I can still remember my first National Hockey League game, with the Edmonton Oilers. It was an exhibition against San Jose and I was on the ice for a faceoff at the same time as Dave Brown, a fighter with a fearsome reputation. I was so close I could hear him breathing, and all I could think about was the time he broke Stu Grimson’s face with a punch. I couldn’t help but think: “What would happen if he challenged me to a fight? He would break my face, too.”
I panicked and avoided his gaze, crouching so low that I could see the stretch of ice between his skates, all the way to my goaltender. I was so scared at the mere thought of dropping the gloves with him that I told myself: “I will never fight in the National Hockey League.”
But I did, and I have learned from my experiences that being a heavyweight in the NHL is the toughest job in professional sport.
This summer has been one of the saddest in the hockey world. We have lost three great guys – Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. It is puzzling to me that we have had to wait this long to address this issue. After all, we lost Bob Probert, another warrior, just last year. Something should have been done then.
The hardest part about fighting is not the physical part, because once you’re into a fight, with adrenalin kicking in, you don’t feel much pain at all. The struggle is the mental part.
A fight starts much earlier than when it actually happens. During the season, it is continuously in your mind. You think about the next game, who you might have to fight, whether that team has a superheavyweight. It’s in your mind so much that sometimes you cannot even sleep, enjoy your kids’ company or even focus at a movie theatre.
On the day of the game, some guys might be sweating because of the anxiety, have a hard time having their pregame lunch or even pregame nap. It’s often why when two tough guys face each other in a game, they want to get it over with as soon as possible so then they can play and not worry about it. This mental struggle is constant, because when this game is over, then there’s the next one, then you think about the next guy, and after a while this can drive you crazy.
On top of that, you got the pressure of doing well, you want to keep your teammates’ respect, and, of course, you want to keep your job. You know one bad loss in a fight can cost you your job. Tough guys are easy to replace.
Another struggle is the fact that the average career of a tough guy is not usually long, and most of them make minimum salary. Not everyone playing in the NHL makes multimillion dollars a season.
So imagine a guy busting his face for $500,000. About 50 per cent of your salary goes to taxes and 10 per cent goes in escrow back to the teams. After adding in the cost of living for an NHL player during a short playing career, you don’t have much saved. You then have to handle a life after hockey for an other 70 years, and this causes another type of pressure.
For a lot of guys, not just heavyweights, all they knew was hockey. When they get into the real world, it is a struggle and they go into huge depression.
So if you’re a tough guy, you have to deal with a lot of stuff. It would be normal that former players need help or counselling, but this is another issue.
We are supposed to be invincible. We are supposed to show no weaknesses. This is an ego job. You hide everything and the only people who know what you are going through are other tough guys.
So that pressure is why many players rely on drugs or alcohol to hide from their issues. Boogaard, Rypien and Belak were all suffering from depression, but do you know how many more guys are in that situation right now and were just standing by waiting for the bad news to come? As you can see, those guys are not invincible and they also need help. The programs we have right now are not good enough.
Forget about the programs where you have some doctors with a PhD from Harvard who can come in and solve those issues. Players don’t want to talk to a guy who has never played the game or even understand our struggles.
If you think that taking fighting out of hockey is the solution, you are wrong. Eliminating an aspect of the game to solve an issue is never the right way to accomplish things.
I would not want to be the person to make that rule because there will be 75 or more players out of a job because of it, and you would see some going into depression. There are also kids just like me who are playing junior hockey with the hope fighting stays in the game so they can have a job some day. This would create a bigger issue. For me, all those former tough guy who are retired and commentating on television and on radio about taking fighting out of hockey are making me sick. They were there at the right time and now that they’ve made their money, they’re going to spit on what put bread on their table? Well, that’s not going to happen with me.
The best solution would be to have a committee of former players who have fought before for a living, some guys who struggle with the job, some guys who had success, some big and small guys. That way, guys with problems would be more comfortable to talk about their issues and we would be able to find solutions together.
The NHL and the NHLPA also have to work hard together to find better programs for transition to life after hockey for their athletes. Even after their careers are done, those guys are a product in the NHL and we have to take care of them.
We want to enhance the game and make it more popular. If we don’t solve this issue, we will lose many fans, and parents are not going to want to put their kids in hockey. The world is watching us so we have to act quickly and now.
Georges Laraque spent 12 years in the National Hockey League before retiring in 2010, playing for Edmonton, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Montreal. He is now the deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada. His first book, Georges Laraque: The Story of the Unlikeliest Tough Guy, will be released in November by Penguin Books. He can be reached at www.georgeslaraque.com.