An enforcer's life (cont.)
In 1998, I was with Anaheim when we played Dallas and tensions were rising to a boiling point. Defenseman Craig Ludwig took out his frustration by running our star, Teemu Selanne, in a 5-1 game the Stars were leading that was essentially over. I heard our coach call my line and took the ice with our other ruffians. We lined up for the face-off in Dallas's end of the ice. I looked at who Dallas had sent out and tried to get their coach's attention -- I knew he did not recognize what was about to happen and had the wrong lineup on the ice.
The puck dropped and we launched our attack. I got paired with Stars defenseman Darryl Sydor, but that didn't matter to him. He was a warrior in his own right. I threw him to the ice and tried to find their enforcer. Darryl got up and jumped on my back. I got him off and fired one of the hardest lefts I have ever thrown and it hit the side of Darryl's head. The fight was over. Darryl was helped off the ice and the game came to a merciful end with only two players left on the benches. To this day, people in Dallas approach me and want to discuss that fight.
I sat on the bus after the game and thought about what I had done. I'd lost it and hurt someone. I was literally sick to my stomach. I can still see and feel that punch connect. I did not sleep well for several nights. Still, I could not let anyone know how I felt. I followed up to make sure that no permanent damage had been done to Darryl and prepared for my next bout.
As fate would have it, I played for Dallas the next season (1998-99) and my seatmate on our plane was Darryl. In your first introduction after something like that, you smile, make light of it, say you're sorry, but it hurts you. The memory of our fight made me feel even worse when I got to know what a great guy he is. The person you try to beat on one occasion becomes your teammate and friend the next. It's a crazy job!
As enforcer's ice time decreases as his fights increase. No matter how hard you practice, your foot speed, stick-handling, reads on the ice and overall performance go in the toilet fast. You need a game pace to stay sharp. It's a vicious cycle. You lift weights to become stronger, but as you get bigger, you get slower, thus decreasing your effectiveness. An inferiority complex can set in.
The best coaches and many GMs and owners are savvy enough to let their enforcer know he is a valued member of the team. After a fight -- win or lose -- you yearn for a pat on the back. Sometimes you don't get that acknowledgment from the coach, and it's generally someone who never played in the NHL or had been a small offensively-gifted player. Those coaches consider enforcers to be meatheads and whipping boys, but they will not take that attitude with a first-liner or top scorer. I've seen superstars tell coaches on the bench to f--- off, throw sticks at them in the dressing room and belittle them in front of everyone. Enforcers are the team's biggest, baddest guys, but they can never express themselves like that. If they do, they are considerd distractions to the team.
Here's the paradox: You must work yourself into a frenzy of emotions to fight, but outwardly curb those feelings. You still have to get through your day and do all the things that normal people have to do --- laundry; go to the grocery store, etc. -- while the frenzy inside your mind builds. But you can't expose it to the rest of the world. It's only acceptable to express it on the ice.
I first hurt my neck while fighting in juniors, and the constant tugging and punches to the head during my pro career caused issues that resonate to this day. My neck muscles still lock up and spasm.
While playing for Dallas in Oct. 1998, I fought Probert and fell backwards into the boards, striking the back of my head and jamming my chin into my chest. This injury ultimately put me out of the NHL.
I did everything trainers, doctors, and specialists suggested -- chiropractic, acupuncture and homeopathic care. One trainer said I was having difficulty healing because I was so wound up emotionally. I had a lot of things going on in my personal life and was struggling to get back into the lineup and frustrated mentally because every minute away meant someone else was filling my spot.
I worked frantically to get back onto the ice with my team and made it for a Feb.15, 1999 game against Edmonton. My reward was a date with hulking Georges Laraque at center ice. Unfortunately, my injury had taken away my biggest asset: strength. My timing was also off and I missed my jersey-grab on his big left arm. Georges proceeded to use my face as a speed bag and I never got set. I suffered a on home ice, a cut across the nose and a black eye.
If you get beaten up like that, you have to fight again to save face for yourself and your team. If you don't, you're considered soft. Embarrassment makes you angry and your fear is pushed aside. So after five minutes in the box, I went straight for Georges on the very next shift. Most people don't remember our second fight. In my own scoring system, I call it a draw. At least I was able to trade with him and score a few points in the bout.
I could sense the end of my NHL days was near after gooning it up for the Stars in 1999. All the healthy scratches and injuries had made it one of the toughest years of my career. I wasn't looking forward to another year of sitting, watching and getting punched in the face. Finding no takers in the NHL, I headed to Europe. It was a chance to get back to playing hockey as defenseman again. The German League had very little fighting and a big ice surface with little contact, so I could relax and enjoy the game. It was also a chance to restore some of my dignity. After three years of being labeled a goon, it was time to contribute to a team in other ways. Even with all that, two years in Germany was enough.
When I retired, my mind and body wanted to get away from the physical pain and mental pressure. During the transition to my new life, my bouts of restlessness increased. I had strange dreams and nightmares about fighting. What got me through was a post-hockey plan and a good family support system. My wife Jill has been my biggest supporter. However, after you decompress, you start to miss the physical activity and competition. I even missed the pressure and being sore.
Enforcers are a small, proud fraternity called to do something that is against society's norms. Intimidation is part of hockey life and fighting has a place our sport. It keeps the game in check with fewer stick incidents and runs at guys, and it's a great release valve in a pressure-filled contest. The dirtiest, nastiest, most dangerous hockey I've played was in leagues that didn't have fighting. I even think there should be more of it and everyone should be responsible for taking care of themselves. I hate that only a few guys are asked to do nothing but fight.
I look at my career as a great success. It was tough and I hurt almost every day, but I'm proud that I had the guts and drive to battle. If you were to ask me to do it all over again, I would be up for the challenge. But I still get nervous for guys when their gloves come off. I catch myself holding my breath and twitching a bit as a fight develops. I know these fighters are doing everything they can to stay in the game.