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Posted: Wednesday September 21, 2011 11:44AM ; Updated: Wednesday September 21, 2011 4:53PM

An enforcer's life is a daily battle

Story Highlights

It was my dream to play in the NHL and I would do anything to stay there

Fighting fills your thoughts and a slow boil of fear never leaves your life

If you win a fight, you're glad but still feel bad for the guy you beat up

By Brent Severyn

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An All-Star defenseman in the AHL, Brent Severyn (left) later found that the only way to stay in the NHL was by using his fists.
An All-Star defenseman in the AHL, Brent Severyn (left) later found that the only way to stay in the NHL was by using his fists.
Sam Mircovich/Reuters

The deaths of three NHL enforcers -- Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak -- since May shed light on the issues and dangers that enforcers face on and off the ice. Brent Severyn, Belak's teammate on the 1996-97 Colorado Avalanche, had a 328-game NHL career with six teams that began with the Quebec Nordiques in 1989 and ended in 1999 with the Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars. Now the owner of the Dallas-area business Severyn Sports, Severyn took time to tell SI.com's Adrian Dater what it's really like to fight for a living in the NHL.

The day I became a "goon" is pretty clear. In September 1996 -- seven years into my NHL career, the same season that Wade Belak was turning pro and joining the Avalanche -- I got a call from Colorado. "We need a fourth-line forward to protect our guys, are you interested?" After a 15- or 20-minute conversation, I decided I would give it a shot.

It was my dream to be playing in the NHL and I was willing to do anything to stay there. Being an enforcer was the toughest job I had to do. Protecting your teammates by fighting is a physical and mental battle waged daily with opponents and within your own head. The actual fight on the ice is not the worst part. It's thinking about the fight. A mental vise grips you at training camp and doesn't let go until the end of the season. Fighting permeates every aspect of your thoughts. A slow boil of fear is always under the surface of your life.

Fighting was not enjoyable, but it had always earned me respect and room on the ice. When I joined Colorado, I had been working to establish myself as a stay-at-home defenseman in the NHL. I was known as a guy who could handle himself, but I generally left the heavy lifting to my team's enforcer. I didn't know much about the forward position. Frankly, I did not have the stick-handling ability for it. I was excited to play on a team that had just won the Stanley Cup and had an outstanding chance to repeat, but I did not realize that my life as a hockey player and how I would be viewed for the rest of my career would be altered forever.

The challenge

Skilled players use the preseason to get their timing back, work the power play and get into game shape. Tough guys have to be on at all times, ready to handle every new young player who wants to take their jobs and livelihoods. Training camp may be the only time these kids can impress the people who make personnel decisions. In camp with Colorado, there were several tough guys ready to take my role. I was fortunate to have [veteran winger] Mike Keane as my mentor to guide me on positioning and puck management in my new position. What Mike could not prepare me for was the demands of being the enforcer. I was being asked to replace Chris Simon, a monster of a man, an intimidating presence on the ice. This weighed on me heavily during that camp.

I had to fight a couple of times and I sensed players on other teams would use me to make an impression on their coaches. I felt their eyes burning the back of my head during the warm-up skate before games. That was the time to get a read on a player. You learn quickly to pay attention to little things that might give you an edge in a fight: body language, skating ability and sweater-size were indicators of a pugilist who would test me. I always looked to see what hand he used to take off his helmet during the national anthems. If he held it with his left, he would most likely hold my shirt with that hand and punch with his right. If he held his helmet with the other hand, he was a dreaded lefty and would have to be dealt with another way. If you are not prepared for something like that, your fight will be short and humiliating.

An enforcer must also have a feel for how a game is unfolding and continually take stock of his team's emotional state. Are the guys skating well? Do they seem up? If they need a wake-up call, you fight. If the other team has the emotional edge, you fight. The score also determines when you apply your trade. The minute the other team gets a two-goal lead, it's time to dust off your knuckles as your coach may put you in to stop your opponents' surge. Up three or more goals, you get more ice time as you have to be out there to keep the peace.

Games from Hell

Knowing you have to fight someone as tough as Georges Laraque is enough to keep you awake at night.
Knowing you have to fight someone as tough as Georges Laraque is enough to keep you awake at night.
Michael Mulvey/Reuters

Being an enforcer was exhausting emotionally. I was always mentally taking note of my upcoming dance card -- the guy I had to fight next. I lay awake at night and tried to remember what he did in our last fight, his strengths and weaknesses, and how to protect myself. Joe Lozito, a friend, spent hours tracking fighters and putting them on video. If you wanted your fights or needed the "book" on a new guy, Joe was the guy to ask. Now, the website, hockeyfights.com, is the library of fighter information.

A typical road trip scenario from my years as a fighter: I'm on a plane to Toronto. Their enforcer is Tie Domi. He throws both hands and loves to chirp. Man, he's so strong. If I release my grip too early, I'm done. I've got to throw for his chin as he has a very hard head. After Toronto, we play Ottawa and Dennis Vial: unpredictable, a big-time gamer. Then it's two games from hell. In St. Louis, Kelly Chase challenges anyone and will not tolerate anything out there. Tony Twist is big and strong with devastating punches that can cave your face in a second. After that, Detroit: Bob Probert (legendary tough guy with stamina, strength and power) and his sidekick Joey Kocur, whose right hand is the size of an anvil. Didn't he break some guy's helmet in two?

Sitting on the bench during those games, a sick feeling washed over me. My stomach churned with fear, anxiety and anticipation. I felt my teammates' expectations as they looked at me. They knew I was going to stand up for them, and I had a sense of pride in my role and responsibility.

I'd go in cold, my legs and back a little sore from sitting most of the game. There were 20,000 people in the building, but only one had my attention. I might as well have left my stick and gloves on the bench. The joke around the dressing room was that tough guys don't even see the puck. "You handle it like a manhole cover," my teammates joked. It's true. Like a magnet, you are always drawn to your counterpart on the other team.

The burst

Once the gloves are off, the pressure, tension and mental energy explode in a huge release of violence. Your instincts and strategy take over. I fought so often that I could feel my adversary's movement and tell you what hand he was throwing, I didn't have to look. When your punch connects, you feel it in your hands and through your body. I also knew if I was throwing wildly. You sense when you are off-balance or your rhythm is wrong. Being unsettled in a fight usually portends danger. The first rule of the fight club is to never look down. If you do, you are open to a devastating uppercut. Sometimes when I really got tagged I would see a bright starburst in my head, almost like lightning. I thought I was soft and it was a sign of weakness until I interviewed Ultimate Fighting champion Matt Hughes years later and he said he felt the same thing when he was hit hard.

If I lost a fight, I felt terrible that I let the team down. Embarrassed and pissed off, I'd stew in the penalty box. I'd hear it from friends at home. My mom would call to make sure I was all right. But coaches, the other players, and management aren't concerned that you just got your ass handed to you. It doesn't matter that you have a broken nose and lacerations on you cheek. You're expected to smile and like it. Your job is to keep everyone else up and it makes no difference if your hands are busted up so bad that you can't hold a soda can.

If I really beat up a guy, I was happy I got away unscathed, but I felt bad. I knew he'd have to handle the same embarrassment and dirty looks from his coaches and teammates, and hear from fans about how he'd had his clock cleaned. I felt oddly emotional if my opponent had to be carted off because he was injured. We fight as part of our living, but we do not want to interrupt or ruin anyone's career. It's a crazy fraternity.

 
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