Why did a couple of Zacks feel the need to shed their gloves this October in Edmonton to fling fists at each other’s heads? Could be, I guess, that Zack Kassian, a winger for the Oilers, disparaged Zack MacEwen’s manhood, mother, or mien. It was the NHL’s pre-season still, so maybe MacEwen, then a Vancouver Canuck, wanting to audition for his own coach, asked his rival for the pleasure of the punch in the time-honoured way of these things: “You wanna go?” Was this a warning we were seeing or maybe a dose of vengeance? Did it have to do with fulfilling an arcane rite understood only by Zacks? There was some suggestion that Vancouver’s forwards had sinned by skating too close to the Oiler goaltender Mike Smith, and so there was (in the parlance) a price to be paid, which required (as laid out, possibly, in the game’s opaque code) a message to be delivered.
It’s easy to make light of hockey’s theatre of the brutal absurd, but in the quick chaos, Kassian lost his helmet, then his footing, fell headfirst to the ice, was knocked out. He revived, eventually, and left the rink under his own power, a towel pressed to his right temple. It was all over, except for the talking. “He’s got a pretty good bump on his head,” said Kassian’s coach, Dave Tippett. “It’s one of those ones that upsets you when that happens.”
“It’s scary, it’s terrible, it’s not cool,” said a young Vancouver defenceman, Quinn Hughes. “It probably didn’t need to happen.”
And that was mostly it, so far as further reckoning went. There was nothing, certainly, forthcoming from the NHL, which maintains both a rule book and a Department of Player Safety.
According to the website Hockey Fights, where these things are reverently logged and parsed, that Zack-on-Zack fight was the thirty-ninth (and counting) of Kassian’s twelve-year professional career, the thirteenth in four years for MacEwen. But there’s no parallel archive where you can uncover the motives of any given clash: no register of messages sent and received, no docket of damages done. In Canada, we’re so generally socialized to a culture of on-ice assault that October’s clash of the Zacks made no more impression within the sport, the culture, or the Edmonton Police Service than the last time one hockey player punched another in the head. Will the next time be different?
Questions, questions. They hang in a haze over the National Hockey League’s ice that never quite dissipates, though the fighting goes on.
Are hockey fights a good idea? Is the difference between a brawl on the street outside Edmonton’s Rogers Place and one that breaks out inside, on the ice, still sufficient to accommodate hockey’s proud exceptionalism? Do physical attacks really deserve a place in a game that purports to be for everybody? What do they say about civility in our society? What about the potential for harm? Why use them to market the product you’re selling? Could it possibly be true that these blows are — actually — a marvellous safety measure without which the game would teach us all the true meaning of mayhem?
You don’t have to be especially timid or a paragon of moral rectitude to interrogate hockey violence, despite what some fighting enthusiasts in the public square might suggest. The search for answers might take you to unexpected destinations: the bookshelf, for example, as old-fashioned a resource as that might seem in the digital present.
Yet it is true that the sport’s library has added, over the years, a positive melee of memoirs by former . . . I was going to say “goons,” but I won’t, since that’s considered a dire insult to the honest folk who put in the time to do the dirty work that others won’t: the keeping of the peace, the protecting of the honour, the delivering of the messages, the doing of time in the penalty box. You’d know this if you’d come across Don’t Call Me Goon: Hockey’s Greatest Enforcers, Gunslingers, and Bad Boys, an actual book from 2013, by Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen, or if you’d spent weeks immersed in the prose of hockey’s rowdies, ruffians, heavyweights, tough guys, and policemen. Take note: the term of art preferred by the artisans themselves seems to be “enforcer.”
What exactly do hockey enforcers enforce? That’s not always easy to glean, whether you’re watching the game or reading about it. Not the rules, obviously. John Ferguson (52 fights) offers an explanation in Thunder and Lightning, his 1989 memoir, in which he makes the case that he was the league’s original enforcer. His remit, as he understood it: beyond his regular workaday within-the-rules duties, he was also to intervene “to maintain decorum if anyone tried to trifle” with Jean Béliveau (7), with Bernie Geoffrion (6), or with “any of our other stars.”
Uh-huh. Of course, Ferguson is using “maintain decorum” in the hockey sense, where it commonly means “commit assault.” But if you pay any attention to the NHL at all, you’re used to the ways in which language abstracts the game’s violent tendencies.
There’s nothing particularly insidious in a broadcaster, rinkside reporter, Twitterer, or NHL executive resorting to arcane terms (“donnybrook,” “fisticuffs”) or euphemisms (“dropping the gloves,” “squaring off,” “going at it,” “chucking the knuckles”) when describing “a bout” that may also be “a tussle,” “a scuffle,” “a scrap,” or maybe just someone “taking liberties” when “showing emotion,” “sending a message,” et cetera. It’s normal, natural enough — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t downplay and normalize the bone-hard brutality of the fights, the injuries that result, the examples they set.
They’re a conservative bunch, the enforcers, until, sometimes, they’re not. Dave Schultz was the primary puncher for the Philadelphia Flyers when they ran roughshod to a pair of Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s. Nicknamed the Hammer, he set records for penalty minutes in those unruly times and threw his weight into 164 fights. In 1981, a year after he retired from all that, Schultz enlisted the historian Stan Fischler as his co-writer and published a memoir in which he all but renounced the life he’d been living, pondering what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. He also accused his former captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.
Clarke (36) happens to have led a call for the NHL to abolish fighting in 1976, when he was head of the players’ association. (It wasn’t heard.) Champions of bellicose hockey like to point out that the game has always been violent, so how can you possibly engineer it otherwise now? Consider Chris Nilan, who played thirteen NHL seasons and helped Montreal win a Stanley Cup. The nearly sixty hours he spent in penalty boxes counts as the fifth-highest total ever to be accumulated in the NHL, and it includes sanctions for 196 career fights. What would hockey be without fighting? “It is simply part of the game, deeply embedded in it, and at its core,” Nilan wrote in Fighting Back, from 2013, “and it provides hockey with so much of the emotion, spirit, and energy that make it special.”
The first rule of the NHL’s fight club is that no one in the league’s corporate structure really wants to talk too much about all the punching or its consequences. The worry is, I believe, that all those wolfish lawsuits that roam the land might hear and circle closer, which just puts everybody in danger. When someone like the league’s commissioner, Gary Bettman, does speak up, the message to reporters and legislators and sundry detractors tends to come in the same frame that Clarence Campbell carpentered in the 1970s, toward the end of his thirty-one years as NHL president. When he wasn’t telling critics to mind their own business, Campbell would settle back on his long expertise, advising (as he did in 1976), “I feel that the safest and most satisfactory reaction to being fouled is by retaliating with a punch in the nose.”
It was Campbell, too, who may have first come up with the formulation of hockey as some kind of steam-powered nineteenth-century contraption that’s ever in danger of overheating. With temperatures running so hot, you of course need a regulator. “Fighting on the ice is a safety valve,” Campbell explained in 1969. “Stop it and players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.”
The NHL has, it’s true, been beset by legal challenges in recent years. In 2018, the league arranged an $18.9-million (U.S.) settlement with 318 former players who felt that the long-term risks of brain trauma had been minimized. Hockey’s concussion crisis is separate from but not unrelated to the issue of fighting’s place in the game. The NHL doesn’t really want to talk about concussions either, so that’s one area of overlap; another relates to what medical science has been steadily revealing about what can happen to brains that are battered in sports.
The brains of boxers have been showing signs of deep damage, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, going back to the 1920s. Although post-mortem studies of the brains of football players confirmed the presence of CTE in 2006, the first hockey case wasn’t confirmed until 2009, following the death of a furious enforcer from the 1960s and ’70s, Reggie Fleming (73).
I’d contend that, after Fleming, many of the default rationalizations that hockey leaders reach for when it comes to arguing that fighting is a necessity feel increasingly unconvincing. Less plausible. The left-winger Derek Boogaard (66), who died in 2011, was followed by other, too-young former fighters, some by suicide, others by “natural” causes: Wade Belak (136), Rick Rypien (38), Steve Montador (69), Todd Ewen (150).
Checking back in on Gary Bettman: he has at least updated the technological metaphor that’s used to stall on the status quo. “It’s an important thermostat in the game,” he earnestly told a parliamentary committee in 2019. “The threat of other types of contact without the threat of fighting” would be much worse.
Is there another sport with a literature so swollen with the memoirs of so many of its lesser talents? Can you name any other game that takes such serious interest in players whose main role and renown is in straying beyond the rules of play? Hockey’s goons are often, of course, beloved as teammates, feted by fans. Tie Domi (278), Georges Laraque (142), John Scott (44), Bob Probert (242): all of them were celebrities on skates and off. Fans chanted their names and wore sweaters bearing their numbers. Why wouldn’t they buy the autobiographies?
That they do is not surprising or controversial. It’s not news that fans revere role players like Shawn Thornton, the latest heavily penalized NHLer (a puncher in 168 fights) to publish an autobiography. As Terry Ryan, an author and an experienced combatant in his own right (4), has written, those who fight are “some of the most interesting, funny, charismatic players you’ll ever come across in sports,” as well as “the most genuine and charitable.” You don’t have to deny their nice-guy personalities to wonder why that’s an argument for keeping fighting in the game.
In his cocksure 2017 book, Offside, Sean Avery (83) relates how he once smoked a joint with Scarlett Johansson, kissed her, and “gave her a bit of unexpected sass.” In Shift Work, from 2015, Tie Domi explores his views on manscaping and divulges that he was the very first NHLer to own a BlackBerry. The literature of hockey enforcement, it’s fair to say, contains multitudes.
Some memoirs are livelier than others, more insightful and forthright, and better written. Georges Laraque’s self-titled memoir, from 2011, is an example. In it, the former Edmonton Oiler winger and son of Haitian immigrants reflects on the violence he faced from his own father and the racism that poisoned his childhood in Montreal. No one he knew as a boy believed it was possible that he’d grow up to play in the NHL, “because of the colour of my skin, a colour that would never be suitable for the whiteness of the ice.” Hockey Fights tallies Laraque’s NHL combats at 142, and he spends plenty of time talking about those incidents in the book — when he’s not weighing in on why he’s vegan, his commitment to animal rights, or his time as deputy leader of the Green Party.
In The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior, from 2019, Stu Grimson (207) offers a thoughtful and often surprising accounting of hockey violence — along with his faith and the peace it’s brought him. “Not everyone could reconcile that I was a Christian whose job involved hurting others,” he writes. He never saw a contradiction: “Who better than a Christian to take on the role of protector?”
Pain Killer: A Memoir of Big League Addiction, published just this year, is a harrowing chronicle of the toll that being a fighting hockey player took on Brantt Myhres (58). He survived his addictions and built back a life, he tells us, which makes his book something of a companion to Boy on Ice, John Branch’s devastating 2014 account of Derek Boogaard’s tragic trajectory, ending with his death in 2011, from an overdose of painkillers and alcohol.
Sean Avery is as frank as any enforcer-cum-writer, but if that’s a solace, it’s a sour one. He has many titillating tales to tell in his book and lots of scores to settle. What’s not entirely clear is what it was — ego? — that curdled his personality and left him wandering the world as Not a Nice Person.
The further you trail back with these memoirists, the less defensive they are on the page. “Hockey’s a fast game and tempers flare real quickly,” the late Dave Semenko (73) explains in Looking Out for Number One, from 1989. “That’s when the fighting comes in. It only lasts a little while. You don’t see a lot of guys getting hurt from it. The majority of times you’ll get your equipment messed up and that’s about it.”
Other than Dave Schultz, these are authors without regrets. “If I could, I’d do it all over again,” Chris Nilan declares in Fighting Back. “Wouldn’t change a thing.” That’s right before he talks about “swimming in alcohol and burying myself in pills” to deal with the pain he still suffers, twenty-nine years after he last played in the NHL.
The enforcers don’t generally lash out at their fighting critics, either. Rob Ray (248) is one of the few to come out whingeing about people who don’t, as he puts it, “get it.”
Ray punched people for a living, but he didn’t just punch people. How was it his fault if those watching didn’t bother to learn that hockey’s “intangibles don’t get printed on the scoresheet.” And hey, parents: it wasn’t his job to be a role model or to teach kids the difference between right and wrong.
As might be seen to befit his blue-collar roots as an Irish kid from Oshawa, Ontario, Shawn Thornton isn’t blaming anyone or shifting his focus too far beyond his own understanding of the value (and values) of hard work and personal responsibility. Thornton, who’s forty-four now, played fourteen NHL seasons and won two Stanley Cup championships along the way. He seems like a stand-up guy, a stout family man, a good friend and great teammate. It’s easy to cheer for him, if only because — well, everybody’s doing it, all through the book. Expanded by many tributes from past colleagues, Fighting My Way to the Top, also published this year, often has the feel of a going-away card that’s made its way around the office ahead of the retirement of a cherished co-worker — that’s supposing it’s an office where people now and then bare their knuckles over by the copier.
“I knew full well the job I signed up to do,” Thornton writes. “I did what I had to do.” Why? Because “the game is a pressure cooker, and fighting helps remove the lid and relieve some of that pressure.” Being a sous‑chef in charge of Crock‑Pots wasn’t easy, Thornton explains in his entirely affable way. It was actually hard, kind of like being a cop or working in a steel factory. Sometimes the anxiety made it hard to sleep at night, and sometimes a teammate got hurt, which meant Thornton had a duty to do, even if that sometimes meant fighting friends who played for other teams, who then got hurt. Nobody wanted that, of course, but “it was just part of the job.” The reward? Well, Thornton was paid $3 million (U.S.) for his last three seasons in the NHL, though that doesn’t come up in the book. Respect is the currency that he seems to value over most others, and he sounds satisfied that he earned his share as a player.
Thornton doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to tutor the next generation, which, I guess, counts as some kind of progress. Because whether you’re an eager student or not, most of these books do, taken together, amount to some kind of master class in fighting. John Ferguson: “When I fought, I liked to keep my hands moving and get my legs set wide apart.” Bob Probert: “The fights I did best in were the ones I was truly mad and upset.” Dave Schultz: “My technique was predicated on getting my right arm free to swing at my opponent.” Sean Avery: “My strategy is to be tactical and to not actually get hit, but to show patience until BOOM you can catch your opponent with a solid punch after he’s thrown four or five wild ones and is starting to get tired.”
If it isn’t outlandish enough that such sentences are a recurring feature of Canadian letters, wait until you get into what the fighters say about their own breakages and the prospects of what the future might hold.
“My situation went from bad to nightmarish when he connected with three left-hand jackhammer punches to my face,” Stu Grimson confides. Rob Ray: “I broke my knuckles fighting against Ottawa’s Dennis Vial in 1994. I had my jaw broken, and all the disks in my jaw are gone.” (Vial’s fight total, since we’re keeping score: 87.)
In some of the memoirs published since signs of CTE were discovered in Reggie Fleming’s brain, the enforcers gaze grimly into the future. “Getting hit repeatedly in the head is a bad thing that happens repeatedly,” Chris Nilan allows in the opening chapter of Fighting Back. “The trauma has to do lasting damage.” Tie Domi bustles by, quick as he can: “I am not one of those people who can weigh in on concussions and the other health issues that some guys in hockey today are going through.” That’s Shawn Thornton’s line, too, more or less: “I see that some people express concerns about head trauma, concussions, CTE.” But, as he points out on more than one occasion, “we all sign up for this and we all get the benefits of being NHL players.”
The saddest of all might be Rob Ray, who published Rayzor’s Edge in 2007, when he was thirty-nine: “I try to hope that medical technology will have improved enough in the future so that they’ll be able to fix me up when I’m older.”
Questions, questions, Questions: If hockey’s fighting is so dreadful, why has it endured so long? Aren’t the fighters consenting adults? How come fans all leap to their feet every time the fists fly? Doesn’t the violence sometimes enliven a team that’s lost its mojo? Can’t a punch‑up change the energy of a game?
But do any of the implied answers constitute compelling arguments for maintaining the status quo? All of them, for me, are superseded by the potential for harm that every bare-knuckle fight presents. No matter what messages need sending, there has to be a better way.
Does the NHL’s own Department of Player Safety have an opinion on this? Not to mention (may I just mention) the NHL rule book. If you’re dipping into its statutes at all, I’d suggest you bypass the five pages of whys and wherefores relating to Rule 46 (the official fighting rule). Instead, I’d direct you to Rule 21, which governs match penalties. The latter is much more succinct in stipulating that any time one player attempts to injure another, that’s a match penalty for the attempter — out of the game, gone. Intent doesn’t figure; you only need to be trying. What is a punch in the head if not an attempt to injure? But no NHL fight, Zacks-only or otherwise, ends with match penalties.
Earlier this year, in another season, Zack Kassian missed seventeen games after breaking his hand punching an Ottawa defenceman. In the aftermath of his October fight, he was ready to return to Edmonton’s lineup just a week after hitting his head on the ice.“It’s an unfortunate injury,” shrugged his coach, Dave Tippett (1). “You can get hurt by a shot, you can get hurt in a fight. Injuries happen in hockey. Always, all different ways, not just fighting.”
Kassian himself was just grateful. “It’s an emotional game and things boil over,” he told reporters. “Obviously when you see pictures of my situation, first thing that comes to mind is stop fighting. But fighting’s been in the game a very long time, it’s what makes hockey unique.”
He owed so much to punching and being punched, Kassian said. “It’s one of my attributes that’s made me a unique player. . . . It’s given my family a great life and it’s something I enjoy doing.”
Stephen Smith is the author of Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession. He shoots left.