The latest issue of Sports Illustrated has a fascinating and disturbing article by Austin Murphy about fighting and fighters in the NHL. The article is notable for its extensive interview excerpts, including statements from current or former enforcers George Parros, Tony Twist, Shawn Thornton, Todd Fedoruk, Lyndon Byers, Kelly Chase, and Jim McKenzie. I fully suggest reading the full article, as it includes not only lengthy excerpts from interviews but also some insightful commentary from Austin Murphy, but after the jump I present some very revealing excerpts from the interviews.
One of the mind-boggling things to me is that fighting is so widely accepted as a way to prevent star players from getting injured through cheap hits or illegal stick-work. What a brilliant system for the NHL, which has to take virtually no accountability for the safety of its players or, y’know, actually enforce its own rules of play. If the league were to combine a more severe punishment of fighting with a much, much stricter system of penalizing, suspending, and fining players for dangerous and illegal play – to actually create disincentives for players to engage in dangerous play – it’s hard to see how this would not create a significant and progressive culture shift in professional hockey.
Currently, as some of the interviews excerpts reveal, players have a strong incentive to fight because they are rewarded for it. Fighting becomes an acceptable means to achieve the dream of playing NHL hockey, regardless of the physical and mental toll it takes on both the individual player and countless others in the professional and minor hockey ranks – including the many scrappers whose NHL dreams are never realized. Furthermore, once socialized into the role of enforcer, some players clearly revel in the glory of the role, embrace the aggressive masculine image that is associated with the practice, and do whatever it takes to cling to this position.
After the jump, I present excerpts from the Sports Illustrated interviews because, I believe, they reveal a great deal about the motivations for becoming a fighter; the physical toll that this role entails; the self-policed norms of “the Code”; and the effects of a league that is too cowardly to enact or enforce rules to curb the damaging effects of on-ice violence. But enough of my own commentary, let’s hear it in fighters’ own words:
Lydnon Byers on the physical toll of fighting and the pressure to play through injury:
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.
Tony Twist explains “the Code”:
[After the Red Wings’ Martin Lapointe hits Blues’ star Chris Pronger], I drop my gloves, but Lapointe turtles—he won’t fight me. . . . 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 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?
Kelly Chase and Jim McKenzie explain how players adjust their ambitions and are socialized into becoming fighters:
[Chase:] None of us dreamed when we were little boys of fighting at center ice in Maple Leaf Gardens. . . . You grow up dreaming of scoring a goal in the Stanley Cup finals.
[McKenzie:] The question becomes, “What are you willing to do?” 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?
As Byers explains, undergoing such a socialization process can lead fighters to glorify the role; furthermore, the rules of hockey allow players to earn honour and accolades in a manner they could not in any other sport:
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.
Shawn Thornton explains how fighting can be a ticket to the big leagues for less-talented players:
I had to [fight] earlier in my career, to get me where I am. But I was never O.K. with it. . . . I have a tough time just sitting on the bench. I tried to work my ass off to make myself a better player, so I could contribute in other ways.
Byers explains how he became a fighter, and the manner in which North American hockey culture rewards a handful of the players who embrace this role:
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.
Finally, Byers reflects on an ongoing rivalry with Gino Odjick – and the lengths to which he would go to get the upper hand in this contest:
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. . . . 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.’