If you are a member of the fighters' fraternity, you are going to get hurt; Todd Ewen of the San Jose Sharks, for example, has had four hand operations. If you don't fulfill your pugilistic obligations, you might get blackballed, as forward Paul Mulvey found out 15 years ago. You do not necessarily fight on your own terms. You cannot always pick your spots. Maybe you are married and have kids, and your wife thinks you're setting a terrible example for Junior. Maybe you are not as tired of fighting as you are tired of thinking about fighting.
"We've all had that oh-I-think-my-girlfriend's-pregnant feeling, that sick-to-your-stomach feeling when you have to do something you don't want to do," says Kelly Chase, the rambunctious Hartford Whalers winger who has averaged 4.7 penalty minutes per game while stirring pots and throwing rights since the 1989-90 season. "It's like when you've had somebody in school organize a fight for you. You know that at 3:30 you've got to go out and have that fight. That's how I feel every game and probably how I've felt since junior hockey. Eventually that's what chases a lot of guys away from the game."
They didn't start out to be fighters. None of them. When their parents woke them at 5 a.m. and helped them into shoulder pads in the dead of January, when they spent summers at hockey camp instead of at the lake, they weren't learning how to fight. They were playing hockey because they liked playing hockey. By the time they were in juniors, though, they probably knew what their role was. And they learned a cruel fact: If you're a fighter, you don't spend much time actually playing hockey.
"The worst part for a fighter is that when hockey matters most, you become irrelevant," New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury says. "In Game 7 of a Stanley Cup series, chances are you won't play or maybe even dress." There have been only 15 fights in the 65 seventh games played since 1969, and none since '91. "A hockey player wants to play Game 7," Milbury says. "That's what he lives for. Everyone wants to matter."
But many fighters never get a chance to develop beyond the goon stage. If a guy has some skills and gets ice time, the opportunity to develop, he could end up on a regular shift, as did Chris Nilan, the fourth-most-penalized player in NHL history, who earned a spot on a checking line with the Montreal Canadiens after four years in the league. Or he might wind up like Marty McSorley, who went from being Wayne Gretzky's bodyguard with the Oilers and Los Angeles Kings to a solid defenseman, now with the San Jose Sharks. Nilan and McSorley are the idols of every roughneck who dreams of attaining a Gordie Howe hat trick: a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game.
"You go to war for your teammates, you expect to be rewarded with an opportunity to play," Florida general manager Bryan Murray says. "That's the only way you can develop as a player. [Enforcers] all say, 'Give me a chance to show what I can do.' To make money, to stick around a long time, you need ice time to develop."
But the enforcer's job more likely will bury him. If a coach allows a player's skills to rot, that player could end up like Willi Plett, the 1976-77 rookie of the year with the Atlanta Flames. When Plett came up he was a talented power forward who was also adept with his fists. After 13 seasons with three teams, however, he retired prematurely because he felt he was being turned into a full-time thug. He finished with 222 goals and 2,574 penalty minutes. "As my career went on, my toughness was more important to the team than my goal scoring," Plett says. "And that pissed me off. I was tough and I could play, but it turned on me."
The ultimate cautionary tale of a crusher turned rusher was that of the Boston Bruins' John Wensink, who had 20 goals after 28 games of the 1978-79 season but was bumped to the fourth line by coach Don Cherry because Cherry thought all that scoring was turning the six-foot, 200-pound Wensink soft. Wensink finished the season with 28 goals and went on to play for five NHL teams over parts of eight seasons. He gained his greatest fame for standing in front of the Minnesota North Stars bench in 1978 and challenging anyone who would oblige him to a fight. Nobody did.
And if a coach puts a player in a little box, why shouldn't fans? "Nobody expects Arnold Schwarzenegger to be firing a machine gun when he walks into a restaurant," says Ewen, who once asked his wife, Kelli, a model, to turn down a chance to pose for the cover of Playboy because he figured if she posed, he would have to fight on every shift he took. "People who know me kind of think I'm a Renaissance man"—Ewen has written and illustrated a children's book—"but most people assume when I walk into a restaurant that I'll break down the door, slap a head, order raw meat and then gnaw on the bone. That's the weird part. So many people live through fighters. After a game they'll say, 'Yeah, you smacked that guy's face; you killed him.' But once you don't do well, they're the first to call you a bum and say you're too old. You get labeled for life."
In the 1978 playoffs, 6'2", 205-pound Pierre Bouchard was branded by a punch to the nose thrown by Boston's Stan Jonathan, a small (5'8", 175) but fierce man who left Bouchard, then the Canadiens' enforcer, a pulpy mess. The memory of Montreal's Stanley Cup-winning goal that year has faded, but Bouchard's blood still flows bright crimson in fans' minds.