Punching your best friend in the face a few times a week will do wonders for your career. But only if you happen to be a hockey enforcer. When I was an 18-year-old kid in the Ontario Hockey League, I had a big problem. I was a walk-on for the London Knights and I wasn’t as good as the skill players, but I also wasn’t much of a fighter. I realized that I had to add something to my game in order to stand out.
First I tried lining guys up for big hits. The problem was I’d be instantly jumped by the tough guys. After a few times of having my lunch served to me, I turned to my best friend Chris Bane for some advice. Chris also happened to be our enforcer.
I said something like, “Hey bud, I’m really thinking about being a fighter. How do I do that?”
He was like, “Well, you get your ass beat a couple times and then hopefully you figure it out.”
This was pretty good advice. You can’t become a tough guy by watching somebody fight or by reading a book about it. You have to actually, you know, fight. So every day after practice, Chris and I would drop the mitts at center ice and practice “sparring.” This went just how you’d expect. It started off more like a fun little tussle, but you quickly learn that it’s hard to fake a fight. We both nailed each other a couple times pretty good by accident. I don’t know if he would even feel it. Chris was a tough boy with a pretty solid head on him.
To non-hockey fans, this might sound a little barbaric. I understand that it sounds funny to call fighting cerebral, but you have to remember, this isn’t like a normal street fight. We’re on skates and we have big baggy jerseys that can be pulled over our heads. A ton of physics that goes into it. Chris showed me everything that went in to the fight — not just punching blindly — but the balance and leverage and grips that you need. I was like a sponge soaking it all up. I actually started holding my own.
And guess what? I still got cut. I was the final guy sent down to Junior B before the season. I was crushed, but I ended up telling my coach Dale Hunter, a former NHL enforcer, something that probably changed the course of my life. I said, “Just give me a chance. Put me in and you’ll never take me out.”
Three games into the season, they called me up and I never missed a game after that. I started off fighting lightweight guys and I realized I kind of had a knack for it. By my second year in the OHL, I was fighting the top heavyweights in the league. I realize I’m a bit biased, because fighting got me to the NHL, but I truly believe this: The NHL needs fighting to keep the game safe.
It sounds like an oxymoron, but let me explain how it works.
We were playing Anaheim about a month ago when something happened that has become all-too-common in the NHL. It was the third period and one of our best players, Max Pacioretty, got smoked from behind after making a pass and went head-first into the glass. He hurt his back and had to be taken to the hospital. The referee didn’t think it was a penalty, and in fairness to him, maybe it wasn’t one if you go by the book.
Now what do I do?
It’s a 2-1 game in the third period and we’re playing one of the best teams in the league. Anaheim is in the West, so it’s not like I have to set some precedent for a rivalry. We only play them twice a year. I rarely fight in the third period of a close game, because I don’t want to be sitting in the penalty box, feeling shame. I want to be out there. On the other hand, Max is arguably our best player and he just got hit from behind while trying to make a hockey play.
Part of me wants to stay involved in the game, and part of me wants to get revenge. I’m sitting on the bench thinking, “Okay, I could let this go, but what happens when the rest of the league sees that hit and we don’t do anything about it?”
I couldn’t let it go. I went after the player who hit him and tried to get my fight. Now, I’m not a guy to chirp a lot. I mean, I’ll tell guys to shut the eff up and all that, but I’m not one to go after guys’ feelings and whatnot. My thing is, if you want to go, you want to go. There’s no point in making fun of each other’s moms out here. We can settle it a certain way. Luckily, I got my fight that night. I had to let the league know you can’t take runs at our best players.
Thankfully, the guy respected the code. There’s a mutual respect between enforcers. Guys who don’t honor the code are called rats. Rats are the guys who show zero respect for opponents. They’ll go after the top skill player and take runs at goalies and then won’t answer the bell when it comes time to fight. They’ll act tough, but when a tough guy comes knocking on the door, they skate away.
But here’s the thing about rats: They’re almost always bad for a team. There’s nothing like that moment when a guy asks for a fight and a rat turns them down. It does something to the atmosphere of the entire building. If fighting didn’t exist, those guys could skate around all game trying to head-hunt the skill players on the other team with no repercussions. It’s not about the fight itself. Even just by turning down a fight, the rats lose momentum for their team.
There’s so much that goes into a fight that people don’t know. It’s not like, “Okay, I’m really pissed off at you. Let’s do it.” Sometimes it’s that simple, but often there’s a lot more build-up and strategy. Now guys are so smart that they know not to give you a fight if your team needs it to swing the momentum. Sometimes you have to build up your goodwill in order call in an IOU later.
For example, a couple months ago from Philly. We were up 3-0. There was no reason for me to give him the fight, and I still gave it to him. Why? He made a scene. He was pushing me, asking for it, which was smart by him. Because by making a scene, now everybody in the building knew, and both benches knew. Our own announcers were questioning why I accepted the fight on TV, but I find it hard to back down when a guy makes a scene. It was definitely risky, but for me, I think sometimes it’s worse to say no to a fight than to lose a fight. Now here’s the catch. If we’re in Philly some time and we’re down 3-0, I’m going to expect him to return the favor.
Guys really do remember.
I get that there are plenty of people out there who don’t like fighting. Trust me when I say that everyone in the league takes head injuries very seriously now. But in a fight, there are no cheap shots. If you take away fighting, there’s no real consequence for guys taking runs at each other. Sure, if it’s a bad enough hit the league will suspend a guy for a few games, but what does that matter to a fourth liner, especially in the playoffs if you take out one of their stars? It can turn an entire series. If they take fighting out, and guys aren’t worried about answering the bell, I guarantee more people will get hurt from an increase in open-ice body checks.
How do I know for a fact? Because I think about it myself all the time as an enforcer. If I know there’s a guy on the other team who might kick my ass at any second, I’m thinking twice about taking a guy’s head off going across the middle. Enforcers feel fear, too. You’re only human if you’re scared of getting injured. I think that’s why a lot of fights happen early in the game. Both guys want to get it out of the way. I love a good first shift fight.
Once the gloves fall off, everything else kind of fades away. You can’t hear the fans. You can’t hear the ref. It’s just silence. That’s the easy part. The tough part is the day leading up to the game when you know you’re going up against a tough guy. You can’t help but think about it all day, and you go through a roller coaster of emotions. It can be almost impossible to think about the actual hockey part of the game. You definitely lose some sleep at nap time.
This is not a bad thing. I fight my best when I’m well prepared but when I’m also a little nervous. If you go into a fight where you’re not worried, you’re not going to be as prepared. I watch videos on guys I know I might have to fight just to be ready for the kind of punches they throw and their tendencies. What hand are they coming out with? When do they like to switch hands? Do they like to grab the jersey? I’m only 6-0, 195 pounds. My margin for error is small. If I don’t grapple a guy and get him in close, I might wind up throwing a right and landing three inches short of his face and then get split for seven stitches.
It’s a stressful job, but I genuinely love the feeling of sticking up for my teammates. I keep this picture from my rookie year in Calgary as a reminder of what it takes to do this for a living. I fought this big monster from Edmonton, J.S. Jaques, in one of my first exhibition games. He caught me with a couple in the side of my head and I had blood running all over my face and all over my ears. Why do I keep the picture? I don’t know. Maybe to laugh at myself or maybe to remind myself what can happen when you take this lightly.
I saw a quote this summer that I thought was perfect. It was in my trainer’s gym. It said “Courage isn’t the lack of fear, but action in spite of it.”
That’s not to say that everything we do doesn’t take a toll at times. Last year in the playoffs, I felt a feeling that I had never experienced before. We were down 2-0 in the series against the Rangers, my former team. I was still very close with so many of their guys. Henrik Lundqvist is one of my best buddies, and he was standing on his head for them. In my head I’m thinking, How am I going to run him without getting a penalty? How am I going to get under his skin? Am I gonna have to go punch him in the head or something? I mean, this guy knows my secrets. He might bust out a road trip story or two.
It’s crazy the things you’re willing to do for the Stanley Cup. Those friendships disappear on the ice. I knew nobody on the Rangers was going to give me a fight. So I had to go out there and hit some people and cause havoc so that I force someone to come after me. On my first shift, I saw a blue jersey making a pass at the blue line and I came across him and tried to finish my check hard. He didn’t see me coming. He went down and stayed down. I knew it was a late hit. What I didn’t know is that it was Derek Stepan, one of my closest friends on the Rangers. I broke his jaw.
Immediately after the game, I was texting Step to make sure he was okay. That was a bit emotional. Stuff happens, and I was hoping that we’d earned enough respect with one another that he understood I wasn’t trying to injure him. He couldn’t eat solid food for a month. But can you believe that tough son of a bitch came back and played in the same game? He scored two goals against us in Game 5 wearing a big protective shield.
The Rangers won the series, and when I saw Step in the handshake line, we hugged it out. That’s hockey, man. We wouldn’t have it any other way.