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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 ...

Rick Rypien is never smiling in the photographs that appeared after he took his life on Monday. An edge of watchfulness, a blank, unimpressed fear was as much as the former Vancouver Canuck enforcer would allow himself. Unimpressed with himself, the pictures say, but all the videos show you why he took to fighting. You never really see him start to brawl: One moment he isn't, the next he is, a furious instant fugue, his eyes half closed, arms wide, body so close to his enemy he could be hanging on as much as he's hitting – as if he is trying to hammer away a wall between himself and another, preferable place. Fighting for his life is the expression that comes to mind. Never quite scared, but never not desperate.

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As news of Ripper's end spilled across the country this week, tributes from his fans and fellow players contradicted his tough-guy rep as a scrappy enforcer (5 foot 11, 190 pounds) who would take on anyone of any size on any team he played (226 penalty minutes in 119 games). This was a guy who was definitely fearless. He could skate 100 miles an hour. The nicest guy I ever played with.

Mr. Rypien, 27, is the third National Hockey League enforcer to die prematurely in the past year. Derek Boogaard, 28, the former New York Rangers enforcer, expired in May from an overdose of alcohol and oxycodone. The supreme enforcer Bob Probert, no stranger to drugs and booze, collapsed unexpectedly last summer from a heart attack and couldn't be revived. He was 45.

Mr. Rypien's demon was depression; he needed two leaves of absence from the Canucks to fight “undisclosed personal problems,” and his father – a former Golden Gloves champion – admitted this week that depression has run in the family.

What he was suicidal about awaits disclosure; whether his depression was partly related to chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by an enforcer's constant hockey fights will be answered only when scientists examine his brain. But reducing Rick Rypien's suicide to hockey policy misses the point of his career and his sport.

Mr. Rypien was one of the NHL's storied enforcers – the goons who are the game's accidental warriors. Like Laraque and McSorley and Domi and all the others tough enough to be known by one name, Mr. Rypien protected his teammates by crushing opponents. That was his job. It was the centre of his life, a conceivable cause of his death, the setting of some of his happiest moments and the source of his most complex and human self. This is the overlooked inner life of the goon.

Slugging to survive

An NHL enforcer's career is complicated from the start because fighting is often the only way such a player can stay in the league. Mr. Rypien fought his way into the NHL, without benefit of being drafted. He played a handful of minutes a game, and performed the same tasks each shift: subdued opponents who threatened his stars, administered payback and roused the flagging spirits of his team. The job almost always involved violence.

Gord Donnelly, an enforcer who spent 10 years in the NHL, recently told me how he started playing rough. “You play hockey because it's fun. But then you have to evolve into something else if you want to stay in the league. And that's hard, unless you are a really mean guy.”

Fighting scared

Like most enforcers, Mr. Donnelly didn't like fighting. Like most enforcers, he was scared every time he went on the ice. (He's still a solid rectangle of a guy into his 40s.) “Of course. Scared to death. Or, certainly, on edge. Not to lose the fight. But to lose and be embarrassed in front of 20,000 people,” not counting the millions shouting at the TV.

In other words, the role of the enforcer is to enact a performance in character. Allain Roy, Mr. Rypien's agent, disputes most generalizations about enforcers, but “the one constant I've seen is that all of the enforcers, they're very nice people.”

Naturally, there are exceptions. Former NHL enforcer Ryan VandenBussche once had to be tasered before he could be subdued in a bar brawl. He was 35. He was later cleared of three counts of assaulting police and one count of uttering a death threat after his lawyer argued that concussions had rendered him a “non-insane automaton,” and the judge agreed that his behaviour was not the product of an “operating mind.” That pretty much sums up the darkest version of the enforcer role.

Enforcers so intrigued Oscar-nominated filmmaker Alex Gibney ( Client 9), he spent three years making a documentary about them. The Last Gladiators makes its debut next month at the Toronto International Film Festival. Mr. Gibney has always been obsessed by “people who are forced to do brutal stuff that takes a toll on them.”

“I was struck by the enforcers' ability to embrace contradictions,” he explained on the phone the other day. “They go on the ice and have a fight, but for them it's never about that. There has to be a cause. Terms of respect are terribly important.”

For many enforcers, the game and the arena are their least complicated home. “He really felt that hockey was his sanctuary,” Mr. Roy said of Mr. Rypien.

This is one more reason why many people felt Mr. Rypien's tragedy so keenly, even if they weren't hockey fans: With the exception of goalie, enforcer is the most individual role on a hockey team, and the most candid. No wonder it gets personal.

The centrepiece of Mr. Gibney's film is Chris Nilan, a 15-year big-leaguer who helped win the Montreal Canadiens a Stanley Cup. “He's always been obsessed with people who get picked on,” the filmmaker said. “That would always set him off. The way that his toughness came out was always in furtherance of a cause, protecting somebody.”

Mr. Nilan grew up in poor Boston under the often physical hand of a tough father. The NHL became his justice, and “something for him to shoot for,” Mr. Gibney said. “But he knew that the only way he got into the bigs was with his fists. That's a tough and bitter pill to swallow.”

Well, it is if no one is willing to admit the importance of fighting in hockey – to say nothing of the role of the Spartan enforcers who control the game's emotions. Planned fighting has nothing to do with manhood, as the human cockatiel Don Cherry keeps asserting at full volume over and over again, and everything to do with discipline and control.

After all, enforcers spend most of the game on the bench, observing. They see what Mr. Gibney calls “that contradiction at the centre of hockey. You're supposed to enjoy the speed, the grace, the magnificence of people flying on the ice, putting a small puck in the net. But if a fight breaks out in basketball, the referees don't stand around before they step in. And that's the poignant part of the hockey enforcer's fate. We do enjoy watching them fight. We come from that place, deep down, when civilization was not so complex and full of euphemism, back when we beat the shit out of people. In some fundamental way, we admire it when everything else is stripped away.”

But it's never easy. At 6 foot 4 and 245 pounds, Andrew Peters was for six seasons one of the NHL's most gigantic enforcers. Still, he said, “it's an emotionally stressful job.”

How stressful? Mid-August each year, Mr. Peters began to scan the schedule “to see who I'm gonna fight. I'm not playing the Ottawa Senators, I'm fighting Brian McGrattan.” He watched fight films of upcoming enforcers. He was often sleepless the night before a game and speechless the afternoon of it. But he did it “because I wanted to play hockey and because they paid me good money” – the league minimum of $500,000 in his last year. He also did it “because I've been told how it makes guys on a team feel to know you're there for them.”

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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