SI Vault
 
ICEMEN YOU'D LOVE TO HATE
Pat Jordan
December 13, 1971
John Ferguson, long and lean and sharp, is perched on a stool in a New York City drugstore, his shoulders hunched over the counter. His face, fleshless and dominated by a beaklike nose, is pointed down at his hands, which are moving back and forth across the Formica counter. He has curved his long, thin fingers so that each hand is shaped like a talon, and now, slowly, he brings the hands together until the fingertips touch and then withdraws them. He repeats the process time after time while the fat man standing beside him fidgets and stares at the moving hands. The fat man has a pink, anxious face, and he is clutching a piece of paper in his right hand, which he keeps out of sight.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 13, 1971

Icemen You'd Love To Hate

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Dorey looks at the man disgustedly and begins shoving his hands into his pants pockets, withdrawing keys, wallet, loose change in an attempt to find American currency. Finally he finds a dollar bill and hands it to the bellhop. The bellhop looks at it carefully, turns it over and walks out of the room. Dorey follows him to the door and shuts it angrily. He returns to his chair, unbuttons the rest of his shirt, pulls it out of his pants and sits down. He is silent for a moment, trying to remember where he was, and then he continues.

"Like I was saying, you've got to remind yourself to react spontaneously. You do this by preparing yourself every minute of the day. The way you react in a game shows how you've lived and prepared yourself. I mean, what kind of guy you are. If a guy reacts like a bastard on the ice, he knows that in life he's probably a bastard. He's revealed himself, both to the people watching and himself. Maybe he was trying to hide it from himself, who knows? But now that it's in the open, it makes him bitter, and so he takes it out on anyone he can. He becomes even meaner. In hockey you have to step back now and then and look at yourself. How do I play this game? What does it mean?

"When I first came up to the NHL I got a reputation for being quick with my fists. In one game I got 47 penalty minutes. I never thought I was any rougher than in the minors, and I still don't think I was. But in the NHL everything is magnified by the publicity. You're always in the public eye. If you get into a fight in New York, everyone in the United States and Canada reads about it. Who reads about all those fights in New Haven? But I don't want a reputation as a fighter. I want to be a complete hockey player. So now I'm trying to control myself, trying not to fight as much. But, damn, it's hard. That's not the way I am. I'm forcing myself to react against my nature. But if I ever want to be a good player, I'll have to do it."

Dorey stands up again and takes off his shirt. He throws it over the bed with his jacket and tie. He is wearing no undershirt. He flexes his shoulder muscles as if to loosen them up after shedding a great weight, then he sinks back into his chair.

"I watch Jacques Plante play the game. Jeez, I'll never know as much as him. He makes it all look so damned easy. He's so smart. I don't want to be only a physical player, no brains, nothing to fall back on when you burn yourself out. But sometimes you can't help yourself. Every game is a test of your courage. You question yourself. Did I let up that game? Did I act like a man? Did I back off? Those questions are always there. If you doubt your courage for a minute, you have to eat it until the next game. Then you go out and hit the first guy you see. But it's only in your mind, the test, I mean. You build it up until you believe you're only as tough as your last game, that if you let down one game, just one, then everyone will know, and they'll all run at you. You've got to continually prove yourself. I don't think we play this game just to prove we're men, like Joe Kapp and his machismo thing. It's too high a price to pay. But even though that's not the reason, in the long run, that's what it's all about, to prove you're a man."

On Jan. 28, 1971, six weeks after he was hit in the face by a puck (which subsequently cost him an eye), George Guilbault of the New Haven Blades of the Eastern Hockey League was presented with a $16,000 check at the New Haven Arena. The arena was filled to capacity with over 4,000 fans, many of whom had helped raise Guilbault's gift. The fans had come partly to see Guilbault accept the fruits of their labor and partly to see if his career-ending injury would affect his teammates, who would battle the Long Island Ducks that night. At the time the Blades were in first place in the Northern Division of the EHL. They held that position, a fan said, because of their style of play, which he described as "legalized assault and battery." He added that George Guilbault was lucky. He only lost an eye, for which he got $16,000 and a ticket out of the Eastern Hockey League.

The Blades and the arena are well suited to one another. Both are forbidding. The ceiling of the arena is a maze of metal supports and wires and cobwebs that cast eerie shadows over the spectators below. Its walls and floor are concrete, which intensifies the slightest sound, turning a slapped puck into a rifle shot and a player checked against the boards into an explosion. The playing ice is bordered by numerous wooden partitions. Their purpose was once to keep players from flying into the stands, but they have been so battered over the years that, with every impact, fans in the first three rows cringe. The partitions, once painted white, are now stained with the marks of pucks and the dried blood of the injured.

Surrounding much of the ice is a high metal fence. It is there both to keep flying pucks from hitting the fans and to keep flying fans from hitting the players—a common occurrence in the EHL. When the fans feel the action is lagging a bit and want to express their disapproval, they grasp the fence with both hands and shake it. This causes a rattling sound to vibrate around the ice. The impression it creates is that one is in a zoo witnessing the torment of caged animals, only it is not quite clear on which side of the ice the animals reside. The fans say that all the animals are on the ice—and the most savage on this night in early 1971 is a 5'11", 210-pound Scotch-Lebanese defenseman named Kevin Morrison.

It is not hard to spot Morrison on this particular night. Before the game is a minute old he crashes a Long Island player into the boards with such force that they splinter. The fans rattle the fence to show their approval, even though the play was meaningless; the Long Island man was not within 20 feet of the puck. In EHL games, it seems, a hockey puck is an extraneous item, something like an appendix. Although the players are burdened with it, they appear to have no use for it. The real purpose of the game is to see how often and how viciously a Blade can bash an opposing skater into the boards—or through them.

Morrison, a curly-haired young man of 22, admits he has to work harder to make contact than do his teammates. He is slower, he says. But he makes up for this lack of speed with a tireless devotion that sees him skating from opposing player to opposing player, smashing them into the boards regardless of whether or not they have the puck. Morrison is so feared that if a man is carrying the puck toward the New Haven goal and he senses Morrison bearing down on him from behind, he will leave the puck and skate elsewhere. In the 1970 EHL playoffs Morrison accumulated 44 penalty minutes and one match penalty, but not before he knocked the Johnstown goalie unconscious. The goalie thought he was protected because he was inside his net. In a game prior to the playoffs Morrison simultaneously broke the nose of one player and separated the shoulder of another.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8