David Dotan has a vivid memory of when his dream of playing in the NHL shattered.
The big, strong defenceman had just carried the puck from one end of the ice to the other in a tense Western Hockey League match and rattled a wicked shot off the opposition goal post.
His coach reached out to him when his team changed lines, only it was not to pat him on the back.
“Your job is not to be Bobby Orr,” the angry coach screamed, though this quote is inaccurate in that it is missing several adjectives. “Your job is to fight!”
But why, the big teenager wondered?
Was it his fault he stood 6 foot 4 (now 6 foot 5) and weighed more than 200 pounds? People had often remarked he moved with the speed and agility of a much smaller man. He had superior skills. He liked to score. And he liked the physical side of the game.
But why fight unless there was good reason? Why be sent out for the sole purpose of staging a fight as if it were a tactic, the equivalent of pulling the goalie, something to put spark into the team?
Dotan grew up in Richmond, B.C., where he was a fine athlete. His father, Jimmie, had played elite soccer in Soviet Georgia. His mother, Larisa, was a fencer who competed in the 1980 Olympics. Young David was a gifted swimmer, good enough at 13 to be ranked nationally and pegged as a possible Olympian.
But he had other ideas. “I didn’t like staring at the bottom of a pool four hours a day,” the now-22-year-old business student says. “I hated it. I was just good at it. And I was really good at hockey, as well.”
His parents were not pleased. But they let him throw himself into hockey, where he excelled and became fast friends with another young player, Evander Kane, now with the Winnipeg Jets. Unlike Kane, Dotan did not get drafted high into junior hockey, as he was growing fast and awkwardly. A late bloomer, he received scholarship inquiries, which his parents wanted him to take, but he decided instead – much to his regret – to go the more glamorous route.
Dotan would play major-junior and junior in leagues that covered Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. And his size, now, would become his undoing rather than his ticket.
As one coach put it: “If you are under six feet, you better score. If you are six feet, you better grind. And if you are above six feet, you better fight. Don’t try to do someone else’s job.”
Dotan fell out with this coach, who told him: “The only way you are ever going to make the NHL is if you fight.”
He fought, all right, but against the coach. “It was me rebelling against him,” Dotan says. “When he told me to fight, it was exactly when I wouldn’t fight. And when he didn’t tell me to fight, that’s when I would. I didn’t want to be that player that he wanted.
“He wanted me to play a role and I was having none of it.”
If he tried to show off his skills in a game, he would find himself benched. When he found himself “scratched” – healthy but not dressing – he demanded out, quit hockey for a while and came back to it months later, on another team in another province, hoping to rekindle his love of the game.
But it was a tough struggle. He had been sent out so often to fight that the mere thought of it sickened him. In one memorable bout, he had been caught by a surprise punch and concussed. He had been having emotional problems and fighting off depression and anxiety.
“I had fun,” he says of when he returned. “But I never had that touch again. I ended up becoming a player that was just average. I don’t know if it was mental or skill. So after that experience I decided to go to university.”
He enrolled at Simon Fraser University and started to play for the hockey team. “Good hockey,” he says, “good players, good fun.”
But so much time was involved, he felt he should drop hockey and concentrate on his studies.
There is no resentment to sport. With several other SFU students, Dotan is about to launch a business, Potential Apparel, that intends to enlist athletes, mostly from hockey and soccer, to help sell a clothing line in which $5 from every item sold will be returned to charities (Right to Play and Hockey Heroes) that help children get involved in athletic activity.
Thanks to therapy, he came to appreciate the good things hockey gave him – friends, social skills, work ethic – rather than resent what hockey had taken from him.
He is not advocating the elimination of fisticuffs from the game. It happens in basketball, football, even baseball. “That will never change,” he says. “Planned fighting is what they need to get out of the game.”
The staged fighting he was ordered to do, he says, “ruins hockey. You have to put a spot on the roster for players like that, whereas better players have to make the top two lines if they’re going to play. I don’t have enough fingers to count the amount of amazing hockey players that are not playing in the NHL because they can’t crack the top two lines.”
Dotan is convinced staged fights do nothing to motivate a team or sell the game.
“They say that the fans want to watch fights,” he says. “They say you need the fighters to protect the stars. The truth is that if you’re a hockey player and you get a chance to hit, you are going to hit regardless of who is on the fourth line on the bench. [But] it becomes a situation where even if it’s a clean hit, you have the coach tapping a fourth-line player to go out and fight.
“It’s a joke, that’s junior hockey. You have guys who don’t even know how to stick-handle and they make the team.
“It’s frustrating, but the most frustrating thing is how these coaches try to change players.
“It wasn’t just me, believe me. I wasn’t the only guy.”