John Ferguson, long and lean and sharp, is perched on a stool in a New York City drugstore, his shoulders hunched over the counter. His face, fleshless and dominated by a beaklike nose, is pointed down at his hands, which are moving back and forth across the Formica counter. He has curved his long, thin fingers so that each hand is shaped like a talon, and now, slowly, he brings the hands together until the fingertips touch and then withdraws them. He repeats the process time after time while the fat man standing beside him fidgets and stares at the moving hands. The fat man has a pink, anxious face, and he is clutching a piece of paper in his right hand, which he keeps out of sight.
This is an article from the Dec. 13, 1971 issue
"You get better looking every year, my friend," says Ferguson softly, looking at his hands. "For 10 years he's been asking for my autograph. He must have it 50 times already. Huh, friend? How many times can you ask for the same autograph?"
The man says nothing. He smiles or winces, it is hard to tell which. He takes the paper from behind his back and places it with a pencil in front of Ferguson.
"Please, Fergy!" the man says. "Make it out to Big Sheldon."
"Big Sheldon," says Ferguson, looking at the paper. "His name is Big Sheldon. Last year he said he was a minister. Tell me, Big Sheldon who gets better looking every year, what kind of a minister has a name like that?"
The man smiles again, or winces, and Ferguson signs the paper. The man snatches up the paper and takes a deep breath.
"What do you do with all my autographs, huh, Big Sheldon who gets better looking every year? Do you swap three of them for one Bobby Orr?"
"No," says the man as he moves backward toward the door. "I swap five of them for a ticket," and he is out the door and gone.
"I see," says John Ferguson, very softly. "I see."
A few minutes later, gesturing toward the door through which Big Sheldon has departed, Ferguson says, "All the fans love me. When I retired last year I received thousands of letters from fans in every town in the league, all asking me to come back. I am the villain who makes the game interesting, they said. Without me they would have no one to hate. So I came back." Ferguson laughs at the thought. It is a mirthless laugh, just a breath really, and his thin lips twist up into his cheek, forcing his left eye to blink.
"But some of them really like me," he adds. "I don't know why. There's one old woman who waits for me at Madison Square Garden every time I'm in town. She usually gives me a book for my children. I have a whole library from her. She sends me Christmas cards and letters and seems really interested in me and my family. You know these grandmotherly types. They always want to redeem you. They feel you can't be all bad."
But for the previous 10 years John Ferguson of the Montreal Canadiens had been "all bad" as far as rival players were concerned. He had reaped more penalties, been in more fights and been a party to more injuries than probably any other player in the NHL. On the ice Ferguson did not seem to skate or move, he just appeared suddenly like an ill omen swooping down from nowhere. Seconds later there would be a fight, a penalty, an injury, and Ferguson would be gone. A few days before he arrived in New York for a game last winter with the Rangers, Ferguson swooped down on Pittsburgh's Ken Schinkel. A few days later Schinkel underwent surgery for a broken collarbone. When the Rangers' trainer, Frank Paice, asked Ferguson how hard he had hit Schinkel, Ferguson looked up through raised eyebrows and shook his head. He sucked in his cheeks and formed a perfect O with his lips and then said ever so softly through puckered lips, "A kiss...I gave him just a kiss."
At six p.m. John Ferguson slips on his navy overcoat and leaves the drugstore. As he moves up 33rd Street in the darkness, three small boys come out of the shadows and fall in behind him. Although the boys are silent and Ferguson does not turn to look at them, he is conscious of their presence. Finally one of the boys moves up beside him. The boy walks a few feet before he says, "Fergy, we—" but before he can finish, Ferguson sweeps his arm out from his body, its shadow moving like a giant wing across the sidewalk, and he says, "No autographs." The boy shrinks back to his friends; they withdraw, are gone.
Ferguson stops at the corner of Seventh Avenue, across from Madison Square Garden, and waits for the red light to change. He is a towering figure at almost 6'4". From behind he resembles an inverted triangle, the broad shoulders of his coat tapering to a narrow waist which tapers to even narrower hips, and so on, until it seems he must surely come to a point at his feet.
While he waits for the light to change, a man in thick glasses and a Russian fur hat stops beside him. He looks at Ferguson, once, twice, three times and then he says with a smile, "Hey, Fergy! You gonna play tonight?"
Ferguson does not look at him or say anything. The man repeats his question. Still staring straight ahead, Ferguson says, "No, I'm crossing the street to wait for a bus."
The man, still smiling, says, "Maybe you gonna score a goal tonight, huh, Fergy?" Ferguson says nothing. "Maybe even a hat trick."
"Three hat tricks," says Ferguson, and he begins to cross Seventh Avenue, the man skipping to stay beside him. When they reach the other side the man stops and says, "You got any tickets for tonight's game? Heh, Fergy, any extras?"
Ferguson, who is still moving down 33rd Street, says, "I got a whole suit-caseful."
The man calls out after him. "Aw, ya bum, I hope they break your neck tonight."
But if Ferguson hears the man, he pays no attention. He continues to move down 33rd Street toward the shadows of the Garden. Suddenly there is a strong wind and he hunches his shoulders about his neck, which is craned slightly forward. The wind catches the vent of his coat, and the two sides flap in the breeze like ruffled wings, and then John Ferguson is swallowed up by the shadows of the Garden. From the corner of Seventh Avenue he is no longer visible as a man but only a form diminishing in the night—the dark, tapering form of a huge predatory bird stalking the city streets.
After that season the bird was seen no more. John Ferguson retired for good.
For the third time John McKenzie, a neat little man with a cigar clenched between his teeth, smiles. He is standing in the lobby of the Statler-Hilton in New York, his left arm around the waist of an older woman in black slacks, his right arm around the waist of a plump young girl in a raincoat, while in front of him a middle-aged woman in a Boston Bruin warmup jacket is squinting through the lens of a camera. "Hold it." she says, and clicks the shutter. Nothing.
"Oh, that stupid, lousy camera," says the plump girl. "I'm gonna cry!"
The woman in black slacks says, "Please, Johnny, don't go. My daughter loves you so much." The woman with the camera looks at it with fury. "Aaagh, you son of a bitch," she says to the camera. McKenzie takes the camera, examines it carefully, makes a small adjustment and returns it to the woman in the Bruin jacket.
"Try it now," he says. He puts his arm around the girl and her mother again and smiles.
"Isn't he a doll?" says the mother. The woman in the Bruin jacket squints and clicks for a fourth time. There is a small flash. "Oh, wonderful," says the girl, clapping her hands. The two older women, beaming, begin to thank McKenzie, their hands brushing his arms as if they would like to tear off a piece of him as a souvenir. McKenzie disengages himself from the women, says goodby and begins walking through the lobby toward the door. But it is too late. The legion of autograph seekers who have been waiting for him converges like a swarm of locusts. Without breaking his stride he begins signing everything thrust in front of him as he moves slowly but steadily toward the door.
John McKenzie is a small, compact man of 34 years who stands 5'7" tall and weighs 175 pounds. He has clear blue eyes that are often half-lidded and blond hair that is beginning to turn gray at the temples. His face resembles that of Michael J. Pollard, the actor, except that McKenzie's small features are not quite so scrunched together. On this winter afternoon he is wearing a well-fitted double-breasted suit and carrying a thin attaché case. McKenzie had originally ordered two such suits, but when his tailor failed to make them to his specific orders, he felt free to refuse them. Still, he bought one anyway, for $200. "What could I do?" he said. Earlier this morning he had attempted to eat a leisurely breakfast in the hotel coffee shop, where a waitress kept hurrying him. At first he pretended not to notice her huffing and puffing. Finally, as he was about to light up a cigar, she said, "This isn't a lounge, you know." McKenzie looked at her for a second, then got up to leave. "It must be awful to work at something you hate," he said as he put a dollar tip beside his plate. His breakfast had been a No. 3, listed at $1.85.
Once he is outside on Seventh Avenue the autograph seekers leave McKenzie, and he is lost in the noontime crowd moving across the street toward Madison Square Garden. Like most men of his stature, McKenzie walks with an erect and purposeful stride. There is about him a sense of order and direction which his clothes and compact movements tend to reinforce, so that he resembles not the violent hockey player he is but a well-organized businessman about to enter a bargaining session for which he is confidently prepared. It is only on the ice, his eyes wide and cold, his body padded and squat, that John McKenzie looks the type of hockey player his reputation suggests. He still moves in that same rigid and precise way, only now, beneath the surface, there is a hint of violence. But it is a controlled violence nevertheless, and watching John McKenzie skate one has the feeling that at no time does he ever make a move, spontaneous though it might seem at the time, over which he does not have complete control.
Because of his size and the fact that he was born in the Far West (High River, Alberta), John McKenzie never thought he'd make the National Hockey League. He thought, instead, he would remain the rodeo cowboy he had become in his youth. Even when he reached the NHL in 1958 he continued to ride 2,000-pound brahma bulls during the off season, for which he was paid as much as $300 a trip. He claims that hockey is a mild sport compared to rodeo riding, whose practitioners he calls "the best conditioned athletes in the world."
McKenzie skipped around the NHL for five seasons, with minor-league descents to Hershey and Buffalo in the American Hockey League, before he finally stuck in 1963 with Chicago. He admits that the farther down in the minors he went, the more violent the level of play became and the more forcefully he had to prove himself because of his size. "A lot of guys never made the NHL because they were scared off by the minors," he says. "But maybe those guys were born scared anyway."
In 1965 McKenzie was traded to the New York Rangers, whose city and style of play ill-suited him. "If I took two steps away from the Garden, no one knew me," he says. "Besides, I didn't fit into the Rangers' style of play. I wasn't a finesser like them. I looked out of place on the ice. When I was traded to Boston in 1966 I felt I could skate as well as any of the Bruins. I became more confident. Now when I go out to dinner in Boston everyone knows me. It feels funny after all these years to finally be recognized. Even the front office treats me differently. When I used to work the rodeos in the summers no one ever said a word. Now, all of a sudden, everyone's worried about me getting hurt."
In 1970 the Boston fans voted John McKenzie the Most Popular Player on the Bruins. They treated him and his wife to a two-week vacation on the French Riviera, which McKenzie describes as "a long way from riding broncos in Calgary. A lot of things have changed since I first came up. In those days I was mostly too embarrassed even to ask for a raise. If I did, the front office said take what they offered or go back to the minors. I usually took it. But then, money didn't mean much to me, either. All I cared about was hockey. Today everything is moneyized. Young players bring their lawyers and agents with them at contract time. Maybe it's better for them, but I don't know if it would have been better for me when I was younger. Pretty soon hockey players will be playing just for money instead of for the love of the game—like American athletes. They think the world owes them a living, that playing baseball or football is a big thing. Some of our guys are getting like that, too. They idolize Harrelson and Namath. But no matter what they do, they're no different than the rest of us. Most hockey players don't feel they're doing anything special because in Canada it is expected of a man to play hockey. Everyone plays. So when we come to the States and people make a big deal of us, we tend to stay in the background—like Bobby Orr. You don't see him on the Johnny Carson Show every night. All he wants is a chance to prove his ability, to play the game. The Americans play for rewards, not the game. They want attention, publicity, money, all the extras. And they're very conscious of injuries. When a hockey player gets 10 stitches during a game, he goes back on the ice because he doesn't want to miss the action. When a baseball or football player gets hurt, he won't play. He's thinking about his career, his future, how much this injury will mean to his salary, everything but the game. I'm getting older now, and I admit I'm more conscious of injuries, too. But not when I'm on the ice. As soon as you start shying off, you get hurt. Then you wonder what am I doing here, and it's time to quit. I still think I hit as hard as I always did. And when I hit a guy it's nothing personal. I never think of an opposing player as a guy I like or dislike. I can light with a guy on the ice and then go out drinking with him after the game. I've been in so many fights over the years I've learned to leave them on the ice. You isolate them as part of the game. They mean very little to you. Your ice personality has nothing to do with the type of guy you are off the ice."
Reggie Fleming has the puck. He looks around. He is alone at center ice. He begins skating furiously toward the Ranger goal, his eyes glassy, his hair blown back like the comb of a rooster. Thousands of fans in Madison Square Garden are screaming for someone to stop him. Suddenly Brad Park appears in front of him. There is a clatter of sticks, and now Reggie is alone again as the action moves swiftly away from him back toward the Buffalo goal. He looks around, bewildered, as the Ranger fans begin to laugh at him. "Hit someone, Reggie," yells a fan. "Why don'tcha hit someone?" But there is no one to hit.
The first time Reggie took the ice in New York a decade ago everyone skated away from him. They were all too fast, he says. His coach took him off the ice and told him that if he wanted to stay in the NHL he had to stop people from moving away from him. It did not take Reggie long to realize that if he hit people hard enough and often enough they did not move away so quickly. In that first game he accumulated 37 minutes in penalties, and his fate as a hockey player was sealed.
"If that's what I had to do to stay in the NHL, O.K.," he says today. "I didn't like it, but you can't always be what you want. My biggest problem was trying to convince my mother I wasn't as bad as all the papers said I was. She had never questioned anything I did before, but now she was afraid I would get hurt. She said she didn't bring me up to be rough like that. Then she began worrying that all the mean things the sportswriters were saying would hurt me. I had to call her after every game so she wouldn't worry. I still do. I'm an only child, and she worries."
Reggie Fleming is 35 years old, stands 5'8" tall and weighs almost 200 pounds. It is said by many people—although never to his face, only after they have moved away—that Reggie Fleming is getting too fat to play hockey.
Reggie has a broad, spread-out, small-featured face. His eyes are small and a brilliant blue. There is something childlike about those eyes, their brightness, openness. They reveal the man. Reggie Fleming is open and friendly. He loves to talk (in a scratchy, Aldo Ray voice). He talks to fans whether he is on the ice or off. He talks to the visiting team's trainer, to equipment men, players, referees, reporters, anyone, everyone. People never look for Reggie, he finds them. "Radar," said one player, touching his head.
Sometimes Reggie will be talking to three or more people at the same time, all the people curiously strangers to one another, when suddenly he begins introducing everyone to everyone else, trying, like a proper host, to pair those people he feels have a common interest. "He's a writer," he will say to an NHL official. "Maybe you'd want him to do a story." And the NHL official will smile and move quickly away.
Because of this openness, people often dismiss Reggie as if, in a world that cherishes guile, he is somehow deficient. He is the kind of man people like having known but not knowing. He cloys. He talks too much, said one man. But listening to Reggie Fleming talk, the words bubbling out like boiling water. one gets the feeling that he is trying very hard to say something that has eluded him all these years. There is a point he is trying to make. He is trying to get something right, to set it straight, something he has never before been able to do, and if only he says enough words, then sooner or later the right combination will spill over. But it never does. It eludes him like the faint breeze that can be felt only after it has passed. And he senses that all the while people are listening to him—pretending to listen, at least—they are thinking of the clever things they will say when they move away. There was the Garden employee who listened for 20 minutes and then said as he moved out of earshot, "He's a real cementhead," and laughed.
Such remarks are never meant for Reggie's ears, but they linger like a muffled whisper in his mind. Something is not right. He wants to call the people back and explain it all over again so they will understand once and for all what he has been trying to express, understand it not by force but by the clarity of his logic. But that is self-defeating. He gets only more entangled, and more, and so—he takes to the ice.
"Sometimes I get so worked up over things, I don't know what, just things, that I want to bust everyone." he says. "One night Kate Smith sang the national anthem and adrenaline started flowing so that when I got on the ice I hit everyone in sight."
But today, at 34 years of age. Reggie Fleming does not hit so many people anymore. For one thing, he has been dropped down from the Buffalo Sabres, his seventh NHL team, to the minor-league Cincinnati Swords. It bothers him, but who is he to question his fate? That's for the younger players. The New Breed, he calls them.
"These kids aren't dedicated like the older players." he says. "They try to run the practices. They even smoke in the locker room. When I first came up to the NHL I was too terrified to smoke in front of the coach. We snuck off to a toilet, if we dared. We had more enthusiasm, too. I used to be a holler guy, but these younger kids don't like that. I don't say so much anymore."
The younger players don't fight as much anymore, either, says Reggie. He can't understand this. "How do they release their frustrations?" he says, confused. And then, "Sometimes, though, I wish I was like them. That I could carry the puck and know that no one's gonna hit me from the blind side because I'm too fast and too smart. They're smarter than I am. I have to be aggressive. I wish I was smart, but I'm not. I'm an emotional guy. I have to let off steam. I have a son 4 years old, and I want him to do what's right so badly that I explode at him. Some fathers can relate to their sons with words but others like me can only relate with our emotions."
Now that he is older, Reggie says he does not lose his temper so quickly any more. He tries to use it at the right time, rather than let it use him. But Still, if there is one thing he is proud of over the years, it is this fact:
"I fought the biggest and the smallest for 10 years, and I never backed down from a fight," he says, his voice rising. "When I was with the Rangers, I had it all. I could bring them right up, emotionally, by the things I did on the ice. Then, when they traded me away, the writers said I wasn't really that tough after all. I was a cheap-shot artist. But they didn't say that when I was here, only when I was traded away."
"We're all from the same bushel of apples," says Jim Dorey. "Canada is a big country, bigger than the United States, but in a way it's smaller, too, more homogenous. Some guys seem to be different, like Turk [Derek Sanderson of the Bruins], but they aren't. None of us change much from the way we were in Canada."
Dorey gets out of his chair and begins fiddling with the dials on the television. He is a big, physical-looking man of 24. He stands 6'1" tall and weighs 190 pounds. He has deep-set brown eyes, a large square jaw and shaggy hair that falls about his ears in the same way a faun's might. He is handsome and rugged and has not yet acquired all the scars of his profession. On this Sunday morning in a New York City hotel room he is dressed in a brown, pinstriped, double-breasted blazer; a yellow shirt; a vide red and brown tie: tan bell-bottoms and ankle-high leather boots. His clothes, although modishly cut, look both conservative and ill-suited for his muscular body. The air they lend him is of a man trying, but not quite able, to go against his grain.
When Dorey is satisfied with the picture, an old Western, he returns to his chair and says, "I play because I like the action. Hockey gives you a release for your emotions. I'm an emotional guy. If I get stalled in an elevator or a traffic jam, it builds up until I want to hit someone. But that's not acceptable in today's society. So I wait until I get on the ice. Then when I hit a guy, I feel good. I know he wasn't the cause of my aggression, but still it feels good. That's what I've wanted to do all day. Hockey gives a guy a chance to be himself. If you work in an office, you never tell people personal things that will let them know you. We all want to, but we're afraid someone might laugh or walk away. So we keep it inside. But once you get on the ice, things happen so fast you can't keep anything inside. It's impossible not to be yourself. You don't have time to present a facade as you would at the office. Whether that's good or bad, I don't know. Hockey brings out your deepest subconscious attitudes that would never come out otherwise. A man can find out what he's got inside him, whether he's a bad guy, a coward, a good guy, whatever. You'll see it mirrored in the faces of the other players. The problem comes up when they see just what they are and don't like it very much.
"Some guys change for the better. Take Stan Mikita. People say that he Stopped being mean as he got older because he wanted to protect his career. I don't buy that. I think maybe Stan saw something in himself he didn't like. It scared him, so he changed for the better. But not all guys react like that. Some guys, when they see they're a bastard, get meaner. They want to hurt somebody because they've shown themselves up for what they are."
Dorey reaches over and lowers the sound of the television, which has begun to interfere with his words, and then continues. "When I say a guy becomes mean, I don't mean tough. They're two different things entirely. A tough guy will slam you into the boards every time he can, and if he lights, it's just a natural reaction from the heat of the game. But a mean player, he'll try to hurt you. He'll use his stick. He'll plot to get you when nobody's looking. A lot of old-timers in this league are mean, not tough. They're like those guys in the Eastern League."
Dorey stands up suddenly, unable to stand the weight of his blazer another moment. He pulls it off and throws it over the bed. Then he sits down. "Jeez, those guys are crazy! If I ever got sent down there I think I'd quit. In the Eastern League you've got a lot of old guys who are sore because they're not in the NHL. They'll take it out on anyone they can. The young guys are wingers, too. They're hungry to move up, so they'll do anything to build a reputation, even if it means hitting someone with a stick. God, I don't ever want to go there. Most of the guys in the NHL are tough rather than mean. If they fight, it's because they explode emotionally. There's none of that calculated revenge stuff anymore."
While he is speaking, Dorey keeps glancing at the television set. At first he appears to be half-interested in the movie, but then it becomes apparent that the movie is distracting him. He gets up and clicks off the set. Then he tugs off his tie and throws it over his blazer. He returns to his seat with a deep breath and unbuttons the first few buttons of his shirt before going on.
"When I fight, it's a spontaneous reaction," he says. "I'm a spontaneous guy. My reactions are honest emotional outbursts, they're not prearranged. I don't go after guys. But because hockey is so fast, you have to discipline yourself beforehand to react the right way. You can't ever forget about hockey. It follows you around. I can be reading a newspaper before a game, and I won't remember a word I'm reading, but my mind is telling me how I've got to check Tkaczuk hard. The game's always there in the back of your head no matter what you're doing. You're always telling yourself you've got to react quick, to be what you are, but quick."
The doorbell rings, and Dorey looks up, annoyed. Then he remembers he had ordered a Coke from room service. He goes to the door and opens it. A tiny ferret-faced bellhop at least 70 years old enters the room pushing a tray. He wheels it over to the bureau and turns around to face Dorey, who towers over him. The bellhop's cap, which floats about his ears, must be five sizes too large. He sticks out his hand, and Dorey gives him some money. The man looks at the money and says, "What kind of money is this?"
"It's Canadian." says Dorey.
"Don't you got some American money?" the bellhop says.
"Jeez, no," says Dorey. "What's wrong with that?"
The man looks at it again, suspiciously, and then at Dorey. "I can't take this money. It ain't the right kind."
Dorey looks at the man disgustedly and begins shoving his hands into his pants pockets, withdrawing keys, wallet, loose change in an attempt to find American currency. Finally he finds a dollar bill and hands it to the bellhop. The bellhop looks at it carefully, turns it over and walks out of the room. Dorey follows him to the door and shuts it angrily. He returns to his chair, unbuttons the rest of his shirt, pulls it out of his pants and sits down. He is silent for a moment, trying to remember where he was, and then he continues.
"Like I was saying, you've got to remind yourself to react spontaneously. You do this by preparing yourself every minute of the day. The way you react in a game shows how you've lived and prepared yourself. I mean, what kind of guy you are. If a guy reacts like a bastard on the ice, he knows that in life he's probably a bastard. He's revealed himself, both to the people watching and himself. Maybe he was trying to hide it from himself, who knows? But now that it's in the open, it makes him bitter, and so he takes it out on anyone he can. He becomes even meaner. In hockey you have to step back now and then and look at yourself. How do I play this game? What does it mean?
"When I first came up to the NHL I got a reputation for being quick with my fists. In one game I got 47 penalty minutes. I never thought I was any rougher than in the minors, and I still don't think I was. But in the NHL everything is magnified by the publicity. You're always in the public eye. If you get into a fight in New York, everyone in the United States and Canada reads about it. Who reads about all those fights in New Haven? But I don't want a reputation as a fighter. I want to be a complete hockey player. So now I'm trying to control myself, trying not to fight as much. But, damn, it's hard. That's not the way I am. I'm forcing myself to react against my nature. But if I ever want to be a good player, I'll have to do it."
Dorey stands up again and takes off his shirt. He throws it over the bed with his jacket and tie. He is wearing no undershirt. He flexes his shoulder muscles as if to loosen them up after shedding a great weight, then he sinks back into his chair.
"I watch Jacques Plante play the game. Jeez, I'll never know as much as him. He makes it all look so damned easy. He's so smart. I don't want to be only a physical player, no brains, nothing to fall back on when you burn yourself out. But sometimes you can't help yourself. Every game is a test of your courage. You question yourself. Did I let up that game? Did I act like a man? Did I back off? Those questions are always there. If you doubt your courage for a minute, you have to eat it until the next game. Then you go out and hit the first guy you see. But it's only in your mind, the test, I mean. You build it up until you believe you're only as tough as your last game, that if you let down one game, just one, then everyone will know, and they'll all run at you. You've got to continually prove yourself. I don't think we play this game just to prove we're men, like Joe Kapp and his machismo thing. It's too high a price to pay. But even though that's not the reason, in the long run, that's what it's all about, to prove you're a man."
On Jan. 28, 1971, six weeks after he was hit in the face by a puck (which subsequently cost him an eye), George Guilbault of the New Haven Blades of the Eastern Hockey League was presented with a $16,000 check at the New Haven Arena. The arena was filled to capacity with over 4,000 fans, many of whom had helped raise Guilbault's gift. The fans had come partly to see Guilbault accept the fruits of their labor and partly to see if his career-ending injury would affect his teammates, who would battle the Long Island Ducks that night. At the time the Blades were in first place in the Northern Division of the EHL. They held that position, a fan said, because of their style of play, which he described as "legalized assault and battery." He added that George Guilbault was lucky. He only lost an eye, for which he got $16,000 and a ticket out of the Eastern Hockey League.
The Blades and the arena are well suited to one another. Both are forbidding. The ceiling of the arena is a maze of metal supports and wires and cobwebs that cast eerie shadows over the spectators below. Its walls and floor are concrete, which intensifies the slightest sound, turning a slapped puck into a rifle shot and a player checked against the boards into an explosion. The playing ice is bordered by numerous wooden partitions. Their purpose was once to keep players from flying into the stands, but they have been so battered over the years that, with every impact, fans in the first three rows cringe. The partitions, once painted white, are now stained with the marks of pucks and the dried blood of the injured.
Surrounding much of the ice is a high metal fence. It is there both to keep flying pucks from hitting the fans and to keep flying fans from hitting the players—a common occurrence in the EHL. When the fans feel the action is lagging a bit and want to express their disapproval, they grasp the fence with both hands and shake it. This causes a rattling sound to vibrate around the ice. The impression it creates is that one is in a zoo witnessing the torment of caged animals, only it is not quite clear on which side of the ice the animals reside. The fans say that all the animals are on the ice—and the most savage on this night in early 1971 is a 5'11", 210-pound Scotch-Lebanese defenseman named Kevin Morrison.
It is not hard to spot Morrison on this particular night. Before the game is a minute old he crashes a Long Island player into the boards with such force that they splinter. The fans rattle the fence to show their approval, even though the play was meaningless; the Long Island man was not within 20 feet of the puck. In EHL games, it seems, a hockey puck is an extraneous item, something like an appendix. Although the players are burdened with it, they appear to have no use for it. The real purpose of the game is to see how often and how viciously a Blade can bash an opposing skater into the boards—or through them.
Morrison, a curly-haired young man of 22, admits he has to work harder to make contact than do his teammates. He is slower, he says. But he makes up for this lack of speed with a tireless devotion that sees him skating from opposing player to opposing player, smashing them into the boards regardless of whether or not they have the puck. Morrison is so feared that if a man is carrying the puck toward the New Haven goal and he senses Morrison bearing down on him from behind, he will leave the puck and skate elsewhere. In the 1970 EHL playoffs Morrison accumulated 44 penalty minutes and one match penalty, but not before he knocked the Johnstown goalie unconscious. The goalie thought he was protected because he was inside his net. In a game prior to the playoffs Morrison simultaneously broke the nose of one player and separated the shoulder of another.
On George Guilbault Night, Morrison has bashed five Long Island players before six minutes of the first period have elapsed. His stick has yet to touch the puck. He is skating toward a loose puck when a Long Island player cuts in front of him and steals it. Morrison charges after him and pushes him from behind with both gloves. The player falls flat on his face, sliding about 10 feet on the ice. When he comes to a stop, Morrison is standing over him with cocked fists. Another Long Island player, Reg Krezanski, comes to the aid of his fallen teammate. Before he can say a word, Morrison hits him in the temple with a right hook. Immediately, Don Perry sends his entire bench onto the ice to aid Morrison. The Long Island coach does the same. Morrison now has Krezanski bent over his own goal and is throwing punch after solid punch into his face. The officials seem too frightened to intervene, so they are trying to separate the rest of the players, who have squared off in a number of less lethal bouts. By now the arena fans have begun to rattle the wire fence so vigorously that small shock waves seem to be traveling around the ice. Some of the younger fans have started to climb the fence. Policemen have come rushing from every exit and are trying to pull the fans off the fence, but they cling with a fierce tenacity, dangling sometimes by one hand while two and three policemen pull at their kicking feet.
Fights in the EHL are fierce and seemingly endless. This one lasts 15 minutes. Ultimately Krezanski and Morrison square off at center ice for about 10 minutes, circling, jabbing, circling some more, jabbing, like two well-trained professional fighters, until finally they are too weary even to raise their arms. Then the referees come between them and lead them both toward the penalty box. As Morrison skates past an opposing player he pushes him to the ice for no apparent reason. The fence rattles its approval. Morrison and Krezanski receive consecutive five-minute penalties. They are seated in one small box separated by only about three feet and two nervous policemen. The game continues.
Morrison, who was born in Nova Scotia, said he was never a tough player until he went to Quebec to compete in a Junior A League. In three years in Sydney he said he never had a penalty. He was following the same procedure in Quebec when he was told he was going to be cut by the club. The following night he started four fights. He was not cut. In Junior A, Morrison fought to keep a job, but once he came under Coach Don Perry's supervision at New Haven fighting became integral to his style.
"Don sent me after different guys," says Morrison. "He would say get this guy or that one; that when I see a teammate get hit by a guy to eventually get him. I wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for Don. At first I was disappointed that I had to play this way—no one likes people calling him an animal—but then I realized it was only a dream to think I could be a Bobby Orr. I owe a lot to Perry. He taught me never to wait until the other guy throws the first punch, to always hit the man first and then go after the puck. He helped me psych myself up to play this type of game."
Unlike many young players with a reputation for toughness, Morrison doesn't mind admitting that at times he has felt fear on the ice. "When I first came to the EHL, I was scared. I had heard about all the headhunters in this league. I figured the only way to stay was to be a bigger headhunted Eventually I became more afraid of the fans. When I went to other towns, they threw beer bottles and cans at my head. I was afraid I would get killed. If this story ever comes out about me, then the players will all be running at me even more. Then it'll be a tossup between the fans and the players to see who gets me first."
Morrison added that the safest thing for him would be to make the National Hockey League—quickly. This year he lights for the Fort Worth Wings of the Central Hockey League, a small but substantial step up. The NHL is still a good distance away.
Hockey players, like most athletes, feel it is unjust to define them solely by the talents and personalities they exhibit in combat. As Jim Dorey of Toronto says, "Things happen so fast, you don't have time to think, just react." It is the nature of the game to bring out a man's instinctive physical reaction, says Dorey. Hockey is all fury and slash and whack, and its rules not only allow but demand fierce body contact. Thus, some players appear to be "brutal" or "savage" athletes. They are the bad guns from another town. And yet, like all generalizations, this one rings less than true. Stripped of their pads and sticks and skates, men like Dorey are no more brutal than the average lawyer or TV repairman—indeed, they are often gentler—as the vignettes on the following pages will attest.