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The mental toll of hockey fighting goes beyond getting ‘punched in the face’


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As one of the NHL’s most feared enforcers, Georges Laraque felt like a kid in school waiting to fight a bully at the end of the week.

Each day — Monday … Tuesday … Wednesday — the looming fight would consume him. He’d try to focus on something, anything else, but each task was just another tick in the countdown to the violence scheduled for the schoolyard after the Friday bell, where the entire school would circle around to watch you defend yourself against one of the biggest, meanest kids around. Every second tumbles toward that moment:

“Everybody knows it’s going to happen. And you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s coming,’” Laraque says. “You fail all of your exams because you cannot write, you cannot think … you cannot sleep, you can’t have dinner, everyone is asking what’s wrong with you. Your face is changing color — ‘Oh my f—ing god, why did I agree to this? Why am I fighting? Can I bail out? What if I die? I’m going to die. What if I get a concussion?’

“And then you’re sitting at school and looking at the clock. Every second, the clock is going too fast.”

The fight itself is a blur — a minute, maybe two of pure survival-mode adrenaline. And then it’s done.

“The pressure of all the week goes out. It’s over,” Laraque says. “But then, you’re doing the same thing the next Friday, and the next Friday, and the next Friday.”

For Laraque, those bullies came in the form of his heavyweight contemporaries, like Tony Twist, Stu Grimson, Bob Probert, Jim McKenzie and Donald Brashear. Men he respected but feared. Men whose careers he could end, just as easily as they could end his own. The tension was constant, but the effect of it could never be shown in a locker room.

“I can’t show people that I’m afraid. Because if I’m afraid of Tony Twist and the other heavyweights, do you know the message I’m sending to my teammates turning to me to protect them? You cannot show weakness. You’re a tough guy. A gladiator. You’re not supposed to be afraid of anything,” Laraque says. “But I was. I was petrified.”

To Laraque, fighting was all mental. More than a battle of strength or skill, fighting was a psychological dance between oneself, reputation, expectation and opponents. And it took an exhausting toll.

The mental side of being a “bare-knuckle ice fighter” (a term Grimson borrowed from a European fan who found his role peculiar) is deeply layered.

Laraque, and other enforcers like him, played a role on their teams. Many outright call it a “job.” And it did have an impact on the game. A fight, in their world, was more than trading blows. It was about the comradery, the battle and the sacrifice for their teams. It carried the effect of “devotio,” Grimson says — the ancient Roman concept of a general sacrificing his own life alongside his soldiers, in exchange for (or to inspire) a victory.

In some cases, it helped give these players their professional careers, and make their names. But it also left them facing sleepless nights, anxiety and fear, especially in the days where so-called “staged” fighting was more prevalent.

Even today, in a game where fighting continues to be less and less common, the experience of the NHL enforcer is different from the average player.

“It’s not an easy job,” says the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jarred Tinordi. “I mean nobody really wants to go out there and get punched in the face.”

But especially in the heyday of hockey fights — when some players would literally classify themselves according to a boxing-like weight class — the mental toll behind those fights is significant and lasting.

“It’s hard physically, yeah — because knuckles, you’ll take some punches, which most of the time (will) be fine,” says André Roy, who played in the NHL from 1995 to 2009. “But I think the build up to a fight to every game, the mental part, that’s the part that people don’t know about.”

Especially in the bygone era Laraque and Roy played in, the anxiety began long before any blows were exchanged. Enforcers could peek ahead on the schedule and already see what — or who — was coming their way.

If Detroit was on the schedule, get ready for Bob Probert. Players coming to Edmonton knew they’d be seeing Laraque. If it was St. Louis, Tony Twist.

“It’s sometimes five days before you think about the next major heavyweight that you’re fighting,” Laraque says. “Your focus is only on that.”

Players dealt with the anticipation in different ways. Both Laraque and Roy would try to go to a movie to mentally escape.

“I wouldn’t even know what I saw,” Laraque says. “My body was entranced, because Tony Twist was in my head so much that I couldn’t focus on anything I did.”

The fears themselves were layered. One element, of course, was the physical danger they were going to put themselves in. These are large men who, as Grimson puts it, are “capable of breaking human bone with their fist.”

“You don’t want to fight the (Joe) Kocurs and the Twists and the guys that can end your career with one punch,” says former Red Wing Darren McCarty. “If I’ve gotta stand in there and throw it with a guy that, OK, breaks your nose or cuts you or whatever, that’s part of the game. I mean, that’s cool. But you’re standing there with guys that can literally rearrange your face or break your face in half.”

There were also more emotional fears, tied to the reality of squaring up with another man in front of 20,000 people.

“Being embarrassed — being embarrassed in front of your family, in front of your girlfriends, in front of your buddies, in front of your aunts and your uncles that are all watching, in front of your teammates,” says Cam Janssen, who played with the St. Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils through a nine-season career that ended in 2014. “I don’t want to be embarrassed.”

These are among the many thoughts that could race through the minds of even the most experienced enforcers as they ate dinner, went about their evenings, and eventually, tried to fall asleep. But even in sleep, it was often difficult to shut off the anxiety. Ryan VandenBussche, who played nine seasons in the NHL before retiring in 2006, would talk through his sleep as he dreamt about fighting.

“One of my roommates once told me, Buschy, you scared the sh– out of me. In the middle of the night, you just sat up in your bed and you just started throwing punches.”

The fights they were bracing for might take 30 seconds or a minute. But the anticipation could weigh on them for hours or even days beforehand, and the fight itself demanded its own form of preparation.

Whether it was visualization or outright watching tape on potential opponents, players wanted to be ready.

VandenBussche would look to see if a player was dominant with their right or left fist, how he took punches, and “if they strung you out, or if they liked to get out of their jersey, back when you could get out of your jersey,” he says.

Roy’s personal scouting reports on players like Tie Domi, Donald Brashear and Derek Boogaard remain seared into his memory.

On a game day, Roy says, he would wake up at home, get a coffee, then open his laptop. Watching fight tapes “would kind of jack me up,” he says, so he’d watch around five to seven of them before getting dressed, showering and getting in his car.

At that point, he would crank up the music — “AC/DC, ‘Hell’s Bells,’ whatever” — and go to the rink.

“And all I’d do is just think about my fight and visualize in my head continuously,” he says.

Laraque took a more spiritual approach.

“I prayed before every game,” he says. “I would always pray that I don’t get killed and that I don’t get hurt. And that I don’t hurt the other guy.”

Given all the build-up to a potential fight, perhaps it should be no surprise that some players preferred to proceed quickly when the puck finally dropped.

“It’s the old adage: the anticipation of death is worse than death itself,” McCarty says. “That’s why a lot of times when you see a fight where there’s an expectation, it happens early. Get it out of the way, then you go play.”

The timing wasn’t always so easy to predict, though, especially for those who instead sought to simply play their game shift by shift — ready in the event something should happen, but not necessarily looking for it.

It could be even more complicated by the sometimes limited ice time for enforcers. Grimson hated to wait for a fight, but knew that in a limited role he could be sitting for a period or more before something would happen in a game that would require his presence. It was difficult for the 6-foot-6, 240-pound enforcer to shift from being stone-cold to ramping up the adrenaline needed for an altercation, he says.

Laraque, too, averaged more than 10 minutes per game just once in his 12-year NHL career.

“In my mind, I was like, if I hate fighting that much, if I don’t want to do it as much as some of the other guys, I might as well be the best at it,” he says. “Because the better I’m going to be, the more feared I’m going to be — and if I’m more feared, I won’t have to do it as much, because people are going to respect me, so they don’t take liberties, so I won’t have to do it as much.”

Still, the moment would find him anyway. It brought with it an adrenaline rush, he says, that would sometimes leave him not knowing what had even happened.

Those who spent their careers fighting were not, in reality, always so eager to do so. But whether it was a way to make a name for themselves in the lower levels, a path to an NHL job, or simply out of a sense of duty to their teammates, they accepted it as their “job.”

“At the end of the day, I didn’t want to do it,” McCarty says. “Maybe early in my career when I was younger and crazier, but it was my fear of any of the rest of my teammates doing it before I did it. I’m going first. They get by me, I’m dead or I’m out of it, you guys are on your own. That was my mentality.”

For some, it was a way to simply earn their keep.

“It was a niche role, no question about it,” Grimson says. “But you had the respect of your teammates, if you did it with integrity, and if you did it well. … So I put a lot of pride in it.”

After the blur of a fight, players sit in the box catching their breath, reassembling gear and assessing their wounds as the crowd roars for more.

Win or lose, a team could be sparked by a teammate who put his well-being on the line. And the fans, home or away, seemed to revel in the violence. In the cheers of a loyal crowd or the jeers of the opponents’, if the player had avoided embarrassment, he’d fulfilled his duty.

But a fighter was only as good as his last bout, says Riley Cote — who spent years battling through the minors before earning a regular role with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007. As soon as the adrenaline faded, Cote says, it was on to the next.

“When you’re all jacked up, you go to the penalty box, if you’re at home the crowd is going nuts, and you’re on top of the world, everything is great. You’re the man,” says Cote. “But that slowly fizzles away too, just like losing a fight. Eventually you come back to reality, and it’s like, ‘Well, I gotta go f—ing do it again. And I gotta be just as good as my last one or better.’”

The era of enforcers circling games in which they knew they would be expected to drop their gloves is over, which has transformed the way modern players approach fighting. Active players interviewed for this story say they are glad to see seemingly scheduled fights mostly out of today’s game. But many still argue there is a place for fighting in the sport.

“This is completely part of our game — and I think for good reason, too,” says Ottawa Senators forward Austin Watson. “It’s a deterrent, and you see with the speed of the game picking up, the danger picks up. And the impact of hits and hits that end up being what we’d call dirty and a little bit across the line, the impact of those are pretty severe now. … Fighting is less prevalent, but at the end of the day if you’ve gotta think in the back of your head that ‘Hey, I might have to fight somebody if I do something stupid out here,’ that definitely does act as a deterrent.”

That seems to be something of a sweet spot for current NHL players: less fighting on the whole, and when it happens, born out of the genuine emotion of the game as opposed to out of sheer expectation.

But that doesn’t reduce what the potential consequences can be.

“You’re definitely trying to win the fight, and whatever that means,” Watson says. “But at the end of the day, if you can walk out of there after five minutes able to play your next shift, that’s a pretty good option.”

The shared empathy between two fighters remains, for the most part, a common feature amongst those who clash on the ice.

“I don’t believe it’s ever really a personal thing, it’s more of you’re doing this for your team, he’s doing it for his team,” Tinordi says. “There’s kind of a mutual respect there.”

It’s carry over from the days when NHL enforcers created a unique connection — an understanding between two opponents that they were among a rare group, taking on a dangerous role that few others were capable of.

“Whatever happens on the ice stays on the ice. I know it sounds very cliché, but that’s what it is. We all have a job, I think there’s a mutual respect between all enforcers,” McCarty says. “Most of them I met, they’re all great guys, they’re all nice. We do it because it’s part of the job and we’re put in that role or whatever, but when I’d see a guy it was, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ Sometimes we’d shake hands and maybe buy a beer.”

Grimson remains close friends with players he fought, like Jim McKenzie. He speaks admiringly of men he feared and respected, like Dave Brown and Laraque.

Roy has crossed paths with many guys he didn’t previously know before they fought.

“They’re all great guys. We just laugh about it,” he says. “Jim McKenzie I saw. I even saw Colton Orr that I fought, he was great. (Matthew) Barnaby, that was a rat, we were together having beers, we’re all laughing. … It was a job, and we had to do it, and now you move on with our careers.”

Laraque still feels regret over the injuries to opponents that slipped through his pre-fight prayers.

“I was never proud of that because these guys are warriors. They’re my family. … They’re my brotherhood,” he says.  “We do a job that f—ing sucks. But we have to do whatever it takes to make it to an NHL job and to stay there.”

For many NHL players who plied their trade with their fists, there was little option but to fight.

“I always tell people I did the job because I wanted to be in the NHL and it was my dream,” Roy says.

In the end, Roy played 515 NHL games over his 11-year career. Laraque played 695. Grimson made it to 729.

Still today, their names are known, feared and revered.

But for some, the cost of living that NHL dream was just too great. After spending so many years in the minors, Cote’s arrival in Philadelphia nearly destroyed his mental well-being. Despite being offered a one-way deal with the Flyers, he decided to retire when he was just 28 years old.

“I was just mentally, emotionally and spiritually exhausted by the ups and downs, the peaks and valleys,” he says.

VandenBussche, who also spent several years battling through the minors where he faced some of his most ferocious opponents, has mixed feelings about what the role did to him at the time — despite his love for the game.

“Looking back now, I certainly had chronic anxiety,” he says.

Laraque, one of the NHL’s most respected fighters, says he hated the constant cycle of violence that made him famous.

“I despised it,” he says. “And I was afraid.”

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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