"CAME IN AS A CRUSHER. NOW THINKS HE'S A RUSHER. WILL SOON BE AN USHER."
Louie DeBrusk has not been reduced to an usher, although on this February night he does have an excellent seat on the Edmonton Oilers' bench. He is far enough from the gate not to have to open it for teammates. He had a couple of shifts in the first period against the Toronto Maple Leafs, skating his wing, banging opponents, but the Oilers are up 6-1 in the second period, and DeBrusk looks as if he has been glued to the bench. There is another NHL adage, not as catchy as the one about the crusher-rusher-usher devolution of a hockey fighter, but just as poignant: If you can't play in a 6-1 game, you can't play.
DeBrusk is supposed to be the Oilers' enforcer—or cop or tough guy or, if you prefer the G word, goon—but the skin on his knuckles is hardly marked. Edmonton coach Ron Low declines to discuss DeBrusk's job performance, but not dressing him for 18 consecutive games earlier this season and burying him on the bench during the Toronto blowout are eloquent enough.
"It's not that Louie is chicken," an Edmonton executive says. "Not at all." But sometimes the nuances of DeBrusk's role escape him. Example: If an opposing player takes a cheap shot at Oilers star center Doug Weight and Weight responds with a cross-check of his own, then the 6'2", 215-pound DeBrusk sees the affair as closed, or at least not requiring his intervention. An enforcer, however, is expected to take everything personally—and to respond personally.
DeBrusk, who turns 26 this week, is still trying to come to terms with that reality. Being an enforcer has never been easy for him, but he is adjusting. He hasn't had a drink since the summer of 1995, a year after his second stay at the Betty Ford Clinic. "I can look back and say fighting's pretty much given me a life, but it's also kind of destroyed my life," DeBrusk says the morning after the Leafs game. "The fact that I am a fighter on the ice and the difficulties I've had with that job definitely brought me to drink a few times. I'd go out after a game, and all I could think of was the pressure I had on me during the game. Maybe I didn't fight. There'd be the guilt that I didn't fight, the feeling of worthlessness, I guess. Then I'd go out and drink myself into oblivion, and maybe I'd get into a fight later. I've been advised by people who have helped me in rehab not to go back to my job."
A sixth-year veteran with 19 goals, 12 assists and 792 penalty minutes over his career, DeBrusk earns $350,000 a year, and while that isn't exactly Mike Tyson money, fighting pays. If you prorate DeBrusk's salary over his ice time, he probably earns almost as much per minute as the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux, who makes $11 million a year. DeBrusk has a high school equivalency diploma. He doesn't have many career options.
"I love this job, but at times I almost hate this job," DeBrusk says. "There are times you don't feel like going out there and fighting. If someone does something to me on the ice, it's not difficult for me to flip the switch. Sometimes when I'm sitting on the bench for the whole game, though, and someone does something to a teammate, I don't necessarily feel great about having to go out and fight. Unfortunately, that's my job."
That job is the worst in sports.
They throw down the gauntlet and then throw down the gloves, and for the next 20, 30 or even 45 seconds, until exhaustion or a linesman intercedes, two guys throw punches. They do it while holding on to each other's sweaters and balancing themselves on ⅛-inch-thick blades. They are not punching with those cute 10-ounce gloves Iron Mike wears but with their bare fists, and they are connecting with skulls or the plastic helmets that cover them, usually while getting socked in the head themselves. "It's like punching a wall every night," Florida Panthers defenseman and enforcer Paul Laus says.
Some players, such as Tie Domi of Toronto, relish fighting—Domi claims he has started 90% of his 23 fights this season—but most do it without any sense of joy. The job certainly isn't thankless; 18,000 fans will roar their approval and teammates will bang their sticks against the boards if you win a scrap. But the physical and psychological toll can be staggering.