The hockey player Sasha Lakovic’s pugilistic reputation was captured in the nicknames Hit Man, Sasha the Basha and The Pitbull.
The ornery right winger recorded stunning penalty minute totals in a career that took him from playing professional roller hockey in his hometown to the National Hockey League. Along the way, he engaged in heavyweight bouts against the felonious likes of Bob Probert, Dan Kordic, Big Georges Laraque, Gino (The Algonquin Enforcer) Odjick and Link Gaetz, whose antics on and off the ice earned him the nickname The Missing Link.
Mr. Lakovic (pronounced la-KOH-vik) has died at 45, just seven months after announcing he had inoperable brain cancer.
The nadir of Mr. Lakovic’s career – or its apex, depending on one’s view of violence in hockey – came in a game in Edmonton in 1996, when a spectator poured a drink followed by a chaser of popcorn onto the head of assistant coach Guy Lapointe of the Calgary Flames. In a flash, Mr. Lakovic bulled from the end of the Calgary bench to accost the sloppy patron. The player hauled himself midway over the glass separating the players’ bench from the seats, his skated feet kicking wildly in the air for balance as he reached down to grab the miscreant.
The referee assessed the player a gross misconduct penalty, which carried a $200 fine. The NHL later added a $1,000 fine while also issuing a two-game suspension, costing him about $8,000 in salary, a substantial amount for him at the time.
“He was a stupid drunk,” Mr. Lakovic said of the fan. “We all knew he’d be trouble, swearing and making threats.”
The 25-year-old NHL rookie had been signed as a free agent by the Flames the previous month. He had earned a reputation as one of the most fearless fighters in minor hockey. With the Las Vegas Thunder in 1995-96, he was assessed an astonishing 416 penalty minutes, just a double minor short of spending seven complete games in the penalty box during a campaign in which he only dressed for 49 games. He scored just one goal that season.
The 6-foot, 220-pound forward eschewed the label goon, preferring to be known as an enforcer. Under pro hockey’s slash-for-a-slash and elbow-for-an-elbow code, it was Mr. Lakovic’s duty to police the behaviour of rivals who might otherwise be tempted to take liberties with the well-being of skilled players. He engaged in 12 fights in 37 NHL games with the Flames and New Jersey Devils. Woe to the challenger who failed to block Mr. Lakovic’s left, a lesson learned by Stéphane Quintal, who stopped a blow with his nose in a brief bout in 1998. (Mr. Quintal, then with the Montreal Canadiens, is currently the NHL’s chief disciplinarian as senior vice-president of the league’s player-safety department.) Mr. Lakovic accumulated 118 penalty minutes while recording four assists. He did not score in his brief NHL career, which was spread over parts of three seasons.
While some hockey enforcers seem little more than boxers steered from the ring to the rink, Mr. Lakovic showed flashes of talent. He scored 20 goals in just 40 games with the minor-league Tulsa Oilers in 1994-95.
Sasha Gordon Lakovic was born in Vancouver on Sept. 7, 1971, to Marsha and Spasoje Lakovic. He first displayed promise as a hockey player with the junior Kelowna (B.C.) Spartans and the Bellingham (Wash.) Ice Hawks. It was his ambition to be a power forward, a strong presence in front of the net able to pounce on loose pucks. Instead, he would later complain he was instructed to become a fighter.
In summers, he played in the fledgling Roller Hockey International, a pro circuit seeking to cash in on the inline skating craze of the 1990s. He joined the Vancouver Voodoo for the league’s inaugural season in 1993. (One of the owners was Tiger Williams, an infamous NHL tough guy of pugnacious disposition.) He also skated indoors on concrete for the Oakland Skates and San Jose Rhinos. After the league folded, he joined the Philadelphia Sting for the summer of 1998.
On ice, the forward’s itinerant career took him from Alaska to New Brunswick, as he wore the sweaters of the Columbus (Ohio) Chill, Brantford (Ont.) Smoke, Chatham (Ont.) Wheels, Binghamton (N.Y.) Rangers, Toledo (Ohio) Storm, Saint John (N.B.) Flames, Albany (N.Y.) River Rats, Rochester (N.Y.) Americans, Anchorage (Alaska) Aces, Bakersfield (Calif.) Condors, Long Beach (Calif.) Ice Dogs, and St-Jean (Que.) Mission.
In 2004, he signed with the Horse Lake Thunder, a senior men’s team in the North Peace Hockey League, joined on the roster by former former NHLers Mr. Odjick, Dody Wood and Theo Fleury. Greg Lakovic, a younger brother who played professional baseball and hockey, was also in the club. The team was based on the Horse Lake First Nation reserve, north of Grande Prairie, Alta. The Thunder won the league title (the only blemish a tie game against 25 victories) and were favoured to claim the Allan Cup as national senior champions only to be upset by the Thunder Bay (Ont.) Bombers in a semifinal game. Mr. Lakovic ended his hockey days with Horse Lake at the age of 39, in 2011.
His career included a 20-game suspension with a $1,000 fine for punching a rival who refused to fight back. “I thought he was more of a man than that,” Mr. Lakovic said of his unwilling opponent.
He was completing his suspension in 1997, when he spent a Sunday afternoon at a symphony concert in Albany followed by a four-hour session at a tattoo parlour, where he had the image of a pit bull inked on his right thigh. The Beethoven-loving athlete returned home that evening to learn he’d been promoted to the NHL.
After leaving hockey, he became a combatant in mixed martial arts, most notably in a contest against Gavin (Snacks) Neal of Trail, B.C., in a Vancouver promotion called Total Combat Challenge.
“I am a ham bone and this is a show,” he told Elliott Pap of the Vancouver Sun. “I’m bringing in the fans. Everyone wants to see Sasha.”
A muscleman physique and a rugged Slavic face led to his being cast in such roles as a police officer, a hockey player and a Russian soldier in television and movie productions shot in Vancouver. He portrayed Soviet captain Boris Mikhailov in the 2004 Disney movie Miracle, about an underdog American hockey team winning the Olympic gold medal.
Mr. Lakovic died on April 25. He leaves four children, three brothers and his parents.
In 2015, Mr. Lakovic spoke out about concussions, telling reporters of the consequences of the many head injuries he sustained during his playing days. “The issues I suffer are deep,” he told the CBC. “Depression, emotional anger, insomnia, the anxiety is high.” He urged the parents of young athletes to pay attention when their children complain of the effects of a blow to the head.
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