When his heart stopped beating, John Kordic was lying prone in the rear of an ambulance, strapped to a stretcher, surrounded by policemen. His oversized arms, pumped up by anabolic steroids, were pinned behind his back by two pairs of handcuffs linked in a makeshift chain. His feet were bound by rope. He struggled and raged until he took his final breath.
Hockey flipped the switch that turned on this fighting machine, but hockey didn't have a clue about how to turn it off. Hockey cast Kordic as a goon, an enforcer, a bare-knuckled caricature of a professional athlete. Hockey whispered about his use of cocaine, steroids and booze. And then hockey tried to cast Kordic away.
So hockey shouldn't really have been terribly surprised to learn what happened on the night of Saturday, Aug. 8, at a no-tell motel in a particularly dreary suburb of Quebec City. "It's like John had a time bomb inside him," says Pierre Pagé, general manager of the Quebec Nordiques, Kordic's last NHL team. "A time bomb set to explode."
He was 27 years old when the bomb went off.
Kordic wasn't always programmed to inflict maximum damage. When he was a kid growing up in Edmonton, he dreamed of playing defense like Bobby Orr. He was big and gregarious, with a quick, mischievous smile. His broad shoulders made him well suited for aggression, but he could also skate and score.
"He could play," says his mother, Regina Kordic. "But something went wrong. He started using nothing but his fists. After a while, I didn't recognize my kid. I didn't raise him that way."
Kordic may have made a simple deduction, or perhaps someone sent him an unmistakable message. The Montreal Canadiens, who drafted him in the fourth round in 1983, were stocked with outstanding defensemen, but they would certainly clear a spot for a hard-hitting rule breaker. Kordic proceeded to squeeze his 6'2" body through this crack in the door. Playing for Sherbrooke in the American Hockey League in '85-86, Kordic littered the ice with the bruised and beaten. Montreal called him up in time for the playoffs. Two months later he was wearing a Stanley Cup ring.
"He beat the——out of everybody," says Jean Perron, then the Montreal coach and now a Quebec City radio personality. "He was the best fighter in the league. Nobody could take John Kordic. The fans in the Forum would chant his name. Kor-dic! Kor-dic! Kor-dic!"
Ivan and Regina Kordic didn't appreciate the flying fists and the unprovoked attacks that made their son a fixture on the Hockey Night in Canada highlight tapes. "That really got to him," Perron says. "I remember seeing John crying into the phone after a game that we had won. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, 'My dad just gave me a hard time because I got into a fight tonight.' "
Kordic complained that he didn't like to fight, yet he was afraid not to. "I know why I'm here," he would say.