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Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks sports fresh stitches in his nose as a result of his fight with Ian Laperriere of the Colorado Avalanche during their game at General Motors Place on December 2, 2006. (Jeff Vinnick/JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES)
Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks sports fresh stitches in his nose as a result of his fight with Ian Laperriere of the Colorado Avalanche during their game at General Motors Place on December 2, 2006. (Jeff Vinnick/JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES)

Ian Brown

The NHL enforcers who go down fighting Add to ...

Punches never frightened him. “There's fists and they fly. Are they real punches? Are you trying to hurt the guy? Yeah, I guess you're trying to win. But a lot of those punches don't even connect. ”

He said what makes the job nerve-racking is the mental game, “fear of the unknown. Is this the night that's gonna end your career because you take it on the chin? If a player's also suffering from any kind of depression, and then he has to deal with that?” He pauses. “A lot of the tough guys aren't really that tough. They're just that way because it's the only way they can be there on the ice – by facing some guy as big as you are, who wants to rip your head off. It's not a comforting experience.”

Why do it, then? For the support of fans, “and the friendship you get from your teammates. That makes it all worth it,” Mr. Peters said.

The tough boys maintain a strict private code. You never hit a guy when he's down or at the end of his shift. Genuine injury stops a fight. “You're not trying to end his career. You're just trying to win the fight,” he said.

Terry O'Reilly, the Boston Bruins' legendary enforcer from 1971 to 1985, once threw his shoulder out in the middle of a smackdown and made an uncharacteristically girlish noise.

“What's up?” the guy pounding him said.

“Shoulder's out,” Mr. O'Reilly winced.

“Okay, fight's over.”

“Another code,” Gord Donnelly continues, “is if a guy gives you a chance, so you win a fight, you have to give him a chance to come back.”

That rule is not universally observed, however. “If I fought to a draw, I was happy. And if I got the win, I wasn't giving the guy another shot,” Mr. Peters admits.

The way of the goon

But even if fighting is discovered to be a cause of depression, no enforcer I've met thinks that NHL hockey can give it up. It runs too deep and profitably in the game, guarded by the so-called goons who fight because that is the only way they can keep playing their beautiful, fast, difficult game. A Newfoundland poet named Degan Davis wrote a poem about them, called Hockey:

You can explain all the rules –

the endless drills, the skates' white-cut perfect

curves, the blind passes, the adrenaline shadow

following you ten feet back – but why would you?

Puck in net. Simple as a shoulder check.

In a dark bar north of Saskatoon I met

a former NHL goon who tore his calves,

lost his way, limped back home to factory work,

poker, narcotics, and finally, poetry.

Silence between us. Poetry? On the screen two-inch men

passed back and forth like overdressed bird

in a brilliant white cage.

No other game with that finesse, he said, that rage.



Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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