The worst beating of Stu Grimson’s career turned into a moment of clarity for one of hockey’s premier tough guys.
Playing in just his fourth NHL game, Grimson and the Calgary Flames were playing host to the Edmonton Oilers.
He’d won a surprise victory over Edmonton pugilist Dave Brown two nights earlier, and a rematch was a sure thing.
At 24, Grimson had already fought 74 times in pro hockey, but this one would be different.
Brown picked up a decisive victory with three left hands to Grimson’s face, one of many stories Grimson shares in his new book The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior.
“I felt a depression under [my right] eye that I’d never felt before,” Grimson writes. “I wasn’t as concerned about that as much as I was embarrassed.”
But he would soon have bigger worries.
His head feeling heavy, it turned out Brown broke Grimson’s orbital bone in two places.
Surgery that included the insertion of a 15-centimetre stainless-steel pin followed. The pin actually protruded from Grimson for five weeks as the bone healed before it was pulled out.
“I looked like Frankenstein’s kid brother,” Grimson writes. “Brown had exacted his revenge. I had suffered the worst beating a guy in my job can receive.
“No one hit me harder than Brown did on Jan. 9, 1990.”
And yet, it was a weight off his shoulders.
“For a lot of folks, it’s counterintuitive,” Grimson, 54, said in an interview at a Toronto coffee shop. “How do you go from the worst beat of your hockey career to it becoming the most liberating, enlightening moment in your life? It really came down to this for me: This is a really bad injury, a really humiliating loss. But if I can pick myself up and get back into the fray, I have nothing left to fear.’
“It’s not to say the anxiety was stripped away, but it became a little more manageable. You tend to put less pressure on yourself when you realize everybody takes a licking from time to time.”
As the title of his book suggests, Grimson never wanted to be a fighter, but he was good at it.
In fact, it was a brawl away from the rink that first caught a scout’s eye.
Grimson was a high-school student in Kamloops – his father was in the RCMP and the family moved a lot – when he and some friends got into a scrap with a group of men seven or eight years their senior.
“These guys were goading us,” Grimson said. “I clocked one right in the face – the loudest of them – and it’s on.
“It just so happens the head scout of the WHL’s Regina Pats is driving by and thinks to himself, ‘Hey that’s the Grimson kid. I’ve seen him skate. He looks pretty tough.’ Within about a week or two I ended up their property.”
That would be the first real step in a career that would eventually end with Grimson compiling 2,113 penalty minutes in 729 NHL games as one of the most feared men in hockey.
He fought in junior, but also put the puck in the net and didn’t want to drop the gloves when he turned pro. It made Grimson uncomfortable and he initially walked away from the Flames at his first training camp, choosing instead to play two seasons at the University of Manitoba.
Grimson would return to Calgary’s organization when he was good and ready to fight on a regular basis.
“Imperfect … but the perfect one for me,” Grimson said of his path to the NHL. “This role of enforcer never really sat well with me at an earlier stage in my life, and I may have self-destructed if I didn’t step back.
“Playing a couple years of college hockey gave me an opportunity to fall in love with the game again, and maybe grow up a little bit emotionally. It was the right hiatus for me before I went back and took an honest and earnest run at carving out a professional career.”
Grimson, who also played in Chicago, Anaheim, Detroit, Hartford, Carolina and Los Angeles, includes stories about his wild side as a kid, good times with his family and teammates, run-ins with coach Mike Keenan, the postconcussion syndrome that forced him to retire and his second professional life as a lawyer and hockey analyst.
He talks about the camaraderie among enforcers, the criticism he received from Don Cherry in retirement, the code among fighters and some his contemporaries who have passed away in recent years – including Bob Probert.
Hall of Famer Paul Kariya, his teammate in Anaheim, provides the book’s foreword.
“It took a while for me to come around and decide I really wanted to write this,” Grimson said. “When you take an unconventional path, when you play at an elite level for a long time, you learn thing about yourself, you learn things about the profession, you learn things about life. I learned many things, chief among them that I would never let my fears stand in the way of me doing something I thought was truly exciting.
“Because on the other hand, those fears sometimes are your dreams.”