Until the night of Oct. 29, Raymond William (Wild Willie) Trognitz was just another guy banging out a living as a 10-grand-a-year minor league hockey bad man for the Dayton Owls. On that night in Port Huron, Mich., Trognitz banged his hockey stick over the head of an opponent named Archie Henderson. Five days later Wild Willie was "permanently suspended," banned for life from the International League, the lowest rung on the professional hockey ladder, by President William Beagan.
Unbelievably, just four days after that, the World Hockey Association's Cincinnati Stingers, in dire need of an on-ice policeman to protect their fancy skaters, asked the "permanently suspended" Trognitz to come play in the big leagues for them. And so there was Trognitz last week, relaxing in an Edmonton tavern with his new Cincinnati teammates, chasing down a big steak with a beer and reflecting on the events that had so changed his life.
"They'll never believe this story back in Thunder Bay," Trognitz said.
"Willie," said Cincinnati Captain Rick Dudley, "they wouldn't believe your story anywhere."
L'affaire Trognitz has rocked a hockey world still reeling from government investigations into violence as well as a battery of lawsuits and prosecutions by district attorneys for alleged crimes on the ice. Outrageous seemed to be the only word for it. Here hockey is purportedly trying to clean up its act, and a big league team hires an admitted tough guy who has been suspended for life.
As Trognitz went to work for the Stingers, Beagan seemed to be softening his stand. The "permanent suspension," Beagan indicated, really was an "expulsion subject to future review." Beagan was also preparing for a Dec. 1 hearing on Trognitz' appeal of the lifetime ban. And he has been threatened with a lawsuit by Dayton owner Al Savill and has been characterized as a "name-seeking egomaniac" by Dayton General Manager Moe Bartoli.
Bending an elbow at Lucifer's in Edmonton, Trognitz seemed amused by the furor he had created. "Hockey's a game that condones fighting," he said. "Strange, isn't it? Beagan tries to change that, and here I am smoking a buck-twenty-five cigar in the bigs."
The Trognitz-Henderson skirmish had erupted at the conclusion of a game-ending, bench-clearing brawl between the Dayton and Port Huron players that produced 229 minutes in penalties. As the game ended, with Port Huron winning 4-1, Dayton's Rick Dorman and the Flags' Gary Rissling resumed an earlier fight. Trognitz, who was leaving the penalty box, rushed to join the fight along with players from both benches, and in quick order there was a battle royal. Henderson, a 6'6", 218-pound right wing, grabbed Dayton's John Flesch by the shirt. Wild Willie, a left wing, who is 6 feet tall and weighs almost 215 pounds, skated to Flesch's defense, jumping Henderson from behind and landing five or six punches to the face—one of which apparently broke Henderson's nose.
Henderson, Flesch and Trognitz went down in a heap, and along came Port Huron's Gary McMonagle to pull Trognitz off Henderson. Trognitz responded by pounding McMonagle several times. After that Trognitz skated to the Dayton bench and was talking with Coach Nick Polano as the officials, general managers and police tried to get the two teams to their dressing rooms.
At that point Henderson put down his gloves and stick, broke away from a linesman and charged around the rink and up the boards toward Trognitz.
There are differing accounts as to what happened next.
Port Huron people say Henderson stopped a few feet short of Wild Willie, put up his fists and challenged him to a fight, whereupon Trognitz took his stick and creased Henderson across the forehead.
Trognitz and the Dayton people claim that Henderson charged Trognitz, and the startled Trognitz reacted with a fly-caster's wave of his stick that happened to catch Henderson on the forehead.
Port Huron people say Trognitz hit Henderson with a full two-handed swing.
Dayton's Flesch maintains that teammate Trognitz' swing was "a kiss. If he'd swung, he'd have gotten him on the head and fractured his skull."
Dazed, his nose mangled, Henderson staggered backward and retired to the Port Huron dressing room. Meanwhile, a Port Huron fan climbed onto the Dayton bench and punched Trognitz in the temple. Wild Willie fell back, and Polano chased the fan into the stands. Port Huron owner Morris Snider called the outbreak the "worst I've seen in 27 years." When it was over, Wild Willie had a record 63 minutes in penalties, and Henderson had eight stitches, a broken nose and a slight concussion. He spent the night in a Port Huron hospital.
"There's no question that what I did was wrong," Trognitz says. "I hit him on the head with my stick, and stick swinging can't be part of the game. But I'd already finished a game, I had had two fights and I was exhausted. This giant lunatic charges me, screaming, 'I'm gonna kill you,' so I reacted, figuring he'll never eat five feet of lumber to get at me. They told us before the game that Henderson was a bloody lunatic, and I was just trying to get him to stop."
Henderson, a pro rookie, arrived in Port Huron with a reputation as a player who shouldn't be messed with. In the previous two seasons, in which he played in only 99 games, Henderson spent 523 minutes in the penalty boxes of the rough Western Canadian Junior League—more than five minutes per game. While playing for the Victoria, British Columbia, Cougars last season, Henderson was charged with and convicted of assault for his actions in a game at Kamloops, B.C. Washington selected Henderson in the 10th round of the NHL's amateur draft last summer, and when he reported to training camp the Capitals roomed the tough rookie with alltime NHL penalty leader Bugsy Watson. In the Capitals' first three intrasquad scrimmages, Henderson had five fights.
Henderson, 20, is considered a solid prospect by the Capitals, who sent him to Port Huron for seasoning. On the other hand, Trognitz, 24, has always been regarded strictly as someone doomed to a career on buses, $3-a-day meal money and a Slapshot reputation as a box-office attraction in such towns as Dayton, Toledo, Muskegon, Saginaw and Port Huron. In his three-plus seasons in the International League, Trognitz has scored only 40 goals in 215 games. He has also accumulated 827 penalty minutes and two suspensions. In 1975 he took a 10-game unpaid sabbatical for jumping a referee in a runway in Toledo. In 1976 he got a two-game ban for high-sticking a Toledo player, although the Toledo coach, Ted Garvin, says it was "totally accidental."
"Willie was the league's gunslinger," says Washington's Billy Riley, who played in the International League for 2½ seasons. "Every kid who came into the league tried to earn his spurs by fighting Trognitz."
In suspending Trognitz for life, Beagan said, "As the conscience of this league, I'm supposed to try to determine its course. Suppose a guy walks down the street carrying a stick 53 inches long, weighing 23 ounces, and clobbers another man with it. I think he'd be charged with criminal assault. You have to think of the societal aspects of hockey in communities. Suspension was the only deterrent in a case of this character."
Four days after Trognitz was suspended, his name came up in a lunch conversation between Bill DeWitt Jr., the executive vice-president of the Stingers, and Lefty McFadden, DeWitt's assistant and a longtime IHL coach and general manager. The Stingers had high expectations for a big season, but at the time they were 1-8, in last place and drawing poorly. "We have a small, skating team and were getting pushed around," says DeWitt. "We had been trying to find someone to protect our Robbie Ftoreks." Ftorek, who weighs only 150 pounds, had been involved in two of the Stingers' three fights this season, including one with Winnipeg's Kim Clackson, perhaps the WHA's best brawler.
Dayton owner Savill, who also owns the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, well recognizes the value of an enforcer such as Trognitz. Three weeks ago Savill's Penguins paid a heavy price to acquire tough guy Dave (Hammer) Schultz from the Los Angeles Kings. "If we hadn't gotten Schultz, we'd have given Trognitz a chance in Pittsburgh," says Savill. "Believe me, not only can't you win without an enforcer, it's hard to put people in your building if you don't have one."
So the Stingers contacted Bartoli and Trognitz. A deal—$150 a game for 10 games—was worked out, and Bartoli gave Stinger personnel director Jerry Rafter a number where he could reach Trognitz in Dayton. "The voice at the other end answered 'Pioneer Lounge,' " says Rafter. "I thought, 'Oh, God, what are we doing?' " The WHA asked the same thing, and put Wild Willie on probation for 30 days. The league also forced Cincinnati to post a $25,000 bond that would be forfeited "should Trognitz seriously violate any WHA rules."
And the Stinger players? "When we heard about it, we all thought it was ridiculous," says Dudley. "When he walked in, we all kind of stared at him. I expected some seed who couldn't talk. Then I noticed he was carrying a backgammon board. So I went up to him, and it turns out he's just a nice kid with a wife and a daughter who'll do anything to play hockey."
In Wild Willie's first WHA game, Cincinnati played host to Birmingham, a team that features 215-pound Gilles (Bad News) Bilodeau, and the Stingers drew a crowd of 8,118, including some 1,500 fans who drove the 50 miles from Dayton. "Let's face it, the goons are back," says Cincinnati All-Star Center Richie Leduc. "I'm not knocking Willie. He's a nice kid who works incredibly hard, but apparently hockey people have decided they want goons. It makes me wonder where the game is going."
Trognitz did not fight Bilodeau or any of the other Bulls in his WHA debut, and halfway through his 10-game trial he still had not thrown his first punch. Penalties? Only one, a two-minute assessment for tripping. Cincinnati Coach Jacques Demers has used Trognitz strictly as a policeman, spotting him against the opposition's chief hatchetman. When Birmingham put Bilodeau on the ice, Demers waved Trognitz into the game. When Quebec sent out Curt Bracken-bury, Demers countered with Trognitz. "Nobody pushed us around," said Demers, "and we won both games."
In Edmonton on Wednesday, the Stingers lost 6-4 and Trognitz played eight shifts, most of them against 200-pound Oiler rookie Dave Semenko. He also took some grief. "Hey, don't take yourself seriously," screamed Edmonton Coach Glen Sather. "You're still a cement head."
"Bleep you, come out here," said Wild Willie.
He was on the ice for one Stinger goal and later got a shot—a Hoyt Wilhelm knuckler—on Edmonton Goalie Dave Dryden. But Wild Willie skates as if he's carrying a trunk through an airport, and he handles the puck as if it were a basketball, so Demers kept him out of Friday night's game that Cincinnati lost to Edmonton 4-3 in overtime.
"I want to be a player, someone who checks and mucks it out in the corners," says Willie. "But the game condones fighting. It's part of hockey, and I'm proud of my ability to throw a punch. I don't want to injure anyone but I want the other guy to be afraid of coming back, so it's my job to hurt him. If gouging and scratching are necessary, I'll do it. Everyone else does. I'm no stick man. I don't get misconducts. Other guys get 400 minutes in penalties with misconducts. My minutes come in five-minute parcels. I prefer it toe to toe."
Trognitz has five broken knuckles, three broken noses and a broken jaw to show for his bouts. And his knuckles are so swollen they have to be heavily taped in order for him to put on his gloves.
"I broke a kid's nose in Juniors with a punch, and afterward Lou Fontinato told me it was the hardest punch he'd ever seen," says Trognitz. "That was the biggest thrill I had as a kid."
Drafted by the NHL's California Seals in 1974, Trognitz "fought my way through training camp so someone would notice me." He spent that season with Charlotte of the now-defunct Southern League, and in 48 games had five goals and 147 penalty minutes. The next season Trognitz played at Toledo. The Blades had drawn only 70,000 the previous year, so Ted Garvin put together a fighting team, and the Blades drew 200,000. Wild Willie was on a line with bad-men Paul Tantardini and Doug Mahood that was called "Murder, Inc." One time Kalamazoo hired a tough forward named Dave Smith and put him at center for the opening face-off. Wild Willie lined up opposite Smith, and before the referee could drop the puck the two of them were going at it.
"Garvin used to whisper, 'Willie, it's quiet, go get someone,' " says Trognitz. "After a while I got tired of being used."
Wild Willie had 305 penalty minutes, ninth in the league, and four goals in his first year at Toledo. Last season, playing in Columbus, he was down to 232 penalty minutes, 15th in the league, and up to 21 goals. "One thing he's always done," says Garvin, "is stop scorers. He's an effective kid."
But Wild Willie's effectiveness for Cincinnati may be limited to just the 10 games of his trial.
"Hey, I hear they may cut my life ban to a short suspension," Trognitz said.
"Willie, don't say that too loud," said Dudley. "They'll send you back to Toledo."