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Ottawa Senators' Chris Neil, right, fights with Washington Capitals' Donald Brashear in Ottawa in 2007. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Ottawa Senators' Chris Neil, right, fights with Washington Capitals' Donald Brashear in Ottawa in 2007. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Gary Mason

Hockey's tough guys still hurt Add to ...

During my sportswriting days, I routinely found myself inside National Hockey League dressing rooms. Once there, I frequently gravitated to the stalls of those who had the toughest job in hockey – enforcer.

They were almost always among the friendliest, most approachable, players on the team. In that way, they were walking paradoxes: guys who, in street clothes, seemed like the nicest, most gentle creatures you’d ever meet. But once on the ice, they could transform into some of the meanest, nastiest players in the game.

Wade Belak certainly fit that description. And in many ways, Bob Probert and Derek Boogaard did, too. But not all the tough guys were like that. Some, like Rick Rypien, who played his entire NHL career with the Vancouver Canucks, seemed quiet, nervous and introverted.

The deaths of three of these fighters this summer – Mr. Belak and Mr. Rypien by apparent suicide, Mr. Boogaard by drug overdose – has brought renewed attention to the role of the tough guy. And there have been calls to study the damage that the job inflicts on a person.

Someone like Mr. Probert, who died from an apparent heart attack in July of 2010 at 45, would have incurred hundreds of punches to the head over the course of his career. Researchers at Boston University who later examined Mr. Probert’s brain found evidence of brain damage.

Of course, we can’t be certain that their positions as NHL policemen had anything to do with their deaths. And we never will. But I know from my conversations with others forced to carry out the same duties that the job exacts a heavy toll. Some of the players had complicated back stories that would have made achieving any kind of mental peace even more difficult.

In that regard, I don’t think anyone’s story affected me as deeply as Donald Brashear’s.

I got to know Mr. Brashear when he played for the Canucks. He would skate in the NHL for 18 seasons and compile 2,634 minutes in penalties.

He was a quiet, stoic sort, the antithesis of the fun-loving, teddy bear type that other fighters could often be. But there was a reason.

Mr. Brashear had an atrocious upbringing. Born in the U.S., his father regularly beat him and his siblings. “You’re sleeping at night and then your dad comes in and he’s drunk and he starts beating you up and you don’t know why,” he told me. “It’s like a dream in my head that I never forget.”

His mother fled to Quebec to escape his father and eventually moved in with a man who physically abused the young boy, too. Mr. Brashear was eventually turned over to child welfare authorities and bounced around the foster home circuit. Hockey became his salvation, fighting his meal ticket.

In his playing days, Mr. Brashear was (and still is) built like an NFL linebacker. He has hands the size of shovels. His knuckles reveal harsh evidence of his line of work. Tiny white scars from cuts opened from punching helmets, teeth and bones marred all of them.

He told me how much he detested those games when he knew he had to fight, and the arena became nothing more than a boxing ring with 18,000 fans waiting for the main event. Early in his career, he would get so nervous, his legs would stiffen and he’d almost be incapable of standing up. He’d worry for days in advance of a big encounter with a prizefighter on the other team. What if he lost and let his teammates and fans down?

That dread ate away at him.

Not all NHL tough guys have a story like Donald Brashear’s, but I think many carry around the same mixed feelings he did about fighting. And that does create enormous internal conflict and tension that can’t be good for a person’s mental health.

In his prime, Mr. Brashear was one of the most feared fighters in the NHL. Yet, I’ll never forget the last words he said during our conversation. “I never had anyone to hold me and tell me they loved me. My mom never did. I just didn’t have that in my life.”

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