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.

My first fight during a game happened when I was 18 years old playing in the Western States Hockey League. The game was in Wichita, Kansas and I remember there was this guy with a tinted visor on. He was French Canadian, so I was chirping him about that. He asked me if I wanted to go and then he pushed me. As soon as he touched me, I could feel how strong he was. Even though I’m 6’1” and a sturdy 230, he was just built. I told him hell no. I wasn’t ready to go up against a guy like that.

But then came the faceoff, and he immediately went on a breakaway and scored a goal. My coach gave me the look that I’ve seen countless times since. That subtle nod that can only mean, You’d better fight him now. So next shift we dropped the gloves and locked up. Luckily no one landed any bombs and we just kind of both went down on the ice.

I got back to the bench after the fight and my coach asked if I knew who that was. I told him I didn’t, and he said that the guy was from the Quebec Major Juniors, a league known for its scraps.

Oh shit.

I played his team again, this time in Texas on their home ice. We were chirping at each other, and ended up getting coincidental penalties. As we headed to the box he kept shaking his gloves at me and I remember thinking to myself, Don’t do it, don’t do it. But next thing I knew, we got out of the box and I looked down at my hands to see my gloves were off. Luckily the linesman came and grabbed both of us and said we had taken too long. I thanked him about 10 times on the way to the penalty box.

Everyone knows the guys in the NHL who do this kind of fighting, and they’re usually celebrated. The funny thing about it is that they’re paid millions of dollars every year to drop the gloves. But my level of junior hockey is a pay-to-play program. It actually costs me a few thousand dollars a season. I work a side job during the summers spraying weeds in the Alberta oil fields to cover my costs and I try to save almost every penny I make so I can play hockey in the fall.

Yes, I’m paying to fight. But those who know me are hardly surprised.

Growing up in Sylvan Lake, in Alberta, Canada — population 15,000 on a busy day — it was all hockey, all the time. I started playing when I was seven years old, but I was always the kind of player that everyone wrote off. There wasn’t anyone who would give a second thought if I was cut from a team. But I kept playing, because hockey is more or less all I know.

I bounced around until I made this team in Alberta where the coach told me I had two choices: fight or lose my spot on the roster. In that league, you were only allowed two fights in a season before you got suspended, and nobody was telling me when to use them. I never ended up fighting, and I got cut. By the time I got to Wichita, I knew that if I wanted to keep a spot on a team, I would have to make myself indispensable. And the only way to do that was to throw down the gloves.

I wasn’t designated as the team’s enforcer, but after the bout with the French guy I fought another four or five times in only nine games. I signed on to play for a different WSHL squad in San Diego (I know, another classic hockey town), but this time I fully understood my role. Fighting was going to be my job.

Of course, in any job, you have certain responsibilities. A quick glance at my stat sheet and you get a pretty good idea of what my responsibilities were. In 16 games with Wichita and San Diego, I had zero points and over 110 penalty minutes. When I came off the bench, it was to either give or receive a black eye. Watching hockey as a fan from the other side of the glass, you see two huge guys bashing on each other in the heat of the moment, and you think they must have some hatred for one another. But fighting isn’t exactly what it seems. Usually, it’s as drawn-up and calculated as a well-executed power play.

Most of the time, I’ll know when I’m going to fight long before I step on the ice. These things are usually organized with the other team’s brawler well ahead of time. We could be going for a run outside the stadium, or just passing each other in the hallway before the game. Sometimes you’ve known for months that you’re going to fight a guy because of what he did to you last time. It’s the moments when you don’t even have to ask that are the craziest. You just know you have to fight him, and that’s how it is.

So why do we fight? Sometimes you’re just out of sync and nervous and want to get back into the rhythm. Most of the time it’s to rile up the squad. When I was with San Diego, we weren’t exactly the best team in the league. If we got down a couple of goals, or even sometimes right at the start of the game, I would get into a fight to give the guys some motivation. I leave it all out on the ice so that they will too.

When you play in places where hockey isn’t the most popular sport, the fans tend to mostly come to the games just so they can see a fight. They love it — especially the kids. I loved meeting the younger fans in San Diego, but I hated it a little bit at the same time. They seemed to like me because I’m a fighter, but that isn’t how I want them to see the game. I don’t want them to grow up thinking that the only way to play hockey is to fight, or that fighting is the most exciting part of the sport.

Honestly, sometimes it feels like I’m wearing a mask. No matter how friendly you are before the game, you have to be a different person during it. I’m a calm guy off the ice, but I know that as soon as I hop over those boards, I’m nasty. Sometimes after games, I’ll reflect on all the stuff I was yelling from the bench. I didn’t mean all those horrible things. That’s not me, but it’s who I have to become.

Recently I’ve found myself spending a lot of time thinking about how my teammates view me. I’m putting my body on the line every night for those guys, but it’s hard to tell if I made any impact. You wonder if all that fighting really means you’re a good teammate. The guys seem grateful, but I can’t tell what they’re actually thinking. Do they appreciate what I do? Do they view me as an equal? And most importantly, do they respect me as a player?

While my dad likes all the fighting, I only spoke to my mom a handful of times last season. It’s hard to talk to her. She loves me, but she doesn’t want to hear about the fights. It’s the same thing with my girlfriend and my grandma. They keep pleading with me to stop fighting, stop fighting.

I remember my grandma was coming to one of my tryouts at a junior camp in Calgary, so I called her the night before to explain that she might see me get into a fight. It felt so weird telling her that. But I wanted to make sure that if she watched me out there fighting, she knew that I was doing it out of necessity, not desire. She almost didn’t come. That was definitely the hardest conversation I’ve ever had about this lifestyle.

I’m fully aware of the physical toll of fighting. I remember my first weekend in San Diego we played three days in a row and I fought in the last two games. The fight on Saturday was a long one, so I was already pretty sore from it. Then on Sunday I had to go against this guy who was probably 6’5”, and an easy 240. We finally had a day off on Monday and I just laid in bed. My head was killing me. I had this huge black eye, and I could barely uncurl my fists from hitting helmets so many times.

As of now, I’m not sure what my future holds. I’m playing with the Arizona Hawks this season, but next year could be my final one playing hockey because I’ll be out of eligibility in juniors. The way I see it, I have two possible roads after next year. I could either go play in college, or take the minor pro route. I don’t really have the grades to get into college, so that pretty much narrows it down.

I’d most likely have to keep throwing punches to stay afloat. Being a full-time fighter in the minors means fighting against guys who could be upwards of 35 years old and have been at it for years. But even if I went to a tryout and didn’t make the team, at least I could say I gave it my very best try.

And I need to try, because I’m not ready to give up on this sport yet. My family keeps telling me to stop fighting, hang up the gloves and get a real job, but I want to keep playing while I still can. I just love it too damn much. When I’m spraying weeds in the oil field, all I’m thinking about is being out on the ice with my team.

Squaring off against a big, tough guy who wants to knock my head off doesn’t scare me. But walking away from the game that’s defined my life up until this point, well, that’s terrifying.

Harley Haggarty is a member of the WSHL’s Arizona Hawks based out Peoria, Arizona.  You can follow him on Twitter @BabyH1point8.