Selected for The Best American Sports Writing 2009
Cochrane shakes his head, lips pursed in budding disgust. Mind-blowing, he says. A ripple in the fabric of the universe. Yet here from his perch in the dull-blue concourse seats of the Onondaga County War Memorial Arena, Cochrane has a theory, a way to make sense of the appalling nonviolence taking place below:
It's all my fault.
That's right. Me. Forget that I've never even laced up a pair of skates. Never mind that my firsthand hockey fighting experience begins and ends with using the video game version of Bob Probert to make people's heads bleed on Sega Genesis. Somehow, I'm to blame. Who knows? Maybe Cochrane is right. Maybe I'm screwing the deck, and maybe I just can't see it.
"So disappointing," he says, surveying the ice. "C'mon, Jon! Run somebody!"
Cochrane crosses his arms, his thin blond hair topping narrow, aquamarine eyes. He is 38, a landscaper-turned-day-trader from Mahwah, N.J., a man who thinks nothing of driving seven hours through a snowstorm to videotape a training camp fracas between two semipro goons he has seen only on YouTube. "You gotta pay your dues," he explains, and before I can ask the obvious follow-up question -- ¿como? -- he launches into an unprompted soliloquy on the nature of his hobby:
Dropping the gloves is the ultimate commitment.
Two men going to war is a unique, intimate situation.
If you're a cook, you get greasy; if you're a landscaper, you get dirty; if you're a fighter, you're going to get banged up.
Which, when taken as a whole, makes him sound like a Saturday-morning sensei on "Kung Fu Theater." Not to mention a bit nuts.
It's a frigid March evening in upstate New York. Like everyone else in the building, Cochrane is here to watch hockey; like almost everyone else -- the guy with the mohawk and the girls in the "Mirasty 41" T-shirts and the kid with the sign reading "The climate in our arena is always nasty" -- he's also here to see a fistfight.
As am I. For months, I've been immersing myself in the world of hard-core hockey fight fans, the Cult of the Goon. (Quick taxonomy: A hockey fan watches a fight and cheers, and maybe gets another beer. A hockey fight fan watches 50 fights in a row on DVD, then goes online to argue about them.) I've traveled from New York to Saskatchewan, watched dozens of knockouts on tape (yes: actual Paleolithic VHS tape; more on that later), had one enforcer show me his sparring routine and another give a hands-on, on-ice demonstration of just how badly he would break my face (conclusion: Jacko glue-on nose territory). I've even signed up for a goon fantasy league. Problem is, my fantasy team sucks, I still don't understand what goon lovers see in a bloody mouthful of missing teeth and, worst of all, I haven't even seen a hockey brawl in person.
As such, I'm feeling Cochrane's pain.
"If Gillies doesn't go," he tells me, "I'm going to rip the hell out of him on the message boards."
Right. The message boards. Specifically, those on Fried Chicken's Hockey Fight Site, the oldest of its kind on the Internet. A place to bemoan the ongoing sissification of the NHL, judge hockey scraps like Olympic boxing matches, track down 1993-94 Tacoma Rockets fight tapes and debate the maddening question: Who was a badder, er, badass, Probert or Behn Wilson? A virtual church for the faithful. It's where I first met Cochrane -- which, by the way, isn't even his real name. His given name is Steve. Cochrane is his online handle, chosen to honor Glen Cochrane, a former Philadelphia Flyers enforcer best known for (take your pick): (a) terrorizing the New York Rangers; (b) fighting with reckless, g'head-and-punch-my-nose abandon; (c) sporting a memorable mustache and a chin to shame the Geico cavemen.
The upshot? After spending some time with Steve, I've decided "Cochrane" is probably more appropriate. (Actually, using board names seems more appropriate for every fight fan I've met online.)
"This really pisses me off," Cochrane says, still fuming. "This was about as guaranteed a fight night as you could get."
Cochrane has a point. Look around: The arena's outer walls bear inscriptions such as "Algiers" and "Coral Sea." A banner hanging below the press box reads "Welcome to the House of Pain." Syracuse has won 11 of its previous 13 contests on the strength of what owner Howard Dolgon calls "old-school hockey," and what the ancient Romans might call Visigothic. The Crunch like to fight. A lot. And no one likes glove-dropping more than Mirasty, whose rock 'em, sock 'em bouts have made him a YouTube legend, the Tila Tequila of the goon-loving set. Blessed with a cinder-block head, sporting a goofy, charming mohawk, Mirasty has been taunting the River Rats since pregame warm-ups, all but begging for a tussle.
"No balls, eh, Gillies? May as well retire, old-timer! You're done!"
"Rechlicz! You f---ing get beat like that last time, you f---ing fight again! That's what you're here for! Don't be a p---- like Gillies!"
No one takes the bait. Not Gillies, a former NHLer who missed 20 games of the current AHL season after breaking his hand against Mirasty's skull. Not Joel Rechlicz, an up-and-coming enforcer Mirasty pummeled the last time they tangled. In fact, Rechlicz won't even look at Mirasty, and when he finally sneaks a peek through the Plexiglas separating the Syracuse and Albany benches, the result is swift and strange: River Rats coach Tom Rowe grabs Rechlicz's helmet with both hands, then points his head toward the ice.
"Look at that," Cochrane mutters. "I knew it."
The whole scene is wrong. Gillies owes Mirasty a fight. Rechlicz owes Mirasty a fight. That's the code, the unwritten order that has governed hockey fighting since just about forever. They know. Everyone knows.
There should be blood. Only there isn't. So Cochrane smells a rat. Namely, me. His theory goes like this: Another fight fan, Peatycap, knew I would be in Syracuse to see Mirasty fight. Peatycap got excited and posted a note on the message boards. Cochrane told him to take it down. Too late. Somebody associated with Albany saw the note and told Rowe, who in turn has ordered his players not to fight ... out of sheer spite.
Cochrane nods. He's convinced. I'm confused. Two hours ago, I didn't know who Rowe was. Now, apparently, we have some sort of Death Row-Bad Boy records feud going. When I bring this up -- specifically, when I mention how ridiculous this sounds -- Cochrane looks at me with pity, as if I just asked him for subway fare.
"It's not your fault," he insists. "Peatycap doesn't realize the power the boards have. You wouldn't believe how many coaches and players read them."
To recap: I'm here to see a hockey fight to better grasp what people like Cochrane see in hockey fights, only no one will fight because I'm watching, and I have no idea why this is the case. Nevertheless, I'm supposed to write a story that explains the whole thing or, barring that, at least help you win your goon fantasy league.
A full-time obsession
"You should have seen my old house. It was NASA." Nicky V. grins at the memory. Four televisions. A $4,000 satellite dish on the roof. Four Sony SLV-1000 video cassette editors, each of them worth a grand. Twenty-eight cassette copying machines. A bushel of remotes and one very important piece of plywood he installed in the middle of the basement to keep them from interfering with each other. Everything devoted to Nicky V.'s part-time hobby -- or more accurately, his full-time obsession: recording and collecting hockey fights.
Like, all of them.
"I was a nut for quality," he says. "A control freak. Teams used to beam their stuff to 24 satellites in the sky. I'd capture games right off those satellites."
Nicky V. pulls a VHS tape off a nearby shelf. (Correction, he says, "a $6 Super VHS tape." There's a difference.) The label reads "NHL PRE-REG 1993-94, VIII." "This is my master," he says. "Big-dish quality. No degradation due to copying. Prior to DVD, as good as this gets."
Nicky V. pops the tape into a black VCR, one of the Sony SLV-1000s, tucked below a DVD player and above a big-screen television. Pixels flicker to life. "Now, nobody cares. But 10 years ago, if I had told a hockey-fight collector, 'You can have my master for a season,' they would have flown out here to get it."
Before YouTube, before the message boards and the Internet and all things digital and easy, there were guys like Nicky V. The pioneers. The old-school fight fans who devoted countless hours to recording and trading and compiling footage, going from icebox-sized VCRs in the 1970s to standing on the roof in the middle of 1990s ice storms, aiming dishes by hand. The guys who racked up $300 phone bills calling to Canada at 25 cents a minute, who scoured old Hockey News box scores for penalties, who developed sore thumbs from hitting RWD and FFWD over and over again. The guys -- and let's be honest, they're all guys -- who spent three months waiting for fight tapes from Philly, then tore open the UPS packages like snakebite victims fumbling for anti-venom.
"We were like drug addicts," Nicky V. says. "With games that weren't televised, local news stations used to put up feeds. I'd record six hours of news on a Montreal channel, just to see if there were fights, spend the next day fast-forwarding through. It was a full-time job."
Nicky V. rests his feet on a brown plastic cooler, a remote control in one hand, a Philadelphia Flyers coffee mug in the other. (He drinks two pots of Starbucks a day.) We're sitting in the storage room of his home-remodeling construction company in Stamford, Conn., which doubles as his office. Plastic trash bins are stacked by the half dozen against the wall. A metal shelf teems with tubs of Sheetrock joint compound. Nicky V. just turned 40, is married and has a 2-year-old son whose pictures surround a Flyers clock that hangs above his desk. He doesn't collect and trade fight footage like he used to. But he remains one of the most knowledgeable fans in the hobby, a walking database of who punched whom in the jaw, and why.
On the screen is a brawl. A bench-clearer, the kind hockey doesn't make anymore. Rangers versus Flyers, late 1970s. Frank Beaton and Mel Bridgman go toe-to-toe. "Great stuff," Nicky V. says. "If these guys took their pants off, their balls would fall to the floor." The camera cuts to center ice. Some two dozen gloves and half as many sticks are scattered like dead cockroaches. The officials separate the teams. Nick Fotiu jumps out of the penalty box to fight Jim Cunningham for the second time. The Flyers gang up on Fotiu. A new scrum erupts. Ron Duguay is bleeding. "This," says a broadcaster, "is the kind of thing that sets a team back 50 years!"
"As a fan, this is almost like reliving my youth," Nicky V. says. "Watching the same fights I watched as a kid. They pan the crowd, you see the hairstyles, the big plaid shirts. I just like this era."
He scans his shelf. "Have you ever seen the fight in the stands with the Rangers and Bruins? I gotta whip that out for you!"
Nicky V. taped his first fight in 1984, but he didn't get serious until after college. His early tapes were terrible -- 20 seconds of players skating around, fights joined halfway through. But they quickly improved. Nicky V. bought blank Super VHS tapes by the carton and mailed them to his contacts in other cities, fight fans and team video guys, anyone who could supply footage. He developed proteges in New York and Arizona, teaching them to do the same. He wouldn't just find one contact for footage in St. Louis -- he'd find three, "so no one could f--- up a fight." He scribbled fight logs on index cards, cataloged his growing collection on a computer, produced tapes on request for NHL players.
At his peak, Nicky V. had a system. Come home from work. Shower. Eat. Call his contacts. Pop in tapes at 7 p.m. Change the tapes at 9. Get back on the phone, figure out the late games. Make a pot of coffee. Repeat the next night.
On Saturdays, he might go to a bar -- a nearby bar, so he could come home, make the 9 o'clock switch and head back out. "I was really thin until the 1990s," he says. "I put on weight from sitting around making tapes. You get corns on your feet. I would stand up and my back would hurt."
That was then. Nicky V. now rents out his former mission-control house. He married eight years ago, and his wife told him he could keep taping, with one condition: no more late-night phone calls. Next came his son. So Nicky V. cut back. Adjusted. Learned to live with YouTube's low-res footage. These days, he wakes up at 4:30 a.m., gets to the office by 5, spends an hour on the Fried Chicken boards before starting his workday. He still loves the stories, the arguments, the sense of community. One guy on there just got engaged. Nicky V. might know him better than his fiancée does. And why not? They've been talking hockey fights, and life, for almost 20 years.
Nicky V. decorates his trucks with Flyers logos. Driving to those New York construction sites, he'll catch hell from Rangers fans. Yet with two words -- "Dale Rolfe," the former Blueshirts defenseman who was infamously beaten up in a Flyers-Rangers playoff game while his frightened teammates did nothing -- he can even the score. There's an understanding among fans, a bond.
Every fight fan has a Holy Grail. For Nicky V., it's footage of Bob Gassoff. Gassoff is a legend, maybe the toughest brawler ever. He played four seasons in St. Louis and was killed in a 1977 motorcycle accident. Just four of his fights are on tape. Nicky V. has them all. But once, supposedly, Gassoff took on Flyers tough guys Paul Holmgren (the Flyers' current GM) and Bridgman in the same game, and beat both of them into submission. Nicky V. likens it to Buster Douglas shocking Mike Tyson.
"The fight I wish I had," he says with a sigh. "Gassoff's a folklore hero. We all believe it."
Nicky V. takes me to his office. He goes online, hunts for some old scanned magazine photos of Gassoff fighting Holmgren. The images are in faded black and white. None shows an actual punch being thrown. There is just Gassoff's left fist, cocked up by his ear, hanging over a prone Holmgren like Damocles' sword.
"People that are new to the hobby, they can't get into it the way I did," Nicky V. says. "Don't get me wrong, YouTube is phenomenal. You get to see all the fights. But it takes away the imagination."
He laughs. "I have to admit, though, if there wasn't the Internet, I'd still be taping fights."
"We have sad rivalries now"
Bob Probert is punching someone in the face. Again. Could be Craig Berube. Or maybe Dave Brown.
Honestly, it's hard to keep track.
I'm stuck in an airport terminal, watching a Probert fight DVD on my laptop. Fight fans consider him the greatest ever: best record, most feared, knockout power, took punches, never ducked a scrap. Decent player, too. I figure I can learn something. Twenty minutes in, I'm pumped. Probert battling Dave Richter and Rick Tocchet back-to-back is way more exciting than the neutral-zone trap. I even have a new name for my struggling fantasy squad: Probert Throws Best. Yet after another dozen fights, my adrenaline fades. The beatdowns seem robotic. I feel numb. Wham, bam ... is this it?
When I mention my malaise to Posux, a Fried Chicken regular and West Coast editor of a popular men's magazine, he asks me whether I follow hockey. Not really. That's the problem, he says. You have to know the teams, the rivalries, the personalities, the story lines. It's like a soap opera. In the context of hockey, fights are the straw stirring the drink. In the context of no context -- a fight tape -- they're human cockfights on ice.
I decide to go to a game.
Peatycap offers to come along. He gave me the Probert disc. He's 28, works for the federal government and has a master's degree in organizational psychology. He also owns a golden retriever. So I feel safe. We pick a March game between the Caps and Penguins. While NBC focuses on Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, we're anticipating a rematch between Georges Laraque and Donald Brashear. The two have tangled twice this season. A third bout could decide the NHL's heavyweight championship, at least on the boards:
I'm predicting they fight midway/late in the second, or early in the third.
Laraque is going to have to do something pretty significant while Brashear is on the ice for this fight to happen.
If the Caps or Pens go down by two goals, it should happen. Knowing Brash, he probably figures twice in a season is enough. Winning this game is way more important than his personal fighting rivalry. ... It is important to us, though. LOL.
Game day. The Verizon Center scoreboard displays a text message from a fan reading "We want a goalie fight." Peatycap is worried. Yesterday, Brashear dropped Boston's Shane Hnidy with a glove-on sucker punch, a blow that made the opening montage on "SportsCenter." The Caps enforcer could be suspended; even if he plays, the club might keep him on a short leash.
I check the official game notes. Brashear is in the lineup. Excellent. We make our way to the lower bowl and take our seats behind the goal. On the other side of the glass, the teams are warming up. Brashear is 6-foot-2, 235 pounds; Laraque, 6-3, 243. In skates and pads, they look even bigger, as if they could park small cars just by picking them up.
"Brashear-Laraque, Round 3!" says a guy in a Crosby jersey, turning to face us. "Man, I hope we see it."
Crosby Guy has beer breath. Overpowering beer breath. Then again, it is nearly half past noon.
"We'll see them hug each other for three seconds," says Hannibal, Peatycap's older brother. "Then they'll both fall down."
"Both those guys, they could land one punch and it's done," says Crosby Guy, shaking his head.
"If you really want to get into this, you should go see the Quebec league," Peatycap tells me. "They take off helmets, skate around, come to center ice, shadowbox a bit. Then they fight. They're showmen!"
Where Peatycap is bullish, Hannibal is dismissive. Ready for a letdown. Styles make fights, he says, and the problem with Brashear and Laraque is that they're boring. Dominant, yes, but dull. Both follow the same formula: Lock up opponents with overwhelming strength, land a few hard punches for effect, end brawl. Do just enough to win without getting hurt, just enough to continue in a line of work in which one lucky punch can leave you unemployed and drinking your meals with a straw. (Laraque is an 11-year vet; Brashear is in his 16th season. Neither number is an accident.) Fight fans call this "seatbelting," and they find it maddening. They aren't moved by play-it-safe technical prowess. They want Julio Cesar Chavez, bloodied but unbowed, taking 50 punches to deliver 51. They want total abandon, toe-to-toe wars, pulp-faced passion.
"I think Brash fights more on business than emotion," Hannibal says. "That's not what I want to see. What leads to a powder-keg situation? History. Genuine dislike."
"That's what builds a rivalry," Peatycap says.
"We have sad rivalries now," Hannibal says.
"It is sad," Peatycap says. "Atlanta had a no-fight rule, didn't even dress [its] tough guy the game after all those fights with the Caps." (In November 2006, the Caps and Thrashers engaged in a series of late-game brawls that produced 176 penalty minutes, three suspensions and $40,000 worth of fines. A December rematch, however, produced zero fights.) "It's the infamous phone call from the NHL," Peatycap continues. "They say, 'If this happens, we're watching and you will be punished.'"
"I would have been embarrassed to be an Atlanta fan," Hannibal says. "Their team was soft."
"Even if your team loses, if they fight, at least you go away knowing that they cared," Peatycap says. "That they have heart."
Peatycap tells a story. When he was 11, his parents took him and Hannibal to their first hockey game, a Washington-New Jersey contest at the now-demolished Capital Centre in suburban Maryland. Fans were screaming at Devils goalie Chris Terreri: "Hey, Terreri, you suck!" The boys turned to their mother: "Can we yell, too?" Late in the third period, they were about to leave when a fight broke out. Peatycap and Hannibal ran down to the glass, transfixed. So did their mom.
"My mom is an eucharistic minister, and she was banging on the glass," Peatycap says, laughing. "At least, that's how our dad tells the story."
Back to this game: three ponytailed girls, none older than 12, sit behind the net. No one curses out Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The NHL is changing, chasing corporate dollars, competing against the NBA and Netflix and the Nintendo Wii, positioning itself as family entertainment. A sports product suitable for the Hannah Montana set (not to mention sanctimonious sports columnists who liken the league to glorified roller derby). This means more emphasis on goals, less emphasis on blood. Since the hockey-fighting apex of the 1970s -- "Slap Shot" in theaters, Philadelphia's Stanley Cup-winning Broad Street Bullies in penalty boxes -- rules changes and stiffer penalties have slowly squeezed fisticuffs out of the sport. The NHL's last bench-clearing brawl was in 1987. According to unofficial statistics at the Web site dropyourgloves.com, fights per game are down from an average of 1.29 per game in 1987-88 to 0.40 last season. Teams that used to dress two or more enforcers -- like Detroit with Probert and Joey Kocur, the much-hyped, much-feared "Bruise Brothers" -- now dress none.
The league knows violence still sells tickets -- a study published in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology found a correlation between brawling and attendance, and the Web site hockeyfights.com draws 8 million page views per month during hockey season -- but it also knows too much violence gives the sport a black eye.
"It's a balancing act," Caps owner Ted Leonsis says. "The day after that Atlanta game, I probably got 400 e-mails. Half of them went like this: 'How dare you, I took my son or daughter to the game and have never been more embarrassed. I will never go to a game again. Fighting should be outlawed, and Donald Brashear should be suspended for life.'
"Meanwhile, the next e-mail would say, 'That was the greatest game I've ever been to in my life. I love seeing the team stand up for each other.'"
Leonsis laughs. As a hockey fan, he respects and appreciates fighting; as an owner, he says his franchise wouldn't build a marketing campaign around it. "Now, one complaint is too many. But let's not forget that Atlanta did TV commercials promoting the rematch."
If the NHL is like a presidential candidate in a general election -- moving to the center, trying to be everything to everyone -- then fight fans are like the hard-core wing of the party. They're the true believers, the no-compromise ideologues. They liked the league the way it was, and as glove-dropping becomes less common, they feel betrayed. Sold out. On the message boards, they direct most of their ire at commissioner Gary Bettman, who is alternately seen as: (a) a clueless basketball guy, thanks to his previous stint as an NBA senior vice president; (b) a soulless corporate vampire, concerned only with enriching owners, no matter the larger cost; (c) responsible for every problem in the game, and probably global warming, too.
"I have no idea what that man thinks," says Peatycap, who once created a Web site (hockeyfansunite.com) to voice his displeasure with Bettman. "He's a poor ambassador for hockey."
Peatycap might be right. But he's missing the larger point. In blaming Bettman, fight fans are punching a brick wall. Fifteen years ago, NHL video games let you cross check Wayne Gretzky -- the very face of hockey -- after the whistle, dumping him in a pool of pixelated blood. Today, a game with the same feature probably would prompt a congressional hearing. Culture evolves. Hockey arenas are no longer dumpy old frozen barns. They're value-added sports theme parks, housing teams originally named for Emilio Estevez star vehicles. Time moves on.
Back at the Verizon Center, time is running out. Laraque and Brashear have yet to tangle, and with the game tied 2-2 in the third period, a fight seems unlikely. Neither squad can afford the resulting penalty time -- five minutes for throwing punches, two additional minutes for the player who instigated the fracas. Not when a single power play could prove decisive.
A break in play. The scoreboard flickers. A video montage. On comes Al Pacino, delivering his "Inches" locker-room speech from "Any Given Sunday." Peatycap sighs. That the arena ops crew is using a football movie is bad enough. That the speech is intercut with 10 seconds of Brashear fight footage is downright cruel.
"If we were just here to watch fights, I'd have to root for Pittsburgh to start racking up goals," Hannibal laments. "I don't think fight fans go to games anymore. They'd be wasting their money."
With 27.9 seconds left, the Penguins score a go-ahead goal, then add an empty-netter. Game over. Fans stream to the exits. The heavyweight championship will have to wait.
"This sucks," Hannibal says.
Respect the code
Derek Boogaard works the angles, cutting off the ring, moving his younger brother Aaron into the corner. Ceiling fans twirl under dull fluorescent lights, casting faint, flickering shadows against the flat-gray walls of the Lonsdale Boxing Club in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Thump-thump! Derek throws a jab, then another, his left arm extending into space like a curtain rod. Short of breath, he pulls back, flashing his neon-blue mouthpiece. He dips his left hand. Aaron jabs back. Thump!
"Ow!" yells Derek, popping out the mouthpiece. "You punched my collarbone!"
"Break!" yells boxing coach Frank Fiacco, clicking a stopwatch. "Keep that left hand up! Don't slide!"
Derek leans against the ropes, shoulders sagging, his long-sleeved shirt drenched with sweat. Fiacco grabs a bottle, squirts water into Aaron's mouth. He turns to Derek. "You're getting lazy," Fiacco says, holding a hand over his chin to demonstrate. "The left hand should be here. You threw a couple of jabs, but you didn't follow with the right.
"If you don't do it on a moving body, you're not going to do it on the ice."
Derek nods. He's gassed. It's an early evening in August, and the Minnesota Wild enforcer has already spent his afternoon at a rink, skating himself into shape for the upcoming NHL season. He's here with Aaron, a minor league winger, to become a better brawler. A scary proposition, given that many fight fans consider the 6-foot-7, 270-pound "Boogeyman" to be the league's most destructive puncher.
"You should watch when he trains with the heavy bag," says Curtis Kemp, a local policeman watching from outside the ring. "The whole place shakes."
Derek has been training with Fiacco for three years. He wasn't supposed to spar tonight. He was supposed to teach at the Derek and Aaron Boogaard Hockey Fighting Camp, open to kids 12 to 18, a two-hour clinic so popular the previous edition drew 20-plus participants and a write-up in a Minneapolis newspaper. The article was picked up nationally, controversy ensued and tonight's event was scrapped.
Josh Kemp came anyway. A 15-year-old with close-cropped blond hair and a broad, lanky frame, Josh is Curtis' son, captain of his youth hockey team. Last season, he played in a provincial all-star tournament. He also led his league in penalty minutes and has been working with Fiacco since he was 10.
"Josh has a great shot, and he's a good defenseman," Curtis says. "But he's not going to be Wayne Gretzky. He brings another element."
"Other kids are pretty much sitting there flailing their arms around," Josh says. "I actually know what to do."
"He has learned to hit hard," Curtis says. "One hit and it's over."
"I love doing it," Josh says.
"Last year, we're in a tournament in Prince Albert, a real dirty game, and Josh knocks out one kid, then another," Curtis says. "The coach sends out a third guy. Josh knocks him out, too."
"That was fun," Josh says with a laugh, looking slightly embarrassed. "I didn't even know what had happened until my team told me after."
"Josh is going to the Kelowna Rockets' WHL camp next week, his first real taste of what junior hockey can be," Curtis says. "I can say unequivocally that he wouldn't be going if we hadn't come here."
"I just like fighting," Josh says.
"Not one time did he get in trouble for it," Curtis says. "He filled a role with the team."
He filled a role with the team. Baseball has designated hitters. Hockey has designated punchers. Why? The answer lies in what author Ross Bernstein calls "the code," the unwritten rules of hockey brawling that govern everything from who fights whom to Laraque's famously wishing fellow tough guy Raitis Ivanans, "Good luck, man" before pummeling him. It's no coincidence Boogaard and Josh Kemp have fathers who are cops, and no accident the puckheads use the term "enforcer" instead of "goon."
Goons enforce the code. Fight fans admire them for it. "They're kind of like antiheroes," Posux says. "Like Dirty Harry. When you need to take the law into your own hands, they do it. They walk into town and take names."
At a basic level, the code owes something to both beanball wars and the Book of Exodus. An eye for an eye. You plunk one of ours, we plunk one of yours. Justice via swift, painful retaliation. Hockey is a fast, full-contact, no-stoppage sport played by large men with sharp blades and curved sticks. Referees can't police everything. Enter the goon. Anyone who roughed up Gretzky in his Edmonton Oilers heyday, for example, knew he'd have to pay a price -- a punch in the face from bodyguards Marty McSorley or Dave Semenko. As such, maybe he would think twice. Or maybe he wouldn't bother in the first place. Could Gretzky have fought for himself? Sure. But he wouldn't have been very valuable sitting in the penalty box, bruised and bleeding from the nose, any more than Semenko would have been useful drawing faceoffs. Fill a role. Tough guys act as score-settlers, proxy gladiators, nuclear deterrents.
"With a guy like Donald Brashear," Leonsis says, "it's mutually assured destruction."
Fights themselves follow a set of guidelines as complex as an arms-control treaty. The overriding principle is fairness. But the gray areas are extensive. Cheap shot? Clean punch? Uncalled for? Had it coming? On the message boards, every brawl is fodder for ethical debate. "That's the drama," Posux says. "Part of the fun."
In general, fighters don't beat up nonfighters. But sometimes they do. Big guys aren't supposed to fight small guys, unless the smalls ask for it. Anyone is free to turn down a fight, especially if he's injured or liable to hurt his team via penalty minutes. Turn down the wrong fight at the wrong time, however, and you're considered a "spot-picker." Which is two shades over from "coward." Never challenge someone at the end of his shift -- he might be tired -- but always try to pull an opponent's sweater over his face, because he can't hit what he can't see. Punching someone while he's on the ice is bad, and punching someone in the back of the head is worse, yet hitting someone directly in the kisser until his bones are the consistency of applesauce is good. Very good. Oh, and don't dip your helmet forward in a scrap, because even though your dance partner is trying to pound you, you don't want him to cut up his knuckles, otherwise he won't be able to do his job. Good luck, man!
Back in Regina, Derek Boogaard has just finished sparring. One year earlier, he fractured then-Anaheim enforcer Todd Fedoruk's cheek and orbital bones with a series of hard punches. Fedoruk ended up getting four titanium plates inserted in his face. Even some fight fans wondered whether the brutal brawl was good for their hobby.
Boogaard leans forward in his chair, which beneath his hulking frame resembles baby furniture. He's friendly and relaxed, maybe a bit sleepy. He asks whether I follow football. "Look at quarterbacks," he says, shaking his head. "They get smoked. And if it's not the guy hitting them, it's their head bouncing off the grass.
"In a hockey fight, you know that things are coming in front of you. I couldn't imagine grabbing a guy and just launching into him. I would find that hard to do, to blindside a guy."
Er, right. So the code, all these little rules, they're designed to protect fighters, even though they're, you know, fighting? Got it. And when the other guy takes his helmet off -- which happens a lot in the minors -- that's to protect ... your fists?
Boogaard smiles. He shows me his hands. They look like mangled tree branches: scarred knuckles, knobby joints, a reddish-purple lump atop his right middle finger that wouldn't be out of place on the surface of Mars.
"You punch someone in the skull, and it's like, 'F---!'" he says. "It still hurts."
It's all very honorable. And all very confusing.
Knuckles like the protruding edge of a kitchen countertop
Jon Mirasty has the round, friendly face of a mischievous cherub. He stands 5-10, weighs 220 pounds. On the ice, however, he seems bigger and taller, definitely more menacing, less cherub than pissed-off grizzly bear.
Of course, this is probably because his fist is pressed against my chin.
I'm back in Syracuse. The Crunch's morning skate is over, and Mirasty is showing me the ins and outs of a hockey fight, up close and personal. I'm wearing jeans and a team jersey, and thankfully, we're play-acting -- otherwise, I'd be on my back and unconscious, or possibly reading through insurance premiums. Mirasty squares up, engages, throws a baby jab. Yipes. His knuckles feel like cold granite, the protruding edge of a kitchen countertop; his death grip on my collar brings to mind Mola Ram from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
"You see a little blood," Mirasty says, "and you keep punching."
Hockey fighting is a dance. With, as mentioned, ample hemoglobin. Throw in some C-list celebrities, and it would make a pretty decent prime-time show. ("Glove-Dropping With the Stars" -- who wouldn't want to see Mark Cuban get decked?) The first step is the grab. Right-handed puncher? Snatch a fistful of the other guy's jersey with your left hand -- around the neck if you want to open up, around his right shoulder if you want to keep him from throwing. This gives you leverage, sets up your overhand right, even lets you throw small, irritating jabs with your left fist. A good grab is akin to a good punt return -- it makes all the violence to come a whole lot easier.
Be warned: Your opponent also is trying to grab you.
Next comes punching. You want to punch first. You want to punch hard. (Mirasty trains with 30-pound dumbbells: Hold one in each hand, cock fist above shoulder, punch for 30 seconds, switch hands, repeat.) Remember to duck your chin into your shoulder pads, too, because you're getting punched at the same time. Worn out? Time to "seatbelt" -- grab both of the other guy's shoulders and squeeze your arms like a vise. (When Mirasty does this, the sensation is downright claustrophobic. Oh, and look out for kidney punches. That's the counter.)
Feeling bold? Try switching hands. Mirasty does this when taller opponents hold him at arm's length, and also for the hell of it. Just to put on a show. It's something of a signature move. Works like this: My left hand is grabbing Mirasty's right shoulder. His left is grabbing my right. We're trading right-handed punches. My reach is longer. My punches are connecting. He has me just where he wants me. "You might be winning at this point," he says, grinning. "But watch."
Mirasty's right hand shoots under my left arm, grabs just under my neck. At the same time, his skates and shoulders reverse, while his left hand cocks back. He's coiled, ready to punch, weight and momentum behind his fist; I'm off-balance, arms neutralized, somehow pulling Mirasty toward my wide-open, soon-to-be-rearranged face. This happens in an instant and makes me happy I never learned to skate.
Later, as we're sitting on the team bench, two teenage boys take to the ice. They might be in high school, though neither looks old enough to get a driver's license. The boys circle each other, shadowboxing, then grab each other's shirts. I hear them grunting, and I think they're horsing around, until one slips and falls on his back with a loud thwack!
"Welcome to the Syracuse Crunch," Mirasty says, "where even the water boys fight."
He's joking. Sort of. The Crunch are bound for the AHL playoffs, largely thanks to playing "heavy" -- hitting hard, talking trash, turning games into pain-endurance tests. Intimidating opponents, daring them to fight back. The ice becomes a schoolyard. Mirasty is the toughest kid in class. In a recent game against Grand Rapids, teammates tell me, Crunch captain Zenon Konopka issued an in-game challenge to the Griffins' bench.
Let's have a fight. One of yours against one of ours. Fair and square. Show us what you're made of.
The Griffins declined. And the Crunch muscled their way to a 5-2 victory.
"We win games before we even play," Konopka says. "People just want to get out of here with their bodies intact. With Jon, we feel physically invincible on ice. You see him fight, and it's kind of a warm feeling inside."
He pauses and notices my face is all scrunched up. "That's weird to say," he admits. "But it's true. When the team was bringing Jon in, they asked me what I thought. I said, 'Get a guy who likes fighting.' Ninety percent of fighters don't. Six percent do. Four percent love it. Jon loves it."
He didn't always. Here's the thing about enforcers: None of them grows up dreaming about becoming the next Probert. They want to be Mario Lemieux. But somewhere along the line, they realize that's as likely as the NHL's expanding to Mars. To stay in the sport, they have to adjust. Do whatever it takes. Like taking punches.
Mirasty is no different. He grew up on a farm, loved horses, was a peewee goal scorer. At age 15, he was invited to a junior camp, where the reigning tough guy challenged him to a fight. "He was 20," Mirasty recalls. "I beat him. The coach didn't want me to go home."
He had a gift. Didn't know where it came from. Maybe it was residual anger after his parents divorced. Maybe it was the kids on the Flying Dust First Nation Indian reservation mocking his mixed-race heritage -- Cathy has Irish ancestors, Gary is a Cree Indian -- calling him "white boy" as he skated along the ice. Maybe it was just his cinderblock skull, a blessing from the goon gods. "I've never played with a guy who can take a punch like him and not swell up," Konopka says. "You see him in the penalty box and he's fine. It's unbelievable."
Mirasty fought his way from Prince Albert and Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan, from Bakersfield, Calif., to Danbury, Conn. He spent three seasons in Quebec's Ligue Nord Americaine de Hockey, the most brutal, fight-happy league in the sport. He made good money, had a son, met his fiancée, had a tooth removed from his left hand and a steel plate inserted in his right. (The tooth severed the tendon above his middle finger; the plate sets off airport security metal-detector wands.) He became a fight fan cult hero, his fearless style winning converts, YouTube clips of his bouts drawing 80,000-plus views. Yet by last summer, he was ready to retire, go home to Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, and spend time with Tristan, his son, now 6 years old. Camp and fish and hunt. Coach youth hockey. Maybe compete in mixed martial arts. He didn't see a place for himself in the changing NHL. "Being a tough guy, I felt this is pretty much as far as I can go," he recalls.
Enter Eric Beman. Eric is Mirasty's agent and a good friend. More importantly, he's a fan. A hard-core fight fan. Saw his first hockey brawl in 1978. Been hooked ever since. As a teenager, Beman made contacts with NHL teams, met enforcers at their hotels, amazed them with his knowledge of their junior careers. Later, he'd travel up and down the East Coast and into Canada to watch and film fights. He knows Nicky V. He knows the guys who came before Nicky V.
"Say you and your girlfriend are going to Hawaii on vacation," he says. "Where am I going? I'm driving nine hours to Quebec City to film training camp, film 15 fights. That's like a dream vacation for me. Nowhere else I would rather be."
Beman makes his living as a personal trainer, owns a chain of fitness stores in New Jersey. But he never lost the fight bug and, about 10 years ago, decided to become an agent. For tough guys. Exclusively. He wasn't motivated by money -- you'd be better off digging for oil in Central Park -- but rather by a desire to preserve his hobby. He met Mirasty four years ago, helped talk the Crunch into signing him and has spent two years filming Mirasty on and off the ice with $10,000 worth of video equipment he bought himself. He'd like to make a documentary, something along the lines of the well-received MMA film "The Smashing Machine." He'd really like to see Jon get invited to an NHL training camp, then fight his way onto a roster -- if only to show that tough hockey isn't dead.
I ask Beman whether he plays hockey. Nope, he says. Roller and street. But never on ice. Never had the opportunity.
"I'm just a guy who will do anything for hockey fights," he says. "As sick as that sounds."
Ugly and strange and beautiful
"F---ing Gillies, man." Cochrane remains perplexed.
The third period of the Crunch-River Rats game is about to begin, and still no face-punching. Never mind that Konopka has pretty much called out Albany's entire team -- his mouth could fuel an electric wind farm -- or that parts of "Slap Shot" were filmed in this very building. Mirasty's gloves are safely wrapped around his hands. The crowd is restless.
"Definitely orchestrated," Cochrane says, staring a hole through the back of the River Rats' bench.
I reconsider Cochrane's theory: Albany's coach won't let Gillies fight Mirasty because I'm here to see it. The more I turn it over, the more it seems preposterous. Wait. Not preposterous. Small-minded. Don't blame me. Blame change. Blame a culture that likes its violence restricted to MMA and "Grand Theft Auto." Guaranteed fight? Maybe those days are over. Maybe there's no such thing, not anymore, not when a much-replayed brawl involving the son of former NHL goalie Patrick Roy prompts howling, widespread outrage. Maybe Cochrane and all the other fight fans, the apostles of aggression, will just have to get used to a world in which goons are museum pieces, in which Mirasty retreats to rural Canada to fish with his son.
Cochrane looks at me like I'm the crazy one.
"Fighting is something that is necessary in the game," he says. "You can try to discourage it, but you can only accomplish that for a certain period of time. It's like stripping an animal out of an ecosystem. It will be back. We will repeat the tough hockey cycle again. The clothes are back, the hair is back. Enforcers will once again be a hot commodity. As they once were."
He gets a faraway look. "There aren't any boards for the pretty drop pass or the breakaway goal. Rome doesn't change. Rome loves the gladiators."
Are we Rome? I should have read the book. Needing a change of scenery, I leave my seat, turn a corner, head down into a stadium tunnel. I'm below the bleachers, making my way to the other side of the arena when I hear the crowd. Oooooh! Something's up. I scramble to a section behind the glass, almost directly opposite of where Cochrane is sitting. A fan fills me in: "Frischmon nailed Borer and now they're gonna go!"
Right. Syracuse's Trevor Frischmon checked Albany's Casey Borer right out of the game, wrecked Borer's knee. Someone on the River Rats has to retaliate. That's the code. Mirasty and Gillies line up together on the outside of a faceoff.
"Are we going or what?" Mirasty asks.
"Yeah, yeah," Gillies says. "OK."
Off come the gloves, followed by the helmets. Mirasty and Gillies skate past center ice, circling each other, hands bobbing up and down. Gillies grabs Mirasty, lands three overhand lefts. He leans back, out of Mirasty's reach, keeps his right arm locked. Mirasty ducks his head, takes some shots to the back of his skull, moves in closer. The two trade punches, abandoning defense, Mirasty with his right hand, Gillies with his left: I lose count. It's thrilling and horrifying all at once. I think about Dimitri, a fight fan I met online, who runs the goon fantasy league site and grew up in Russia playing pond hockey. Dimitri saw his first fight during a USSR-Canada Summit Series; at that very moment, he remembers, the sport was no longer just a chess match. It was a war. Ugly and strange and beautiful. And he couldn't turn away.
Three seats to my right is an elderly woman. Her face is wet with tears. She has never seen a hockey fight before.
She is Mirasty's grandmother.
Two seats over is a blonde with a ponytail, wearing a Mirasty jersey and Ugg boots. She's standing on her chair, screaming and whistling and waving her index finger in the air.
She is Mirasty's mom.
In the seat next to mine is a young guy holding a digital camera, angling to tape the brawl. "Kill 'em," he screams. "Kill 'em, Jon!"
He is Mirasty's cousin. He's in the Navy. Later this year, he'll ship out to Iraq.
A minute passes. The punching slows. Gillies grabs Mirasty's shoulders, attempting to seatbelt. "Good fight," he says. The referees approach. Mirasty waves them off. "Hey, get out of here!" He then does something I've never seen on a fight tape.
I see it. Gillies sees it. Everyone sees it. Mirasty is enjoying this. He wants more. I glance across the ice at Cochrane. He's standing, arms crossed, nodding his head. He looks ... content. Almost serene. And now I understand. All this time, I thought fight fans just wanted to see someone punch someone else in the face. Bloodlust and raging id. And that's part of it. But not all of it. And it's not what really moves true believers in the Cult of the Goon. What moves them is the willingness to get punched in the face, and then get punched again. To suffer for your teammates, for the sport, for everyone who cares about it, all so someone else doesn't have to. You don't have to win. You just have to show up.
Show up and give.
"Kill 'em, Jon!"
Gillies jabs Mirasty in the jaw. The punching begins anew, amid the crowd's adoring roar, fists landing like lead. Every blow an act of love.
Read the original article at ESPN.com