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Vancouver Canucks Tom Sestito, right, fights with Toronto Maple Leafs Colton Orr during the 2012-2013 season. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)
Vancouver Canucks Tom Sestito, right, fights with Toronto Maple Leafs Colton Orr during the 2012-2013 season. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)

Shifting NHL culture knocks enforcers down for the count Add to ...

The radio dial in Rome, N.Y., this March day is plugged with complaints about the coldest February on record and ads for debt-consolidation services. Snowbanks block any view of intersection cross-traffic as Tom Sestito pilots his SUV up Black River Blvd. and pulls into Dippin Donuts.

Sestito’s dad calls him a “burger-and-fries kind of guy” while Sestito’s brother, Tim, also a pro hockey player, “is more a tofu-and-cottage-cheese type.” Perhaps heeding that knock, Sestito orders a coffee and avoids the 60 varieties of confectionery on offer. He squeezes his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame into a booth near the window and nudges a black tuque up his forehead, revealing a scar that interrupts his left eyebrow and a facial expression that says he’d rather be 3,700 kilometres west of here.

Not just here at Dippin Donuts, but here in Rome, his blue-collar hometown that has lost nearly one-quarter of its population to job loss over the past couple decades. He already punched his way out of here once, scraped his knuckles all the way to the NHL and a two-year, $1.5-million (U.S.) contract to play with the Vancouver Canucks through the end of the 2015 season.

On average, an NHLer plays about six seasons in the league. They have to make hay while the sun shines. By Pete Sestito’s rough estimation, his son would be 27 by contract’s end – his athletic peak – perched on solid footing for five or six more contracts before retirement.

But then hockey’s tectonic plates shifted.

As if by collusion, teams dropped their fighters after 60 years of embracing and encouraging them. Suddenly, they were too slow, too one-dimensional, too violent, too controversial, too costly, too prone to concussion, too associated with addiction, depression and suicide. Their advanced stats stunk. No single argument made much sense; together they proved decisive.

Earlier this year, the Canucks sent Sestito down to the AHL’s Utica Comets. After 10 games with the club, the Canucks issued a three-sentence press release saying his playing days for the club – both the Comets and the Canucks – were done. He would continue to receive his salary. Now, here he is in his 27th year, making $850,000 to clutch a Styrofoam cup and stare out at the snowbanks.

“This right here, what I’m doing right now, I’m bored out of my mind,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and wonder what I’m going to do besides work out.”

The details of how the NHL’s most willing fighter – 19 bouts last year – went from power-play time with the Sedin twins to Dippin Donuts are muddled. Clearer is the larger trend Sestito personifies.

In the words of Brian McGrattan, the top heavyweight of the past nine years and a frequent Sestito combatant, the decades-old position of enforcer is “over.”

“It’s done,” he says following a recent practice at the Glens Falls Civic Center, the crumbling upstate New York home of the Adirondack Flames. “It was fun while it lasted, but if they’re sending me down, that means it's all over.”

Not everyone’s willing to accept his prognosis.

The rise of the gorillas
Ask hockey’s undisputed sage, Scotty Bowman, when the modern enforcer role began and his mind scoots back through generations, shooting past McGrattan and Bob Probert, skipping over Chris (Knuckles) Nilan and David (Tiger) Williams, landing in the late 1950s.

The rest of the six-team league had realized they could beat the grace and speed of the dominant Montreal Canadiens with flying knuckles and high elbows. They actively acquired mean players. The Habs refused to engage in the arms race until the crucible of the 1961 playoffs. At least three Canadiens – including Jean Béliveau – suffered concussions against a nasty Chicago Blackhawks team that would go on to win the Cup.

“That Chicago team was full of big, strong guys like Reggie Fleming and Murray Balfour,” says Bowman, who was then a scout with the Canadiens. “Then Toronto won cups in ’62, ’63 and ’64 with some pretty tough teams. Montreal went through those years struggling. The skill players were not able to exhibit the skill they had.”

Canadiens general manager Frank Selke declared he never wanted to see his stars “bullied by these gorillas” again. He added John Ferguson, Ted Harris and Terry Harper to the roster. The trio racked up 448 penalty minutes in leading the team to the Stanley Cup in 1965.

“These guys made a huge impact,” Bowman says. “But they were regular players. They played a regular shift. They weren’t the part-time players you’d see later.”

The arms race ramped up with expansion in 1967. For new teams based in U.S. cities lacking discerning hockey fans, fights sold tickets – or so owners thought. The enforcer role underwent mission creep, transforming from policeman into gladiator, entertainer – a sentiment captured in Slap Shot.

Later teams would take the Selke model to an extreme. Don Cherry stocked his “Big Bad Bruins” with grinders and fighters. After being pushed around in its first few seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers squad beefed up with the likes of Dave (The Hammer) Schultz and André (Moose) Dupont, resulting in two Cups.

The league cracked down, creating special penalties to target bench-clearing brawls and other thuggish behaviour.

Soon, a new enforcer model emerged – the nuclear deterrent. Wayne Gretzky arrived during the Slap Shot era, but he avoided on-ice muggings thanks to the presence of 6-foot-3 Dave Semenko. Semenko was so feared, that, according to hockeyfights.com, he needed only 70 career fights to establish his supremacy. Gretzky, meanwhile, was able to exhibit his skill.

After a few seasons, everyone wanted a Semenko. The enforcer became a full-time fighter with his own training regimen. As their size increased, their playing time went down. In his final season, Tony Twist, a ferocious 6-foot-1 fighter for the St. Louis Blues, weighed 270 pounds and clocked five minutes of playing time a game. The heavyweights became superheavyweights. In 2001, the Minnesota Wild drafted a 6-foot-7 behemoth named Derek Boogaard.

“It became an era of my Snuffleupagus against your Snuffleupagus,” says Ross Bernstein, author of The Code, an exploration of NHL fighting for which he interviewed dozens of enforcers, past and present. “But something had to give; the players were becoming so big and fast but the sheet of ice remained the same size. You could see it: These guys were the last dinosaurs.”

Détente spread league wide
For Matt Kassian, it was about 2 p.m. on April 15, 2014, when something finally gave, when the comet struck, when his imminent extinction as a hockey player appeared.

Since 16, he had followed the enforcer formula of hard work, aching metacarpals and deference to authority. But on that spring day, his boss, Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray, held a season-ending press conference and casually mentioned he had no intention of re-signing his designated enforcer – Kassian.

“I found out on Twitter it was over. I was completely blindsided,” Kassian says. “My phone blew up with messages. I’d met with Bryan the day before and it wasn’t clear that that was what he was going to say. I didn’t have time to renegotiate my contract. I didn’t have time to talk to an agent. I didn’t have a chance to prepare.”

In the midst of the press conference, Murray revealed he’d chatted with Leafs GM Dave Nonis before the season-ending Battle of Ontario. The two executives agreed to dress a smaller, fight-free line-up. That détente has since spread league wide.

Over the off-season, the likes of Kassian, Krys Barch, Paul Bissonnette, Kevin Westgarth and several others failed to find NHL employment. In September, the Toronto Maple Leafs demoted popular fighters Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. The duo have since accumulated 23 games and one point for the Marlies. The Marlies denied a request to speak with either player for this story.

Shortly after the Murray press conference, Kassian and his wife packed up their Ottawa home and moved back to his hometown of Sherwood Park, Alta. He enrolled in business classes and began teaching at a hockey school. “It’s pointless to sit and wait and not do anything and then if something doesn’t happen you’re caught with your pants down,” he says.

He’s always been one to plan ahead. In 2005, at 16, he jumped over the boards on his first shift in his first game for the WHL’s Vancouver Giants and fought the biggest opposing player he could find. Never the most graceful skater or prodigious goal-scorer, he knew he had to announce himself in some other way or, perhaps, forever squelch his big-league dreams.

“I knew I was going to have to fight him,” Kassian says from his parent’s Sherwood Park home. “Because of my size and my style of play, I had to.”

The role didn’t bother Kassian. A self-proclaimed “Jesus guy,” he could think of no more virtuous job than protecting his teammates. But things became tough in 2011, the year three of his fellow enforcers – Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Boogaard – died for reasons friends and family members linked to their careers.

Researchers have studied the brains of several enforcers, including Boogaard’s, and found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that disrupts the medial temporal lobe, a region responsible for impulse control, anxiety and memory. The NFL has agreed to pay out a reported $1-billion to settle a CTE-related lawsuit with players. The NHL wants to avoid a similar disbursement.

As marginal players, enforcers carry an extra mental burden of pursuing careers on the cutline. “As an enforcer, you don’t get leeway with mistakes,” Kassian says. “You make a mistake, and you sit or get sent down. So you stop taking risks and stop developing as a player. The equipment guy would always hear before I would if I was sitting. You walk into the dressing room every day and get nervous, hoping your equipment is still hanging up.”

And then there are the physical ailments. “Last year, my hands, sometimes I couldn’t even close my fists I had so many fights,” Sestito says. “I used a lot of ice and this hot wax machine that acts like a heat pack.”

The financial rewards justified the agony – barely. Kassian went from making about $60,000 in the AHL to more than $550,000 in the NHL. “The feeling of getting that first paycheque is great,” he says, “but to be honest and frank, after tax, union dues, extras, the salary is significantly less. You also have to remember your life is extremely limited. It was never about the money for me.”

Young, upstart scrappers have evaporated
On a frigid March day, more than a dozen members of the McGrattan family file into Hamilton’s FirstOntario Centre to watch Brian take the ice for the Adirondack Flames.

At 33 years old with his first child on the way, McGrattan appears at ease with what he calls the twilight years of his pro career. He takes long, languorous strides. His positioning is instinctual. On the power play, he racks up five shots, 17 minutes of ice time and no fights. Nobody challenges him. His mother, Cathy, is somewhat grateful. “I never watched his fights,” she says, placing both hands over her eyes in mock fear. “But I don’t harp on him about it. I was counselled early on that if he’s fighting and thinking, ‘Oh, my mom’s watching,’ that’s not a good distraction.”

New rules in Canadian junior leagues hand out game misconducts for staged fights and suspensions for serial fighters. Young, upstart scrappers have evaporated. The surly Marlies, for instance, have recorded just 28 fights this season, according to hockeyfights.com, tied for second-lowest in the AHL. Across the NHL, fights per game have reached lows unseen in 46 years.

“I hate to say this, but the role of the three-to-five shift guy is gone,” says Dennis Bonvie, a Chicago Blackhawks scout and former scrapper who McGrattan credits with teaching him the ways of the enforcer. “That’s what I did and how I made my living, but as a scout, I’m not looking for that any more.”

Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings have long preached the virtues of a four-line team. Only now, with the help of advanced stats that show with annoying precision how much every player contributes, is the rest of the league catching on.

“You just can’t have one-dimensional players any more,” Bernstein says. “Instead of the T-Rexes or the Snuffleupaguses, you’re getting velociraptors – smaller guys who have speed, can score and can protect teammates if need be.”

The stats suggest McGrattan is no velociraptor. He could probably scrape out a few more years in pro leagues around the world, but he’s already looking at a career beyond the ice. Seven years ago, he spent two months in an Arizona rehab clinic for alcohol problems. Today, he spends much of his off-ice time counselling other players. “I have a few things like that to fall back on,” says McGrattan, standing outside the visitor’s dressing room following the Flames’ overtime victory, tattoos of sobriety angels and samurais on full display across his shoulders and around his legs. “Fortunately, I’m not going to be scrambling for a job when I’m done. That’s one worry off the plate.”

At 27 years of age, Kassian also has a kid on the way. He was skating daily with the local Junior B team while he waited for a pro club to call. When the March 2 trade deadline came and went without a solid offer, he decided to focus on school.

“You have your identity set as a professional hockey player,” he says. “Once that’s gone, what do you have? A part of your identity is gone. As a Christian, I don’t put my identity in money but in what I do. I’ll have an easier time. Some guys will get lost.”

Back in Rome, Pete Sestito is optimistic the enforcer role will rebound. He’s not so sure about his son. “Tom is me, we’re the same person,” the former Colgate University tight end says. “And I know at his age I wasn’t the best at taking responsibility for problems I created.”

In Vancouver, Tom Sestito complained to reporters after sitting for two months. “I kind of went off the deep-end with the media,” he now admits. “I voiced my displeasure through the media and I don’t think I should have done that. At the time I thought it was the right play. Things couldn’t get any worse. But now I’m here.”

Down in Utica, he directed his grievances at coaches rather than reporters, insisting he was far better than the fourth line to which he’d been relegated. “I played in the AHL long enough to know I’m not that,” he says. “We just came to an agreement that I’d practise at home and they’d work on trading me. Now I’m stuck in limbo.”

But his dad worries about the practice time. In the morning, he says his son works out like a madman, hitting the gym with a trainer and skating alone at a local arena. “But by 2 p.m., he comes home, calls up his old crew and heads out.”

In the coming months, he may head to San Diego or Florida to train free of distractions. “I need to clear my head,” he says, finishing his coffee and standing up from the booth. He’s gentle but outgoing in person. Local kids are drawn to his affable personality. “I want to get back because I want to show a lot of people what I can do,” he says, smiling. “I want to play Vancouver, like really bad. All the management, coaches – I want to stick it to those guys.”

He fires up his SUV and pulls out of the icy parking lot, craning his neck to see what’s behind the next snowbank.

 

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