HARD TIMES IN THE ENDANGERED ZONE

The deaths of three enforcers within four months renewed the debate over fighting, but being a one-trick goon no longer punches your ticket to the NHL
November 07, 2011

Martin Lapointe was not being a stand-up guy. On this night in the mid-1990s, the Red Wings right wing would not fight, would not answer the bell for running Chris Pronger, the Blues' star defenseman. This irked Tony Twist, the St. Louis enforcer, very much.

"So I drop my gloves, but Lapointe turtles—he won't fight me. And he comes by the bench and starts laughing. Very next shift, [my coach] sends me out there, and who's on the ice? Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov—all their best skill guys—and [tough guy] Joey Kocur.

"Joey looks at me; he goes, 'So what's up?' I said, 'Well, as soon as the puck drops, I'm gonna two-hand Yzerman.'

"Joey says, 'You can't do that.' I said, 'Joey, you know the job. I'm gonna two-hand him first; then you and I'll get busy.' I two-hand Yzerman, he goes down, Joe drops his gloves, I drop my gloves, the linesmen get in there, they break it up. We go to the penalty box together, and we've both got smiles on our faces.

"He said, 'What was that all about?' I said, 'You tell that mother------ [Lapointe], if he does that to Pronger again, I'll break Yzerman's f------ ankle, and then you and I can fight after. But if you'd rather not have that, you can go over there and tell Lapointe to cool it, and we won't have any problems.'

"So the rest of the game, where do you find Lapointe? Well, he's not out there running around anymore. He wants to make sure Stevie Y's O.K. So, I mean, that's the purest form of what we were trying to accomplish. Letting the best players play the game, allowing them the room to perform the way they can. That's what people are paying to see, right?"

That was then. A clash of titans on the scale of Twist vs. Kocur is now a thing of the past when these former (Chuck) Norris Division foes face off. Twist has no heir apparent on the current St. Louis roster. While the Blues embrace an ethos of "team toughness," as director of player personnel Dave Taylor put it in the preseason, "we don't have a pure fighter in our lineup right now. With the direction the game is going, I think that [player] is going to be a dying breed."

And while a handful of Red Wings can hold their own in a donnybrook—Justin Abdelkader, Todd Bertuzzi, Mike Commodore, Brad Stuart—"we prefer to play hockey," says Detroit G.M. Ken Holland, who notes that a superb power play, such as the one his club puts on the ice (fifth in the NHL in 2010--11), can be as effective a deterrent as Kocur and the legendary Bob Probert once were.

Between the influx of European players, rules changes and the stiffness of recent suspensions, "I just think you have to have more skill today," says Holland. By all means, stock your roster with a few enforcers. But those tough guys "have to be able to receive a pass, get up and down the ice, play a regular shift." Yes, Holland seeks "that sandpaper element" in his fourth-line forwards. "But we like those guys to have the potential to make plays and score goals too."

Like Taylor, Jack Ferreira believes the fighting specialist, the pure goon, is "a dinosaur" in today's NHL. Ferreira is the special assistant to Kings G.M. Dean Lombardi and is now in his fifth decade in pro hockey. In the next breath he expresses the belief that fighting isn't going anywhere. It remains an effective, efficient way of policing the game, he says. Also, too many people like it. "In all my time around this sport," he says, "I've never seen anyone get up and go to the concession stand during a fight."

The solution, in this case, is obvious: Stu Grimson must fight Don Cherry, the Hockey Night in Canada personality who maligned Grimson on the air. Grimson is a retired NHL enforcer with 217 bouts to his credit, Cherry a 77-year-old bloviator and former coach with a taste for garish ensembles and a loose command of the facts. To make it fair, Grimson would be required to don a blindfold and a pair of the jumbo, inflatable boxing gloves sometimes seen at children's birthday parties. Even thus handicapped, he might still beat Cherry senseless, which leads to the question: How could anyone tell?

In one of the semicoherent rants that have earned him comparisons to Abe Simpson (Bart's doddering grandfather), Cherry unloaded on Grimson and two other ex-enforcers—calling them "pukes," "turncoats," and "hypocrites" for what he interpreted as the trio's embrace of a ban on fighting in the NHL. On-ice fights, and the men who wage them, are a hot topic: Since last spring, three NHL enforcers have died.

Derek (the Boogeyman) Boogaard, a fearsome 6'8", 265-pound heavyweight for the Rangers, died in May of an accidental overdose of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone. On Aug. 15, Jets forward Rick Rypien committed suicide; the 27-year-old, it was revealed by Winnipeg's assistant G.M. Craig Heisinger, had battled depression for 10 years. Two weeks later, Predators tough guy Wade Belak was found dead in a Toronto condo. Belak, who retired last March after 14 NHL seasons, had hanged himself. (While his death was originally reported as a suicide, his parents have since described it as accidental.)

The deaths fueled intense speculation about the hazards faced by these modern-day gladiators. Is there something about the emotional duress of brawling night after night—the neurological toll taken by getting slugged in the head for a living—that might predispose them to depression, addictive behavior, suicide? The discussion those questions provoked got Cherry's tartan knickers in a twist.

On his Coach's Corner segment on the CBC on Oct. 6, Cherry expressed "disgust" with Grimson and ex--tough guys Chris (Knuckles) Nilan and Jim Thomson. Their sins? Putting forward the theory that the deceased players had been "drinking drugs and alcoholic because they fight. You turncoats. You hypocrites!" he went on. "You were fighters, and now you don't want guys to make the same living you did."

Never mind that Grimson denies ever saying that the unique pressures endured by tough guys lead to addiction or depression. Nor is Grimson an advocate for a ban on fighting. Indeed, in an interview with SI two weeks before Cherry's diatribe, Grimson favored keeping the enforcer's role "vibrant."

"If you don't have that person on the roster, other teams will play you different," he predicted. "They'll take liberties with your skill players."

Grimson's old nickname, the Grim Reaper, serves him well in his new job as a litigation attorney with the Nashville firm Kay, Griffin, Enkema & Colbert, which on Oct. 11 issued a statement decrying Cherry's "baseless," "slanderous," and "damaging and inflammatory" comments. "Messrs. Grimson, Nilan and Thomson are considering further recourse."

We were going to suggest inflatable boxing gloves, but Cherry has since apologized, saying on Oct. 15, "I gotta admit, I was wrong on a lot of things. I put three enforcers, tough guys—my type of guys—and I threw them under the bus, and I'm sorry about it."

As wrongheaded as Cherry is in this instance, he speaks for many hockey fans worried about the direction of the game. They are adherents of a rugged, punishing, physical style of play that is, they fear, being legislated and fined out of existence. While the deaths of those enforcers reignited old debates about fighting's place in the game, Brendan Shanahan was busy whacking players in the pocketbook. Shanahan, the league's new Dean of Discipline (his actual title is senior vice president of player safety), took office with a mandate to crack down on head shots, and he did just that, suspending four players during the NHL's exhibition season for a total of 15 regular-season games and $595,369.15 in forfeited pay.

Of course, if you really wanted to cut down on blows to the head, wouldn't you outlaw the activity in which the primary purpose is to ... hit the other guy in the head? The NHL's laudable determination to reduce head shots does not extend to its policy on fighting, which earns combatants five minutes in the penalty box (and maybe an extra two for instigating) but seldom results in fines or suspensions.

The NHL has reported that only 8% of the concussions incurred by its players last season were fight-related. It may be more accurate to say that 8% of reported concussions were fight-related. Not every concussion makes it into the study. "I know the NHL tries to keep up with it," says ex-ruffian Lyndon Byers, whose 10 turbulent NHL seasons included nine in Boston. "But it's tough. I mean, you're in a fight, you get punched out, you black out, you go blank, and deep down there's a little voice going, C'mon, c'mon, come back! So you come back and see the guy's fist eight inches from your face. So is that a concussion? Would I tell [team doctors] that I couldn't play the next day? No."

Colin Campbell doesn't pretend that these policies aren't at odds with one another. Campbell, the NHL's senior executive VP of hockey operations, who performed Shanahan's job for the previous 13 years, admits that the NHL's no-to-head-shots/yes-to-fighting disconnect is wider than the gap between Bobby Clarke's front teeth. "If you took someone from, say, New Zealand, to an NHL game and explained to him what our current issues are, then two guys dropped the gloves and started whacking each other, he'd say, 'Well, then, how can they be allowed to do that?'"

Campbell notes approvingly that fighting has evolved from something barbaric to, well, something less barbaric. There are very few bouts in the postseason for the simple reason that teams are unwilling to give up a power play. Unlike in the 1980s, Campbell notes, combatants stop throwing punches when they get their opponent down on the ice. As of 2005 players instigating fights in the last five minutes of a game are suspended for a game, and their coach is fined $10,000. There are sound reasons to throw down on the ice, in other words, but late-game message-sending is no longer one of them.

When is a fight acceptable, necessary, honorable? When an opponent is "taking liberties" with one of your most talented teammates. By keeping fighting in the game, goes the thinking, the NHL keeps its game cleaner. Through the threat of swift vigilante justice, fighters create space—provide "a fear-free environment," as pro-pugilist Maple Leafs G.M. Brian Burke puts it—for the team's more talented players, the goal scorers and artistes.

Campbell has a problem with so-called "staged" fights, premeditated bouts arranged ahead of time (by e-mail, if some tales are to be believed) and not spawned by anything that's taken place on the ice. "That's an aspect of fighting that's not right, not acceptable, and should be looked at."

But as for fighting in general, Campbell goes on, "I think it still has a place."

Following the 2004--05 lockout, NHL players returned to a much faster game, with officials instructed to be far more vigilant for restraining fouls like hooking, holding and interference. The resulting, wide-open, end-to-end hockey was a windfall for skilled players and fans interested in thrilling rushes and highlight-reel goals. It was less kind to a certain species of enforcer, the ponderous, hulking pugilist who fought well but had no other discernible skills.

"The pace of the new game left some of the bigger, heavier guys behind," says Ducks tough guy George Parros, whose 27 fights last season led the NHL. "Most of the guys on the job now are able to keep up with the pace of play."

Parros played four years at Princeton, graduating with a degree in economics in 2003. He broke into the NHL in '05—the first postlockout season—with the Kings and is now in his sixth year in Anaheim, a stretch rarely seen among designated fighters, whom G.M.'s tend to view as expendable, easily replaceable commodities, like kickers in football. Asked for the secret of Parros's longevity, Ducks coach Randy Carlyle mentions the superb fitness of his shredded, 6'5", 227-pound tough guy but spends more time complimenting his judgment. "He understands the job—when to do it and when not to do it."

No one learns these nuances early in their hockey careers because almost no one grows up aspiring to be an enforcer. "None of us dreamed when we were little boys of fighting at center ice in Maple Leaf Gardens," says Kelly Chase, a former Blues tough guy. "You grow up dreaming of scoring a goal in the Stanley Cup finals." The higher up the pyramid players get, the more they realize that everybody had been the best player in their town. "And so the question becomes, What are you willing to do?" says Jim McKenzie, an erstwhile enforcer who retired seven years ago. "Are you willing to kill penalties? Block shots? Are you willing to play on a checking line? Are you willing to be a tough guy?"

Are you willing to fight? Rare is the young man unwilling to make that Faustian bargain, if gooning it up means the difference between making an NHL roster and going back to the family farm or, in McKenzie's case, enrolling in basic training to become a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as his father had before him.

Instead, they steep themselves in this unnatural, deceptively difficult craft of brawling on ice. "The most important thing you can learn," says Kings tough guy Kevin Westgarth, "is that it doesn't hurt to get hit. At least during the fight it doesn't hurt."

Westgarth is both friend and frequent fighting partner of Parros. Both are products of Princeton. (Between those two and the Canucks' Aaron Volpatti, a Brown alum who had one of the most impressive knockouts of the preseason—read on—the Ivy League is suddenly looking like the Gleason's Gym of NHL tough guys.)

Midway through Parros's fight with the Rangers' Mike Rupp on Oct. 8, Rupp fell to his knees. Parros stopped punching long enough for his foe to regain his feet, then won a lopsided decision with a flurry of rights to the body. "I know him to be an honest player," says Parros, explaining why he let Rupp up. "He's a stand-up guy, so he's gonna get a stand-up fight. If somebody else was running around, causing trouble, then maybe I wouldn't have been so nice."

Shawn Thornton sounds like an A-list actor who did a few blue films in his younger days just to pay the rent. "I had to do it earlier in my career, to get me where I am," says the Bruins' fourth-line winger and most frequent fighter. "But I was never O.K. with it." Now a nine-year NHL vet whose line provided Boston with a crucial jolt in last season's Stanley Cup finals, Thornton is understandably proud of his ability to rise above the role of pure enforcer.

"I have a tough time just sitting on the bench," he says. "I tried to work my ass off to make myself a better player, so I could contribute in other ways."

Whereas Parros averaged 6:25 minutes per game last season, Thornton logged 10:05. He epitomizes the NHL's modern enforcer: a hard-nosed, well-rounded player who, when the need arises, can punch a bully's lights out. "I take it personally when people take liberties with my teammates," he says, "but going into games, I'm not one of those guys Youtubing the other team's enforcer to see how he fights. When our line is out there, I'm thinking about us trying to score a goal, putting pressure on the other team."

Thornton hails from the blue-collar city of Oshawa, Ont. He'd put in nine years in the minors when, in 2006, he told his wife he wanted to give it one more year. After signing with Anaheim, he was sent down at the end of training camp but called back a month later. Ducks tough guy Todd Fedoruk had squared off with Boogaard, who caved in the right side of his face.

"It's kind of unfortunate," says Thornton, "but that's how I got my foot in the door." He won a Cup with the Ducks that season, then signed with the Bruins, where his toughness, intensity and fighting prowess quickly made him a fan favorite. After making Thornton a healthy scratch in the first two games of last spring's Cup finals—both losses in Vancouver—Boston coach Claude Julien turned the 6'2", 217-pound dynamo loose for Game 3. In his first shift Thornton delighted the crowd and awakened his teammates when he freight-trained Alex Burrows, loathed by Bruins fans for his unpenalized biting of Patrice Bergeron in Game 1. Thornton brought that spark to every shift for the rest of the series, which Boston won in seven games.

Like many of his fellow pugs on ice, Lyndon Byers was a highly skilled player in juniors who realized that to stick in The Show, he would need to drop the mitts:

"My last year in juniors I had a little over a point a game. Not to toot my own horn, but I was a pretty skilled player. I was also a f------ maniac. I got to the NHL, and I don't think I loved the game enough. I had long hair, I rode motorcycles, I loved the social life. [Bruins great] Wayne Cashman was so impressed with me that when he retired, he gave me his number 12. I pissed all that away.

"My third year they sent me down to Moncton [of the AHL]. They basically were telling me to grow up. In Moncton, I told myself, 'You know what? I'm just gonna fight the three toughest guys on the other team for the next 10 games, and if I don't get called up, I'm gonna quit.

"Four games into it I'm losing my mind. After a fight I climb the penalty box glass to get a guy. I got called up the next day.

"One of my best memories of Moncton was playing on a line with Brett Hull and Gary Roberts. They went on to Hall of Fame careers. I went on to dating the hottest strippers and drinking in every bar in North America.

"This seems like a good opportunity for me to say I'm sorry to [former pugilist] Gino Odjick: Gino, I'm sorry for cross-checking you in the mouth and knocking your bottom teeth out.

"I couldn't beat the guy. I looked forward to beating him, but he'd punch my lights out every time. After the first time he punched me out, I said, 'O.K., I'm gonna tie him up, start righty, then go lefty.' He punched me out. The next time, I said, 'O.K., I'll drop my gloves before we agree to go, so I'll get a good head start on him.' So I did that, and he punched me out. I grabbed him from behind one time, and he punched me out. He'd beaten me, like, six times, when we went into Vancouver for a game. My parents were in the stands.

"That night he ran Donny Sweeney at the far end of the rink, and we met at center ice. This time I faked dropping my gloves, he dropped his, and I cross-checked him in the mouth. Pushed a couple of his teeth back, knocked one out.

"I got a couple good punches in, then he dialed me in and hit me with five or six lefts. My mom went from standing and yelling to sitting to hugging my dad to burying her face in his chest.

"I remember Gino standing there looking at me with his mouth bleeding when I finally tied him up. He was just shaking his head. He goes, 'Why would you do that?' I just said, 'I know. I know, I'm such a loser. Thanks for beating me up. Really.'"

Happily married now, Byers freely admits his former struggles with alcohol—a trait he shared with more than a few fellow tough guys. The deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak generated widespread conjecture that there might be something about the job that put its practitioners in harm's way. But in the spate of ensuing news stories seeking to link the three deaths, some saw a rush to judgment. Rypien had suffered depression "dating back to before he even got to the NHL," says one ex-enforcer who asked not to be named. "Boogaard had shoulder surgery, got hooked on oxy and couldn't get off it." Belak's family says his death was accidental. "It's not fair, or accurate," says the ex-enforcer, "to pin their deaths to the fact that they were tough guys."

Are enforcers under pressure? Of course they are, says McKenzie, who is credited by the authoritative Hockeyfights.com with 176 bouts in his 15-year NHL career. "Most tough guys are on one-, maybe two-year contracts at the most. That said, I can't imagine the pressure of being expected to score. You're making five million a year and you can't find the net and your own fans are booing you out of the building. My point being, there's pressure everywhere."

It's also true that plenty of goalies and forwards (and coaches and scouts and officials) have struggled with substance abuse. "But it seems that a lot of [enforcers] do have these characteristics," says Fedoruk, "or things they deal with on the side.

"Every guy's different. I know that long before I was bound for the NHL, I was on my road to addiction. I don't think the [enforcer] role necessarily leads to addiction, I just think that it could be that a certain kind of person ends up taking on that role."

Fedoruk scored 32 goals and logged 1,050 penalty minutes in nine NHL seasons. Three times he needed surgery to have plates inserted to repair broken bones in his face. And twice he's been to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. His second stint ended in the spring of 2010. After taking a year off from hockey to get his life back in order—Fedoruk has a wife and three children—he signed a tryout contract with the Canucks in August.

That's how he came to be trolling for a fight midway through a preseason game in San Jose on Sept. 29. Final cuts were the following morning; Fedoruk was on the bubble, and he knew it. Several Sharks shrunk from his offer to square off, his reputation having preceded him. He finally found a willing dance partner in Jim Vandermeer, who fought him to a draw with less than a minute left in the second period.

Just before this, Aaron Volpatti—the aforementioned 26-year-old Brown grad who happened to be competing with Fedoruk for the left wing spot on Vancouver's fourth line—had been called out by San Jose tough guy Brad Winchester. Volpatti had been a marked man in the Shark Tank since earlier in the second, when he had leveled Sharks defenseman Jason Demers with a clean check. Demers had to be helped from the ice. As Winchester turned on him, Volpatti threw one punch, a crisp right that turned the larger man's legs to jelly. Winchester collapsed, his legs splaying into what yoga instructors would recognize as Mandukasana, or frog pose. For the second time in the period a Shark hit by Volpatti had to be helped from the ice.

"Call me tomorrow," Fedoruk told a reporter after the game. "I'll be at the hotel."

Instead he was at the airport. "I got cut this morning," he said. A legit heavyweight, Fedoruk had an edge on the Ivy Leaguer in fighting. But Volpatti got the nod everywhere else. He was younger, faster, more skilled, and killed penalties. He got the job. This is where the NHL is going.

"I left it all out there," said Fedoruk, a few days later. "I mean, the last [regular-season] game I played, I was out on the ice still drunk from the night before. I left the game on good terms. I got to leave the ice a sober man."

"I'm still ready," he interjected, before hanging up. "I'm still ready, if anyone wants to pick up a guy like me."

He could use the paycheck, yes. But for all the talk about post-traumatic stress, Fedoruk enjoyed bloodying opponents and being bloodied in turn. Some don't, but plenty of them do. Check that. They don't just enjoy it. They love it, revel in it, miss it when it's gone. Listen to Byers, whose last NHL game was 18 years ago, but who rhapsodized on the eve of Boston's opener against the Flyers:

"I'd give my left nut to be in the dressing room at 7:10 tomorrow night, sitting in my stall after four coffees and five Vivarins, asking myself over and over, 'Man or a mouse? Man or a mouse?' What are you gonna do when [ex--Flyers goons] Dave Brown and Craig Berube look you in the eye, and you know it's time to go, your teammates know it's time to go, everyone in the building knows it's time to go, so you drop the mitts and do what's allowed in only one sport on the planet. And there's not an ass in the seats, and if you're lucky enough to come out of it without getting your lights punched out, it's happy days. I would give anything for that tomorrow."

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TWIST (ABOVE) DESCRIBES THE FIGHTER'S ROLE: "LETTING THE BEST PLAYERS PLAY THE GAME, ALLOWING THEM THE ROOM TO PERFORM THE WAY THEY CAN."

"THE PACE OF THE NEW [POSTLOCKOUT] GAME LEFT SOME OF THE BIGGER, HEAVIER GUYS BEHIND," SAYS PARROS. "MOST GUYS ON THE JOB NOW ARE ABLE TO KEEP UP WITH THE PACE OF PLAY."

PHOTOPhotograph by KELVIN KUO/US PRESSWIREFIGHTING TIGERS Princeton alums Parros (16)—whose 27 fights led the NHL last year—and Westgarth go bare knuckle to bare knuckle as often as anyone, but it's their secondary skills that keep them in the game. PHOTOMARK BUCKNERTHE TIE THAT BINDS THEM The deaths of Boogaard (left, in white), Belak (above, left) and Rypien (above, right) prompted widespread concern about the pressure faced by NHL enforcers. PHOTOMATT SLOCUM/AP[See caption above] PHOTOGLENN JAMES/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOJEFF VINNICK/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/ICON SMIROLE CHANGE Thornton (left and above), who helped the Bruins win a Cup last year, began his career as a pure enforcer but—like Volpatti (54, below)—now epitomizes the modern tough guy: gritty and skilled. PHOTOBRIAN BABINEAU/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOJASON O. WATSON/US PRESSWIRE[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)