Louie DeBrusk has not been reduced to an usher, although on this
February night he does have an excellent seat on the Edmonton
Oilers' bench. He is far enough from the gate not to have to
open it for teammates. He had a couple of shifts in the first
period against the Toronto Maple Leafs, skating his wing,
banging opponents, but the Oilers are up 6-1 in the second
period, and DeBrusk looks as if he has been glued to the bench.
There is another NHL adage, not as catchy as the one about the
crusher-rusher-usher devolution of a hockey fighter, but just as
poignant: If you can't play in a 6-1 game, you can't play.
DeBrusk is supposed to be the Oilers' enforcer--or cop or tough
guy or, if you prefer the G word, goon--but the skin on his
knuckles is hardly marked. Edmonton coach Ron Low declines to
discuss DeBrusk's job performance, but not dressing him for 18
consecutive games earlier this season and burying him on the
bench during the Toronto blowout are eloquent enough.
"It's not that Louie is chicken," an Edmonton executive says.
"Not at all." But sometimes the nuances of DeBrusk's role escape
him. Example: If an opposing player takes a cheap shot at Oilers
star center Doug Weight and Weight responds with a cross-check
of his own, then the 6'2", 215-pound DeBrusk sees the affair as
closed, or at least not requiring his intervention. An enforcer,
however, is expected to take everything personally--and to
DeBrusk, who turns 26 this week, is still trying to come to
terms with that reality. Being an enforcer has never been easy
for him, but he is adjusting. He hasn't had a drink since the
summer of 1995, a year after his second stay at the Betty Ford
Clinic. "I can look back and say fighting's pretty much given me
a life, but it's also kind of destroyed my life," DeBrusk says
the morning after the Leafs game. "The fact that I am a fighter
on the ice and the difficulties I've had with that job
definitely brought me to drink a few times. I'd go out after a
game, and all I could think of was the pressure I had on me
during the game. Maybe I didn't fight. There'd be the guilt that
I didn't fight, the feeling of worthlessness, I guess. Then I'd
go out and drink myself into oblivion, and maybe I'd get into a
fight later. I've been advised by people who have helped me in
rehab not to go back to my job."
A sixth-year veteran with 19 goals, 12 assists and 792 penalty
minutes over his career, DeBrusk earns $350,000 a year, and
while that isn't exactly Mike Tyson money, fighting pays. If you
prorate DeBrusk's salary over his ice time, he probably earns
almost as much per minute as the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario
Lemieux, who makes $11 million a year. DeBrusk has a high school
equivalency diploma. He doesn't have many career options.
"I love this job, but at times I almost hate this job," DeBrusk
says. "There are times you don't feel like going out there and
fighting. If someone does something to me on the ice, it's not
difficult for me to flip the switch. Sometimes when I'm sitting
on the bench for the whole game, though, and someone does
something to a teammate, I don't necessarily feel great about
having to go out and fight. Unfortunately, that's my job."
That job is the worst in sports.
They throw down the gauntlet and then throw down the gloves, and
for the next 20, 30 or even 45 seconds, until exhaustion or a
linesman intercedes, two guys throw punches. They do it while
holding on to each other's sweaters and balancing themselves on
1/8-inch-thick blades. They are not punching with those cute
10-ounce gloves Iron Mike wears but with their bare fists, and
they are connecting with skulls or the plastic helmets that
cover them, usually while getting socked in the head themselves.
"It's like punching a wall every night," Florida Panthers
defenseman and enforcer Paul Laus says.
Some players, such as Tie Domi of Toronto, relish fighting--Domi
claims he has started 90% of his 23 fights this season--but most
do it without any sense of joy. The job certainly isn't
thankless; 18,000 fans will roar their approval and teammates
will bang their sticks against the boards if you win a scrap.
But the physical and psychological toll can be staggering.
If you are a member of the fighters' fraternity, you are going
to get hurt; Todd Ewen of the San Jose Sharks, for example, has
had four hand operations. If you don't fulfill your pugilistic
obligations, you might get blackballed, as forward Paul Mulvey
found out 15 years ago. You do not necessarily fight on your own
terms. You cannot always pick your spots. Maybe you are married
and have kids, and your wife thinks you're setting a terrible
example for Junior. Maybe you are not as tired of fighting as
you are tired of thinking about fighting.
"We've all had that oh-I-think-my-girlfriend's-pregnant feeling,
that sick-to-your-stomach feeling when you have to do something
you don't want to do," says Kelly Chase, the rambunctious
Hartford Whalers winger who has averaged 4.7 penalty minutes per
game while stirring pots and throwing rights since the 1989-90
season. "It's like when you've had somebody in school organize a
fight for you. You know that at 3:30 you've got to go out and
have that fight. That's how I feel every game and probably how
I've felt since junior hockey. Eventually that's what chases a
lot of guys away from the game."
They didn't start out to be fighters. None of them. When their
parents woke them at 5 a.m. and helped them into shoulder pads
in the dead of January, when they spent summers at hockey camp
instead of at the lake, they weren't learning how to fight. They
were playing hockey because they liked playing hockey. By the
time they were in juniors, though, they probably knew what their
role was. And they learned a cruel fact: If you're a fighter,
you don't spend much time actually playing hockey.
"The worst part for a fighter is that when hockey matters most,
you become irrelevant," New York Islanders general manager Mike
Milbury says. "In Game 7 of a Stanley Cup series, chances are
you won't play or maybe even dress." There have been only 15
fights in the 65 seventh games played since 1969, and none since
'91. "A hockey player wants to play Game 7," Milbury says.
"That's what he lives for. Everyone wants to matter."
But many fighters never get a chance to develop beyond the goon
stage. If a guy has some skills and gets ice time, the
opportunity to develop, he could end up on a regular shift, as
did Chris Nilan, the fourth-most-penalized player in NHL
history, who earned a spot on a checking line with the Montreal
Canadiens after four years in the league. Or he might wind up
like Marty McSorley, who went from being Wayne Gretzky's
bodyguard with the Oilers and Los Angeles Kings to a solid
defenseman, now with the San Jose Sharks. Nilan and McSorley are
the idols of every roughneck who dreams of attaining a Gordie
Howe hat trick: a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game.
"You go to war for your teammates, you expect to be rewarded
with an opportunity to play," Florida general manager Bryan
Murray says. "That's the only way you can develop as a player.
[Enforcers] all say, 'Give me a chance to show what I can do.'
To make money, to stick around a long time, you need ice time to
But the enforcer's job more likely will bury him. If a coach
allows a player's skills to rot, that player could end up like
Willi Plett, the 1976-77 rookie of the year with the Atlanta
Flames. When Plett came up he was a talented power forward who
was also adept with his fists. After 13 seasons with three
teams, however, he retired prematurely because he felt he was
being turned into a full-time thug. He finished with 222 goals
and 2,574 penalty minutes. "As my career went on, my toughness
was more important to the team than my goal scoring," Plett
says. "And that pissed me off. I was tough and I could play, but
it turned on me."
The ultimate cautionary tale of a crusher turned rusher was that
of the Boston Bruins' John Wensink, who had 20 goals after 28
games of the 1978-79 season but was bumped to the fourth line by
coach Don Cherry because Cherry thought all that scoring was
turning the six-foot, 200-pound Wensink soft. Wensink finished
the season with 28 goals and went on to play for five NHL teams
over parts of eight seasons. He gained his greatest fame for
standing in front of the Minnesota North Stars bench in 1978 and
challenging anyone who would oblige him to a fight. Nobody did.
And if a coach puts a player in a little box, why shouldn't
fans? "Nobody expects Arnold Schwarzenegger to be firing a
machine gun when he walks into a restaurant," says Ewen, who
once asked his wife, Kelli, a model, to turn down a chance to
pose for the cover of Playboy because he figured if she posed,
he would have to fight on every shift he took. "People who know
me kind of think I'm a Renaissance man"--Ewen has written and
illustrated a children's book--"but most people assume when I
walk into a restaurant that I'll break down the door, slap a
head, order raw meat and then gnaw on the bone. That's the weird
part. So many people live through fighters. After a game they'll
say, 'Yeah, you smacked that guy's face; you killed him.' But
once you don't do well, they're the first to call you a bum and
say you're too old. You get labeled for life."
In the 1978 playoffs, 6'2", 205-pound Pierre Bouchard was
branded by a punch to the nose thrown by Boston's Stan Jonathan,
a small (5'8", 175) but fierce man who left Bouchard, then the
Canadiens' enforcer, a pulpy mess. The memory of Montreal's
Stanley Cup-winning goal that year has faded, but Bouchard's
blood still flows bright crimson in fans' minds.
"Goliath was also remembered for his defeat," says Bouchard, now
a Canadiens television analyst. Even today an occasional wise
guy will spot Bouchard and sing out, "How's Jonathan?"
The first myth about hockey fights is that they start
spontaneously. They almost never do. They start because of a
cheap shot, a team's need for an emotional lift or the mere
proximity of two thugs on the ice. When opposing enforcers are
sent out at the same time, a fight is going to break out.
"Most fights are caused by coaches," Philadelphia Flyers general
manager Bob Clarke says. "If a team's getting beat, the response
is, Let's have a fight. The coaches don't have to tell the
players to fight. The players aren't dumb."
No. The fighters understand what they're supposed to do. The
standard invitation to an NHL bout is, Want to go? The
"regulars," as Ewen calls them, even have a code of ethics: no
sucker punches, just square-up matches. "Everyone accepts that,"
What tough guys have trouble accepting is being ordered onto the
ice to fight, as almost every enforcer has been at least once in
his career. That slap in the face is almost as hard to take as a
haymaker. Says veteran enforcer Stu (the Grim Reaper) Grimson of
the Whalers, "Nobody wants to sit for 2 1/2 periods, have your
team down three or four goals, and have the coach send you out
there and expect you to make it all right. That's demeaning and
dehumanizing. I've gone, but after the game I've told coaches,
'Don't ask me to do my job. I know what's expected of me.' You
don't order a goal scorer to go out and score a goal. I don't
need someone tapping me on a shoulder, winding me up like a
"One time it happened to me," says Ewen. "Our coach yelled at
one of their players, and the player skated by the bench and
shouted an obscenity at our coach. He tapped me and said, 'Go
get him.' I thought, You go get him. The coach tapped me three
times, and I didn't go. We yelled and screamed about it later. I
wound up on the bench for a week and a half."
"One coach ordered me out with 20 seconds left, we're losing by
three goals, they've got their three toughest guys out there,
and I haven't played a shift all night," Chase says. "I didn't
think he was sending me out there to tie the game. I mean, don't
embarrass me. I went straight to the locker room and got
undressed, and when he came in, we had a big shouting match. We
settled it all the next day--out of court."
Ultimately, Paul Mulvey did too.
On a Friday night last month, at the Reston Ice Forum in
northern Virginia, scores of young hockey players were on the
two rinks, a mob of hockey moms were in the lobby, and the noise
from a kids' birthday party blared incessantly from the second
floor. The tootling of the party horns filtered through the
closed office door of Mulvey, who is part owner of the facility.
The office is tiny, but it seems even smaller when the 6'4"
Mulvey rises from his chair. There are mementos of his pro
career--a Goal magazine cover and a grip-and-grin photo of Paul
with his father, John, and his brother Grant, who played 10 NHL
seasons--but the most prominently displayed souvenir is from
Mulvey's posthockey days. Behind his desk is a framed copy of a
May 9, 1982, Parade magazine story that lauded his courage for
having taken a stand. Mulvey was, as the headline says, THE MAN
WHO WOULD NOT FIGHT.
Mulvey was one of those quirky characters of the 1980s who, like
Joe Piscopo, came and went. He represented a cause; he was the
poster boy against hockey violence. Mulvey had been a
heavyweight with the Washington Capitals, the Penguins and the
Kings, snacking on Tagamet and Tums to calm his nerves before
doing his duty on the ice: squaring off with the Flyers' Behn
Wilson and Paul Holmgren and the other toughs of his generation.
In 1980-81 Mulvey jumped into the penalty box and swung his
stick at the Quebec Nordiques' Kim Clackson in retaliation for
Clackson's having crushed Mulvey's vertebra when they were
juniors six years earlier. "If a guy like Holmgren needed to be
settled down--no problem," Mulvey says.
But Mulvey did have a problem on Jan. 24, 1982. The Kings were
on a power play, with five skaters to the Vancouver Canucks'
four, when Vancouver's Tiger Williams, the NHL's alltime penalty
leader, began roughhousing. Los Angeles coach Don Perry tapped
Mulvey on the left shoulder and, according to Mulvey, said,
"Go--and I don't want you to dance." Mulvey didn't move. Not
right away, anyway. The Kings already had the Canucks
outnumbered, and Mulvey didn't see the point. Only after
Vancouver's Stan Smyl left the bench and a general melee broke
out did Mulvey get up. He estimates the gap between the time
Perry tapped him and the point at which he went onto the ice as
Between periods Perry sidled up to Mulvey and said, "When I tell
you to go, I expect you to go."
Mulvey replied, "Absolutely not. You got the wrong guy, Don, if
you expect me to do that for you." Perry, a legendary fighter
from the now defunct Eastern League, started screaming that
Mulvey wouldn't stick up for his teammates. Mulvey got
undressed--and never again put on an NHL uniform. "Those 20
seconds," Mulvey says, "probably cost me a million dollars."
League president John Ziegler immediately suspended Perry for 15
days and fined the Kings $5,000 for instructing a player to join
an altercation, but Mulvey paid the heaviest price. For his
momentary crisis of conscience he was forced to trade the neon
of Los Angeles for the 50-watt frosted bulbs of New Haven,
Conn., where the Kings banished him. Los Angeles released Mulvey
after the season, and he spent 1982-83 with Edmonton's farm club
in Moncton, New Brunswick. Worse, Mulvey grew depressed, losing
30 pounds and feeling alone and scared, wondering why even his
best friends in the NHL would not support him publicly.
"There was no doubt in my mind I was blackballed," Mulvey says.
"I was marked. I wasn't a game breaker, not a top-10-percenter,
not a guy who made the difference, and this incident was
baggage." Mulvey quit hockey after the '82-83 season, done at
24. He'd had his first upper G.I. series at age 14, been in and
out of hospitals starting in juniors, because of nerves. The
moment he quit, he started to get better.
Mulvey sued the Kings--"I guess you'd call it for loss of
career," he says--and in 1986 he received an undisclosed cash
settlement. The money represented closure, easing the bitterness
toward a game that had, perversely, turned him into a hero when
all he wanted to be was a player. He is remembered fondly, if at
all, for refusing to goon it up, and he says he wouldn't have
honored Perry's request even if he'd had a year to reflect on
it. "I coach teams, and I teach five-year-olds up to
20-year-olds," Mulvey says. "I try to teach the values my father
taught me about sportsmanship and respect for others."
"I was the guy who wouldn't protect my teammates, right?" Mulvey
says. "Let me tell you about the last game I played in my life.
I was with Moncton, and we were in Baltimore. Billy Riley, the
black guy who'd been my teammate in Washington, was being
harassed by three guys. I was in the penalty box, but I jumped
out and chased those three guys back to their bench. Of course I
was suspended, and that was it. To protect a teammate, I went.
No tap. No nothing."
Louie DeBrusk is going to get this thing figured out. Maybe he
will start running little guys even though his skewed notion of
sportsmanship says you pick on players your own size. When Craig
MacTavish was the Oilers' captain, he once upbraided DeBrusk for
going easy on six-foot, 195-pound Kings defenseman Darryl Sydor
in a fight that started when Sydor took exception to DeBrusk's
hit on another L.A. player. "Mac-T said, 'If a guy comes at you
like that, kick his ass,'" DeBrusk says. "He said, 'It doesn't
matter if the guy's four foot two. In a heartbeat he'd go around
you one-on-one, abusing you in his way. Why not abuse him in
your way?' I was angry, because Mac-T was right. I'm learning."
No one said it would be easy.