Fighting for More

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Harley Haggarty, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

Wanna go?

I skated out to my dance partner, dropped my gloves and grabbed on. I didn’t start hitting him right away because even though I knew the guy wanted to fight, he had told me before the game that his coach wouldn’t let him. If I really wanted it to happen, I had to make it obvious to everyone in the arena that I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Normally, I wouldn’t put in that sort of effort just to throw down, but this wasn’t another petty scrap. This was my prizefight.

I swear we went from blue line to blue line just kind of holding on to each other for what felt like an entire period. Then, once the time was right, he dropped his gloves and we traded knuckles.

As I headed off the ice, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. I had done it. My new spot in history was sealed. Second place all-time in the Western States Hockey League’s record book for most fights.

I had never orchestrated a fight like that before. During the warmup before the game, the guy I’d end up fighting had skated over and sat down beside me while I was stretching out. He told me how much he enjoyed the article I’d written for The Players’ Tribune a few months earlier. Naturally, my response was to ask him if he wanted to go that night.

He was ready and willing, but as it turned out, his coach didn’t care for my antics. After that article, I actually had a hard time getting fights. The guys who didn’t know me before it came out knew me now, and I had developed a reputation as a result. This was my last year of juniors before I aged out, and I was practically begging guys to fight me.

So that night, this guy and I hatched a plan. If we made it look like I jumped him, he would be able to fight me. Their coach would have blown a fuse if the kid had just agreed to go, so I did my best to be convincing about it.

The rule is that if you jump someone like that, you get ejected. No two ways about it. Our team was out of contention by that point, so it wasn’t an issue. I’ve never been so happy to be given the gate.

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I don’t light up the stat sheet very often. Never have and never will. I’ve never usually had much use for it. Hell, for most of my life, I’ve just been happy to be on a team period. So when I had the chance to chase down history — even the kind of history that doesn’t qualify as a footnote of a footnote to most — it meant something to me. It meant a whole lot.

Funny thing is, I almost never even learned about the fights record in the first place. It’s pretty wild how I found out about it, actually.

I had just been traded to Butte from San Diego. That’s Butte, Mont., for those who don’t know. On the bus after one of my first fights for my new club, a teammate of mine said he had something to show me. I figured it was just another prank like the boys always pull, and I was the new guy, so I made sure not to doze off on the ride. Soon enough, he tossed his phone my way.

On the screen, he had pulled up some goofy-looking website with a big, generic font. It looked like some shit from the dawn of the Internet. And that’s where I saw it for the first time, my footnote:

I knew I had taken my fair share of punches over the years, but I was as surprised as anyone. As it turns out, this site logs the fights from basically every hockey league in the world. It tracks them all. It’s not even a professional website, I think someone just kind of started it. Regardless, there was my name near the top of the WSHL leaderboard. It was pretty shocking. I’d never really seen my name on any leaderboard before.

As it turned out, according to this semiofficial-but-possibly-not list, I was just a handful of fights out of second place. The guy in first had a few extra years in the league, so that was out of reach. But second place? It was right there.

That’s really how it happened. Before that, fighting had just been a way for me to stay in hockey. I was a forward but I didn’t have the kind of hands to finish, or the vision to spark many plays. Don’t even get me started on my skating.

Once I learned about the record, though, I knew I had to go for it. Ever since Christmas break ended, I had been struggling internally. I knew this was my last year of juniors, and possibly of my career. So with the second half of the season underway, I began thinking about leaving some kind of legacy behind. Something to be proud of after I hung up my skates.

I had earned a spot in the league through fighting, so it only seemed fitting that I would earn a spot in the record books the same way. This was my chance. The thing is, by the time I decided to go for second, I wasn’t really the fighter I had been during my first couple of years in the league. I was doing something entirely different. Something unexpected. I was actually playing hockey. 22676138717_eaf3227088_o-2

At the beginning of the season, when I was still with San Diego, my coach made it clear that while I’d always be a tough guy, he wanted me to develop as a player and broaden my game. I was thrilled. It was pretty much the opposite message I’d been getting from coaches since I began playing competitive hockey.

So during that first part of the season, I did things on the ice I had never done before. I played a little bit on the blue line, which was totally new for me, and I even chipped in on offense. I notched 11 points — double digits for the first time. And as one of the older guys on the team, I started to embrace more of a leadership role, as well.

We had traded one of our veterans toward the middle of the season, and one day, when we were coming off an especially rough practice, my best buddy came up to me in the locker room and gave me one of those knowing smiles, followed by a wink. It kind of weirded me out. Right after that, my coach came by and called me into his office.

I’ll admit, I was scared shitless.

Anyway, I walked in and the GM and the rest of the coaching staff were all sitting there. In my experience, that’s not a great sign. I was pretty sure I had been traded at that point. Why else would they all have wanted to talk to me?

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be wrong. I had just been named the team’s newest assistant captain.

In San Diego, I was comfortable. Most of the younger guys would ask me what to do in various situations both on and off the ice. Instead of just being a guy hoping to hang on to a roster spot, I suddenly had an actual role. I tried my best to draw on my own stories of playing in different places across the league and growing up on the road. As a veteran leader on our team, I wanted to convey one simple thing to those younger guys: to love the game. I don’t spray oil fields back home each summer because it’s fun. I do it in order to fund my season. I do it because I love to play hockey. It’s that simple.

The season wore on and I tried not to think about the future too much. I wanted to live in the moment because I knew it would be over in a blink.

Our team in San Diego was down in the standings when our GM approached me before the trade deadline to see if I wanted to go to a contender.

Moving from San Diego to Butte, even in pursuit of a playoff run, was a tough call to make. I was entrenched in a familiar situation. I loved golfing with the boys. California sunshine. The ocean. And Butte? I only knew the place existed in the first place because I played there a couple of times. It’s … not San Diego.

Even so, I knew this would be my last shot to win. How do you say no to that? So I hopped on the phone with the coach in Butte. I liked what he had to say. They were making some moves to put together a real contender, so I decided to live in the moment and ship up to Montana.

I was shocked when I got to Butte, honestly. The rink was the single worst I had ever played in. To put it lightly, the place was a dump. I won’t even get into it. But with crowds like the ones we had up there, that didn’t matter one bit. The place was rocking every single night, and we were treated like celebrities around the town. My teammates and I would be on a grocery run at the local Walmart and people would stop us to talk about our most recent game.

We were on the road in Medford, Ore., near end of the season. This was our last road trip of year and a make-or-break weekend for us. Three games. If we managed to grab a couple of wins, we’d be in the playoffs.

We lost all three.

A lot of the boys were in tears in the locker room when it was all over, slumped in their stalls, heartbroken. I’ll be the first to admit, I bawled my eyes out.

Even so, we couldn’t mope around for too long. We had to head home. We loaded our stuff on the bus for what was sure to be the longest ride of the year.

Around 11 p.m., the bus made its first stop, on the side of a random highway in Oregon. We all got off to stretch our legs and take care of our business. Nothing too crazy. We were standing around when out of nowhere, “Carolina,” by Parmalee, started playing. That was our team’s song.

I guess one of the boys had brought his portable speaker out with us and he figured it was the right moment. A few guys started singing and soon enough, the whole team joined in. A few coaches even sang along.

There we were, on the side of a road in the middle nowhere, singing, crying and soaking in our last road trip together that season. When people talk hockey, you hear a lot about team chemistry. But unless you’re in the room, I don’t think you can fully grasp the bond that’s shared on a close team. It’s something that comes naturally. It can’t be forced. Yes, our team missed the playoffs, but in that moment, we were just thankful to have each other.

I still get chills thinking about it. A couple dozen hockey players singing at the top of our lungs next to a bus on the side of the highway. That’s when everyone realized the magnitude of the situation. That’s when it really hit us. Pretty soon, the ride would be over.

Once the season ended, I packed everything up and said goodbye to my billet family. Then it was back to Alberta for another long off-season. I’m lucky enough to have a few options for the future, and I decided not commit to anything just yet. I’m thinking about the possibilities. I might even hit the ice again in the fall. We’ll see.

I’m a fighter in the literal sense, but that’s not all I am. As I gained experience and my fighting improved, my self-confidence grew as well. During my junior hockey career, I evolved as a person. I found myself, really.

No matter what I end up doing next, I’ll always be proud of what I accomplished in juniors. I improved as a person and as a player during those three years in ways that I can never put into words. So even though I’ve given this game everything I could — the blood, the sweat and the broken bones — I’ll still always feel indebted for how much it’s given me in return.

Fighting to Fight

I don’t consider myself a good hockey player. I don’t even consider myself a good fighter. But if I want to keep playing hockey, that’s what I’ve got to do.

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