Kordic's cocaine habit snowballed. According to the Canadian Press, his teammates started calling him Sniffy. He was chronically low on cash, and at least twice he asked the Leafs for an advance on his salary. Kordic became moodier than usual and started missing games without permission. In the summer of '90, Toronto management encouraged Kordic to enter a drug rehabilitation program, according to Jim McKenny, a former Leaf turned Toronto TV sportscaster who occasionally acts as an informal liaison between the club and players who have problems with substance abuse. McKenny, who admits he is a former cocaine addict, feels that cocaine was only part of Kordic's problem. "Low self-esteem," he says, "then the drugs. All the drugs are linked. A guy like him will have two or three drinks, then he wants to get into the blow, then to take the edge off that he has five or six drinks to get level again, then he'll get pumped up on steroids and start all over again. It sounds crazy, but to him it was a way of life."
In February '91 the Leafs traded Kordic to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a draft pick. He played seven games for the Caps, was suspended twice for what the team characterized as alcohol-related offenses and placed in a substance-abuse center in Minnesota. In June 1991 Washington handed him his unconditional release.
Prompted by former Quebec defenseman Bryan Fogarty, a rehab-clinic companion, Kordic begged Pagé for a job with the Nordiques. Pagé says Kordic's reputation had preceded him, so the Nordiques set stringent terms before signing him: He would be forbidden to drink and would be tested regularly for drugs. The deal was struck in August. "It wasn't something we were crazy about doing," Pagé says, "but we decided to take the risk."
The arrangement lasted less than five months. Although the Nordiques never gave a reason, Kordic was released by the team last January. "He broke the rules, and that was it for him," Pagé says. "He came to me and cried. I said, 'Isn't that the deal we made? We gave you a chance when no one else would, and I'm glad we did it." I'm still glad we did it."
Pagé denies Kordic had tested positive for cocaine, but Masse and Cashman say Kordic was using the drug again. He had played 19 games for Quebec, scored two points and spent 115 minutes locked in the penalty box.
"So often we said to him, 'Do you want to live or do you want to die?' " Pagé says. "It's strange to think back on it now, but we said that."
When he arrived in Quebec, Kordic began hanging out in the strip joints along the seedy Boulevard Hamel. He met and fell in love with Massé, a 23-year-old nude model and dancer. He asked her to marry him. She still wears the ring.
"I swear to God," Massé says, "John was not mean. He was a nice guy. He was not a bad guy. He had to fight. He had no choice."
Last March, Kordic signed a minor league contract with his hometown team, the Oilers. He joined Edmonton's AHL farm team in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and, as usual, he mostly sat on his fanny in the penalty box. The Oilers thought about inviting him to training camp next month. Kordic could picture himself playing at home in an Oiler uniform. He was even beginning to contemplate his first on-ice tête-à-tête with his 21-year-old brother, Dan. A 6'5" defenseman who plays for Philadelphia, Dan is showing signs of becoming the skillful, aggressive backliner his brother always wanted to be. "John would say, 'That little——, I'm going to kick his ass: he thinks he's better than me,' " Massé says. "I said, 'He's your brother. You don't really want to fight your brother, do you?' And he would finally admit that he loved his brother, but he didn't know how to show it."
According to Massé, Kordic went through periods of euphoria and periods of black depression. He would sometimes fly into a violent rage. If it happened in a bar, he would get into a fight. If it happened at home, he might scream and yell and push her against a wall. The last time that occurred, in July, a neighbor called the police, and Kordic was hauled off to jail.