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Happily married now, Byers freely admits his former struggles with alcohol—a trait he shared with more than a few fellow tough guys. The deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak generated widespread conjecture that there might be something about the job that put its practitioners in harm's way. But in the spate of ensuing news stories seeking to link the three deaths, some saw a rush to judgment. Rypien had suffered depression "dating back to before he even got to the NHL," says one ex-enforcer who asked not to be named. "Boogaard had shoulder surgery, got hooked on oxy and couldn't get off it." Belak's family says his death was accidental. "It's not fair, or accurate," says the ex-enforcer, "to pin their deaths to the fact that they were tough guys."
Are enforcers under pressure? Of course they are, says McKenzie, who is credited by the authoritative Hockeyfights.com with 176 bouts in his 15-year NHL career. "Most tough guys are on one-, maybe two-year contracts at the most. That said, I can't imagine the pressure of being expected to score. You're making five million a year and you can't find the net and your own fans are booing you out of the building. My point being, there's pressure everywhere."
It's also true that plenty of goalies and forwards (and coaches and scouts and officials) have struggled with substance abuse. "But it seems that a lot of [enforcers] do have these characteristics," says Fedoruk, "or things they deal with on the side.
"Every guy's different. I know that long before I was bound for the NHL, I was on my road to addiction. I don't think the [enforcer] role necessarily leads to addiction, I just think that it could be that a certain kind of person ends up taking on that role."
Fedoruk scored 32 goals and logged 1,050 penalty minutes in nine NHL seasons. Three times he needed surgery to have plates inserted to repair broken bones in his face. And twice he's been to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. His second stint ended in the spring of 2010. After taking a year off from hockey to get his life back in order—Fedoruk has a wife and three children—he signed a tryout contract with the Canucks in August.
That's how he came to be trolling for a fight midway through a preseason game in San Jose on Sept. 29. Final cuts were the following morning; Fedoruk was on the bubble, and he knew it. Several Sharks shrunk from his offer to square off, his reputation having preceded him. He finally found a willing dance partner in Jim Vandermeer, who fought him to a draw with less than a minute left in the second period.
Just before this, Aaron Volpatti—the aforementioned 26-year-old Brown grad who happened to be competing with Fedoruk for the left wing spot on Vancouver's fourth line—had been called out by San Jose tough guy Brad Winchester. Volpatti had been a marked man in the Shark Tank since earlier in the second, when he had leveled Sharks defenseman Jason Demers with a clean check. Demers had to be helped from the ice. As Winchester turned on him, Volpatti threw one punch, a crisp right that turned the larger man's legs to jelly. Winchester collapsed, his legs splaying into what yoga instructors would recognize as Mandukasana, or frog pose. For the second time in the period a Shark hit by Volpatti had to be helped from the ice.
"Call me tomorrow," Fedoruk told a reporter after the game. "I'll be at the hotel."
Instead he was at the airport. "I got cut this morning," he said. A legit heavyweight, Fedoruk had an edge on the Ivy Leaguer in fighting. But Volpatti got the nod everywhere else. He was younger, faster, more skilled, and killed penalties. He got the job. This is where the NHL is going.
"I left it all out there," said Fedoruk, a few days later. "I mean, the last [regular-season] game I played, I was out on the ice still drunk from the night before. I left the game on good terms. I got to leave the ice a sober man."