When his heart stopped beating, John Kordic was lying prone in the rear of an ambulance, strapped to a stretcher, surrounded by policemen. His oversized arms, pumped up by anabolic steroids, were pinned behind his back by two pairs of handcuffs linked in a makeshift chain. His feet were bound by rope. He struggled and raged until he took his final breath.
Hockey flipped the switch that turned on this fighting machine, but hockey didn't have a clue about how to turn it off. Hockey cast Kordic as a goon, an enforcer, a bare-knuckled caricature of a professional athlete. Hockey whispered about his use of cocaine, steroids and booze. And then hockey tried to cast Kordic away.
So hockey shouldn't really have been terribly surprised to learn what happened on the night of Saturday, Aug. 8, at a no-tell motel in a particularly dreary suburb of Quebec City. "It's like John had a time bomb inside him," says Pierre Pagè, general manager of the Quebec Nordiques, Kordic's last NHL team. "A time bomb set to explode."
He was 27 years old when the bomb went off.
Kordic wasn't always programmed to inflict maximum damage. When he was a kid growing up in Edmonton, he dreamed of playing defense like Bobby Orr. He was big and gregarious, with a quick, mischievous smile. His broad shoulders made him well suited for aggression, but he could also skate and score.
"He could play," says his mother, Regina Kordic. "But something went wrong. He started using nothing but his fists. After a while, I didn't recognize my kid. I didn't raise him that way."
Kordic may have made a simple deduction, or perhaps someone sent him an unmistakable message. The Montreal Canadiens, who drafted him in the fourth round in 1983, were stocked with outstanding defensemen, but they would certainly clear a spot for a hard-hitting rule breaker. Kordic proceeded to squeeze his 6'2" body through this crack in the door. Playing for Sherbrooke in the American Hockey League in '85-86, Kordic littered the ice with the bruised and beaten. Montreal called him up in time for the playoffs. Two months later he was wearing a Stanley Cup ring.
"He beat the——out of everybody," says Jean Perron, then the Montreal coach and now a Quebec City radio personality. "He was the best fighter in the league. Nobody could take John Kordic. The fans in the Forum would chant his name. Kor-dic! Kor-dic! Kor-dic!"
Ivan and Regina Kordic didn't appreciate the flying fists and the unprovoked attacks that made their son a fixture on the Hockey Night in Canada highlight tapes. "That really got to him," Perron says. "I remember seeing John crying into the phone after a game that we had won. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, 'My dad just gave me a hard time because I got into a fight tonight.' "
Kordic complained that he didn't like to fight, yet he was afraid not to. "I know why I'm here," he would say.
"John tried to tell himself that he hated fighting, but really he loved to fight," Perron says. "The only way for him to attract attention was to fight, and he loved the attention. After he beat up Gord Donnelly of the Nordiques before an opening face-off in Quebec [in 1988], as he was skating off the ice he kissed his fist and held it up to the crowd. I never saw anyone else do that, before or since."
Kordic's sister Toni swears that her brother's inner conflict was genuine. "He didn't want to fight," she says. "He just knew what he had to do to keep his job. Each game he was expected to fight. And somebody like John maybe couldn't deal with all that pressure."
Kordic reported to camp in the fall of "86 looking like the Incredible Bulk. He had added at least 15 pounds of muscle, tipping the scales at a rock-hard 220. Perron was alarmed. "No question, he had been using steroids," he says.
If you get caught using marijuana or cocaine, the NHL might ban you for half a season for the first offense. But pump yourself full of steroids, and the morality cops look the other way. Steroids, the league reasons, are not illegal if prescribed by a doctor, and besides, they probably don't enhance the performance of a hockey player. Try telling that to a goon who wants to put on a couple of layers of chemically treated beef, the better to smash Mario Lemieux to smithereens against the boards. Steroids aren't performance-enhancing drugs? John Kordic certainly thought they were.
As he battled his way through the legion of NHL tough guys, Kordic became ensnared by other demons. He once told reporters he was drowning his anguish in a sea of vodka because of his father's disapproval of his style of play. Some of Kordic's friends say he was merely trying to hide his real problem. "John wasn't an alcoholic," says Bruce Cashman, a former roommate who operates a gym in Quebec City where many of the Nordiques work out. "He drank, yes, but only when he was doing drugs. He was a drug addict. He was addicted to cocaine, had been since he played for Montreal. He said it was a big thing on the Canadiens."
Kordic told Cashman and others that the coaches in Montreal knew some players were snorting coke. "John said a coach walked into a hotel room where a couple of players were doing drugs," Cashman says, "and the coach just said, "I didn't see that," turned around and walked out the door." Kordic's fiancèe, Nancy Massè, tells a similar story. "John told me he was doing coke with another player when a coach came in," she says. "The coach didn't say——. He just walked away."
The NHL's interim president, Gil Stein, says coaches are expected to report drug use among players to the league office, though he doesn't remember any coach ever doing so. Stein defends the league's tough stance on first offenders, but he concedes that the thought of losing a key player for 40 games might prompt a coach to think long and hard before undermining his own job security.
"That's possible," Stein says. "It's pretty easy for you or anyone else to sit back and take shots at this policy, which is geared to prevent first-time use by making it known that there will be maximum penalties. Other leagues accept that there is going to be drug use and have policies that aren't too hard on the first offenders. Our program is a maximum deterrent, and that's what I support."
In the fall of '88 the Canadiens shipped Kordic to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Russ Courtnall. The change of venue didn't slow Kordic's meteoric descent. In December 1988 he was suspended for 10 games for high-sticking Keith Acton of the Edmonton Oilers, breaking his nose. "While he was serving that suspension," says Gord Stellick, then the general manager of the Leafs and now a broadcaster in Toronto, "I got tipped off by a senior member of the Metro police that I'd better tell John Kordic to watch out. I was told that he was hanging around with hookers and druggies and that he was getting into trouble. I called him into the office and told him that, but he denied it."
Then, in October 1989, Ivan Kordic died of liver cancer. ""After that," Regina says, "John was never the same."
Kordic's cocaine habit snowballed. According to the Canadian Press, his teammates started calling him Sniffy. He was chronically low on cash, and at least twice he asked the Leafs for an advance on his salary. Kordic became moodier than usual and started missing games without permission. In the summer of '90, Toronto management encouraged Kordic to enter a drug rehabilitation program, according to Jim McKenny, a former Leaf turned Toronto TV sportscaster who occasionally acts as an informal liaison between the club and players who have problems with substance abuse. McKenny, who admits he is a former cocaine addict, feels that cocaine was only part of Kordic's problem. "Low self-esteem," he says, "then the drugs. All the drugs are linked. A guy like him will have two or three drinks, then he wants to get into the blow, then to take the edge off that he has five or six drinks to get level again, then he'll get pumped up on steroids and start all over again. It sounds crazy, but to him it was a way of life."
In February '91 the Leafs traded Kordic to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a draft pick. He played seven games for the Caps, was suspended twice for what the team characterized as alcohol-related offenses and placed in a substance-abuse center in Minnesota. In June 1991 Washington handed him his unconditional release.
Prompted by former Quebec defenseman Bryan Fogarty, a rehab-clinic companion, Kordic begged Pagè for a job with the Nordiques. Pagè says Kordic's reputation had preceded him, so the Nordiques set stringent terms before signing him: He would be forbidden to drink and would be tested regularly for drugs. The deal was struck in August. "It wasn't something we were crazy about doing," Pagè says, "but we decided to take the risk."
The arrangement lasted less than five months. Although the Nordiques never gave a reason, Kordic was released by the team last January. "He broke the rules, and that was it for him," Pagè says. "He came to me and cried. I said, 'Isn't that the deal we made? We gave you a chance when no one else would, and I'm glad we did it." I'm still glad we did it."
Pagè denies Kordic had tested positive for cocaine, but Masse and Cashman say Kordic was using the drug again. He had played 19 games for Quebec, scored two points and spent 115 minutes locked in the penalty box.
"So often we said to him, 'Do you want to live or do you want to die?' " Pagè says. "It's strange to think back on it now, but we said that."
When he arrived in Quebec, Kordic began hanging out in the strip joints along the seedy Boulevard Hamel. He met and fell in love with Massè, a 23-year-old nude model and dancer. He asked her to marry him. She still wears the ring.
"I swear to God," Massè says, "John was not mean. He was a nice guy. He was not a bad guy. He had to fight. He had no choice."
Last March, Kordic signed a minor league contract with his hometown team, the Oilers. He joined Edmonton's AHL farm team in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and, as usual, he mostly sat on his fanny in the penalty box. The Oilers thought about inviting him to training camp next month. Kordic could picture himself playing at home in an Oiler uniform. He was even beginning to contemplate his first on-ice t‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te-à-t‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te with his 21-year-old brother, Dan. A 6'5" defenseman who plays for Philadelphia, Dan is showing signs of becoming the skillful, aggressive backliner his brother always wanted to be. "John would say, 'That little——, I'm going to kick his ass: he thinks he's better than me,' " Massè says. "I said, 'He's your brother. You don't really want to fight your brother, do you?' And he would finally admit that he loved his brother, but he didn't know how to show it."
According to Massè, Kordic went through periods of euphoria and periods of black depression. He would sometimes fly into a violent rage. If it happened in a bar, he would get into a fight. If it happened at home, he might scream and yell and push her against a wall. The last time that occurred, in July, a neighbor called the police, and Kordic was hauled off to jail.
"He didn't beat me up," Massè says. "He grabbed me, and then he punched the wall. I didn't want to go to court against him. All I wanted to do was have him out for the night. But the cops said to themselves, Now we have big John Kordic. Everybody knows he has a drug problem, and he's running around beating everyone up. He has to learn his lesson."
Kordic was charged with assault. He was prohibited from living with Massè pending an Aug. 11 hearing in court.
Kordic spent 10 days with Cashman, then floated from motel to motel. "He still had a drug problem, and he hated himself for it," Massè says. "He was always saying that it was because of his father. John never accepted his father's death. He said there were times that he could feel his father inside him, especially when he was high."
Kordic told Massè that he wanted to have kids. She told him he had to stop taking steroids first. "He said he had no problem with that, but that he was 27 and there were a lot of guys in the NHL who were younger and stronger than him." says Massè. "He said, 'I have to be able to beat them up if I am able to get my chance. My last chance.' "
On the day he died, Kordic showed up at the Motel Maxim on the Boulevard Hamel at around 4:30 p.m., his face bruised and his knuckles bloodied. Gasping for breath, he paid the clerk $100 and checked into room 205. A few hours later he started making vulgar, abusive phone calls to the front desk. At around 10 p.m. the motel's beleaguered manager called the police.
Two Ancienne-Lorette town gendarmes soon arrived. They knocked on the door of Kordic's room and tried to calm him down. He was walking around the room, obviously agitated, hitting himself in the chest and swearing. He had ripped the door of a wardrobe off its hinges, broken a mirror and pulled pictures off the walls. There was blood on the bedsheets.
Soon after, seven more policemen materialized outside the lime-green room. Leaving their weapons in the hallway, the officers moved in. "Don't touch me!" Kordic screamed. En masse, the nine policemen wrestled Kordic to the floor, handcuffed him, carried him out of the room, down the steps and into a waiting ambulance. Seven minutes after the ambulance left the motel, Kordic passed out. He could not be revived.
An autopsy listed the cause of death as lung failure due to heart malfunction. Also, pathologists discovered needle marks on one of Kordic's arms. Blood and tissue samples were taken, but authorities say it could take as long as a month before the results are in.
Police removed 40 unused syringes from room 205, along with a box of vials labeled as anabolic steroids, some of which were half empty. Kordic's irrational behavior was consistent with a phenomenon known as steroid rage. "Everybody knows that steroids can enhance the aggressiveness, the temper, the sexual drive," says Pierre Beauchemin, the Nordiques' team doctor. "For people who are already aggressive human beings, steroids can put them over the edge."
His weight, at death, was a muscular 238. The excess fluid that was found in his lungs during the autopsy could have been a side-effect of long-term steroid use, but the track marks on his arm are unaccounted for. Says Massè, "John always shot the steroids into the left side of his butt."
The police initially assumed Kordic was simply drunk. It seems possible now that he may have actually been mixing his three favorite drugs—alcohol, cocaine and steroids—into a lethal speedball from hell, injecting the steroids into his butt and the cocaine into his arm. "The cocaine is responsible," Cashman claims. "He must have been on a very bad trip. When he was doing cocaine, he would become very, very paranoid. When he saw all those policemen there, he must have gone crazy." Police found no cocaine in the room. "That's probably because he took it all," Cashman says.
Although witnesses say the police did not use excessive force, both the investigative branch of Quebec's provincial police and the Quebec City coroner's office were looking into the circumstances of Kordic's death. "He was claustrophobic, and he was scared of cops," Masse says. "So he was handcuffed and thrown into the back of an ambulance, with cops all around. His heart couldn't take it. No one deserves to die that way."
A terrible death. The violent death of a man who played a violent game and lost everything.