so many skilled players. In the NHL, you have a variety of players, with some skilled guys and some grinders.

JT: You know what I find funny because I lived in the States for 10 years? They want hockey to grow. When I was in L.A., a lot of families didn't put their kids in hockey because of fighting alone. How will we ever know the game can't grow in North America if we don't take the violence out? Wouldn't it be a statement to say, "We are cleaning up this garbage?" Who is going to be against it: the fan who drinks 10 beers and wants to see blood? That isn't his kid out there getting his brains punched in. You see these kids shaking or pouring blood on the ice, pretend it's your son, pretend it's your brother or your father. Who wants to see that crap?

Gary Bettman has to wake up and say "Enough is enough." You know what his problem is going to be? With all this knowledge we have of how wrong this is, what if he doesn't do anything about it and somebody dies? The NHL could go bankrupt. You think about the devastation of a lawsuit if somebody dies in a fight. Think of sponsors leaving, parents pulling their kids. And we sat here. I've been saying this for five years, and I've taken a lot of beatings in the media. Don Cherry called me a puke and a hypocrite. Well, you know, it's just my opinion. What did it get Derek Boogaard? Drug overdose. And when they did a study on his brain, he had the brain of a seven-year old. How did it help him in life? We won't even get into the way most of the enforcers live. They live in fear. They turn to drugs and alcohol to live with this lifestyle.

Bob Probert, perhaps the most feared enforcer of all time, was troubled by his role.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images Do you know of other players and the kind of life they led?

JT: Louie DeBrusk, me, John Kordic, Probert, Wade Belak, Marc Potvin. They say, "Why aren't the goal scorers dying? Why is it all the enforcers, the Rick Rypiens?" It's all mental abuse. You have no idea. I would go into Philadelphia and I wouldn't sleep for two days because I knew I was fighting Dave Brown and Rick Tocchet. I'd lay in bed thinking, "How am I going to do this? What if he knocks me out? What if I get sent to the minors?" Every night was a mental battle for Jim Thomson. That's why I abused painkillers, alcohol and other things. For how long?

JT: For most of my professional career, starting in Binghamton. You want to make our team? You have to fight. I had 41 fights in 57 games the next year. For half of them I was bug-eyed. I'm going on bus trips with broken knuckles. I was like a meat shop. You have no idea what I went through. So would those things you abused help calm your mind?

JT: Of course they did. What are we when we're chemically imbalanced? We're brave. We don't have fear. We calm down. Then the next day, you wake up and start right in with the coffee and the Sudafeds to get yourself going. At night you would take the fear away. It was a vicious, vicious cycle. So how many things would you take?

JT: On an off-day, I'm drinking a lot of wine, taking a lot of painkillers, mellowing out, trying not to think about who I'm fighting, going out to dinners with the guys on the road. Some guys have beers, some have two bottles of wine, some have shooters. It wasn't like you were out partying. Everybody had a different motive. Mine was just to cope. And on the day of a game?

JT: Pins and needles. Basket case. The more coffee you drink, the more Sudafed you take, the more you get the shakes and all you want to do is get the fight over with because you couldn't take the anxiety. What a relief when you're sitting in the penalty box, with all that brain torture finally done. Even if you have another fight, when the first one's over, you're fine. Does that make you more inclined to fight, because you wanted to get it over with?

JT: Oh, yeah. I wanted to get on the ice and get it over. I couldn't wait. So if you show up one game and the opposing enforcer is scratched...

JT: Oh, it was like I won the lottery. If I was in the lineup and they weren't? You have no idea the feeling. Listen, most people don't have a fight in their lives. Boxers fight, what, every six months? I'm fighting every second night. We were trying to think of success stories, guys who came in as enforcers and turned into really successful players...

JT: Marty McSorley, Tocchet, there's a small group of those players. But when you look at Tocchet, he was pretty good in juniors. David Clarkson is another. There are a few. Marty could hardly play, but he turned himself into a heck of a defenseman through hard work, and he was one of the toughest guys of all-time. Do you have lasting effects today?

JT: I have ringing in my ears. My memory is not the same as it was. As I get older, I don't want to be paranoid, but, sure, we change with age. Those shots I took to the head. Who knows? Some days, I think: "Did I brush my teeth?" Then I have to go in and feel my toothbrush. Yeah, I didn't used to do that. Look, let's get it out. I don't want to cost the enforcers today their jobs. I just want young players not to go through what I went through. It can ruin or end your life. There's no secret about all these enforcers who either committed suicide or died by overdose. I knew a lot of them, partied with a lot of them, shared a lot of stories with them. Everybody was the same. Kordic hated fighting. He abused cocaine, as we now know. You're like the gladiator, fighting for your life.

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