In which our writer goes to the notorious hockey fight camp for kids, takes a teenager's punch to the kidneys, and winds up finding the bruised soul of the game. Camp photos by Chris Buck.
Tom Bloomberg decided to teach me how to punch another kid unconscious on a hot summer day in rural Manitoba. He called this unsolicited lesson "the moves." I was 15. Tom, an oak trunk of a man who lived two doors down from my family's cottage, knew that I was entering a tough age for hockey players and decided I was ready.
Tom had done well in hockey. He'd earned himself a tryout for the St. Louis Blues. Now he sold real estate. We stood above Falcon Lake on his dock, sticky with freshly lacquered stain, and Tom began the lesson with a story about a fight he'd won. The morning after the brawl, he'd woken up with a throbbing hand and driven to a hospital. Tom attributed the pain to a broken bone in his hand; the X-ray found that in fact the pain originated in his knuckle, into which his opponent's tooth had interred itself.
Tom segued into hockey fighting's rules of engagement: 1. Never fight with your visor on. 2. Don't antagonize only to back down. 3. Star players have immunity. 4. Enforcers only battle other enforcers. 5. No trash talk if you can avoid it.
Last, Tom showed me how to tear off another guy's helmet and how to use his own jersey against him. If everything went well, I'd grab him by his equipment and yank his face into my fist until the refs stepped in. Then Tom wiggled his pecs at me and dove into the lake.
The lesson had lasted five minutes, but it was an important one. I started playing competitive hockey at age 5, which is what you do when you grow up in western Canada. You play until your trajectory stalls or your father allows you to quit — whichever comes first. For a short stint, I played on an elite team. I was a tall kid, which meant that I played defense and was tasked with protecting our goalie. "Protecting the goalie" is a coaching euphemism for "goon." I was given this role at age 7.
This was a loosely defined role but in general it meant that I attacked anyone who bothered our goalie. If it happened, I was supposed to hit him, though my coaches never provided any further instructions. This was confusing for a second grader: If this was my job, and it was so important, why didn't they teach me how to do it?
Aside from Tom, no one ever actually taught me how to fight. Teaching kids to fight is the single biggest taboo in the minor hockey establishment. With or without instruction, my role was locked anyway. Despite 12 years of junior hockey, no coach ever taught me to stickhandle, deflect a shot from the point, or roof the puck with a backhand. But how to hip check? How to discreetly break a wrist with a slash? No problem, kid.
Most coaches stop short of fighting lessons because they don't know how or can't bring themselves to do it. Instead, fight lessons are whispered from a deviant uncle, a friend's dad, a neighbor. It's a sort of Talmudic tradition, passed down orally through generations of goons.
So I was shocked to learn, in 2007, that someone had violated that tradition and opened a school that promised to teach kids how to fight each other on skates. The world's only hockey fight camp for children was the brainchild of Trevor Lakness, a franchisee of Puckmasters, a chain of year-round hockey schools. Fight camp was held twice a year, cost $50, and was unadvertised. Players as young as 11 were welcome to attend the one-day clinic, where they learned basic fighting theory, how to throw punches, grapple, defend oneself, and the code of ethics as it pertained to helmetless, bare-knuckle fighting among children in skates.
I wasn't sure hockey fighting could be taught, at least, not in any kind of codified way. Most fights last less than a minute, and outcomes appear random. Enforcers are just as likely to land punches as they are to be punched; to grab jerseys but get separated by refs before the fight can begin; to start throwing punches only to lose balance and fall to the ice.
I had to see for myself. When I called Trevor and asked to enroll in kiddie fight camp, he said no. This was not because I'm about 6-foot-3 and weigh 210 pounds. Trevor just thought I'd bring more negative press attention to his camp.
There had been plenty. Sports Illustrated had called it "goon school"; an ESPN columnist dismissed it as "completely ridiculous"; a Minneapolis Star Tribune column claimed the camp was "indoctrinating a fresh generation of kids into [a] warped mindset." A spokesman for Hockey Canada, the organization that oversees all of Canada's amateur hockey leagues, condemned it on the nation's largest TV news broadcast. The white-hot media reaction had already cost Trevor his insurance. His provider had learned that kids were punching other kids and dropped him. Trevor simply switched to another company and kept on going.
Mostly, Trevor said no because he saw my U.S. area code on his call display. "I don't need more American media attention," he said. I knew that some Canadians use "American" as a slur and explained that I grew up in Alberta playing Canada's game. Trevor warmed up, but not much. So I told him that I play hockey with a certain dead man's gloves.
That dead man was former Toronto Maple Leaf enforcer John "Rambo" Kordic, one of the most feared goons in NHL history. Kordic died in 1992 from respiratory failure. The autopsy found a stew of steroids and cocaine in his blood. A year before his death, Kordic gave a pair of his gloves to my uncle Earl, who was the Leafs' doctor at the time, and Earl gave them to me. I remember the raw disbelief. Kordic had actually touched these things, had worn them, played in them, and very likely dropped them. It took me a year to get over it and actually use them, though I later decided that playing with Kordic's gloves was disrespectful. Now they sit inside a sealed Rubbermaid container in the attic.
Mentioning the Kordic relic was a desperate move. I did it to convince Trevor that I understood hockey violence, its history, its purpose, and its unspoken rules.
It worked. Trevor invited me to the camp's July session in Saskatchewan, where I would be treated like a regular camper. I'd get in on all the drills and instruction sessions and have access to interview any teachers, students, or parents willing to talk to me. Trevor was vague about whether I'd be fighting children or not. I didn't care. I was in.
As we wrapped up the call, discussing the logistics of attending the camp, I asked Trevor how I should transport my fragile, $200 carbon-fiber hockey sticks on an airplane.
"Don't bother," he said. "We don't even bring pucks on the ice."
* * *
The Puckmasters rink is housed inside a white cinder-block building in Regina, a small city surrounded by a rural area that approximates Kansas only with more winter and less Christ. Often mispronounced by outsiders, "Regina" rhymes with what no city should. Far from the glittering buildings of downtown, Puckmasters' rink sits in an industrial strip mall between the backside of a Staples and across from Don's Auto Repair & Air Conditioning. The day I arrived, Puckmasters' gravel parking lot was empty except for an abandoned Suzuki Esteem, which someone had cut in half and left to rot on a wooden palette.
Trevor was late. The door to Puckmasters was locked. I waited outside in the July heat while children disgorged from their parents' Cavaliers and Windstars. Some were prepubescent kids already wearing full gear besides the helmets and skates that they carried with them, and some were voice-cracking teenagers in long T-shirts who were just shy of 6 feet tall. After about an hour, Todd Holt, Trevor's business partner, arrived and let us in. Todd, a short, barrel-chested guy in his mid-30s, was an eighth-round NHL draft pick in 1993. He never made it to the NHL but bears a striking resemblance to his first cousin, Theoren Fleury, the former NHL all-star. Todd left me to explore the building.
The first thing I noticed was that there is no ice at Puckmasters, just a half-sized rink made from EZ Glide, a high-density plastic surface that behaves like ice, only skates don't glide as far. Each stride feels like 10. Without ice or a building air-conditioner, the room temperature felt close to 80.
In a corner next to the plastic rink, a whiteboard had been hung with two notes written in erasable marker. The first read, "Wall-sit record Nolan & Cody 25:30," in neat handwriting; the other, scrawled in a child's writing, declared that "Kyle Sucks." Life-size vinyl posters of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin had been stuck to the walls. Twelve more vinyl cutouts of encouraging words were stuck to the far wall above the fake ice: Great! Super! Scintillating! Yes! Fantastic! Excellent! Dynamite! Awesome! Wow! Great job! Superb! Outstanding! A single hole pocked the drywall below the words. Inside was a puck.
I left the rink room and walked toward Trevor's office in the lobby, where I met Brad Herauf, a neckless 26-year-old player with wide-set eyes and a dark buzz cut, relaxing on a couch. At the time, Brad, a guest instructor at the camp, was playing center for the Florida Everblades in the ECHL; he'd later move on to the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League. He looked small for pro hockey but he has a solid reputation as a fighter, totaling 785 penalty minutes over his first three seasons in the ECHL. He had a deep midsummer's tan from three months off the ice. I made some small talk about the ECHL but he interrupted me. He'd been briefed.
"We're not talkin' if you're here to be negative," he said, air-poking his index finger at my chest. Brad relaxed when I told him that I was just here to learn, play hockey, and understand the culture. "OK, good," said Brad, and he began explaining what it's like to play pro hockey before an indifferent audience in the tropics.
Trevor finally arrived. He was in his mid-20s, tall and fit, with a cherubic face. He was dressed in red plaid shorts and a horizontally striped shirt, a set of dueling patterns that gave him the power to induce nausea in others when he moved. On his head was a Hockey Night in Canada ball cap with Oakley sunglasses perched above the brim.
After exchanging hellos, he walked us to a counter at the entrance while a few more kids bustled through the door. Trevor launched into a soliloquy that was bookended with "we're striving to be the best" and "this is a classy school." Eventually his spiel found its rhythm, and Trevor properly explained himself. "If you're a high-end prospect at a [tryout], guys are out to get you. And if you lose a fight, you lose confidence. You could perform badly at the camp. Then someone on the ice owns you, maybe for the camp, maybe for your career. Wait … have you met your fighting partner yet?" he asked.
I hadn't. Trevor looked past the narrow-shouldered kids loitering in the hall, awkwardly waiting for the school to begin. He pointed at a 6-foot-4, 220-pound eugenics experiment wearing a smirk.
"That's Dominic. He's only 16. You're fighting him."
* * *
Trevor greeted a few of the latecomers at the entrance and ushered me into a small conference room next to his office. In the room, a few copies of The Hockey News were stacked neatly on a long table with foldable legs. A 14-inch television perched on a high shelf. Trevor turned it on and slid a home-burned DVD into the machine. He folded his arms and told me to watch. On screen was a shaky homemade highlight reel of Derek Parker, a veteran of three seasons in Quebec's Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey, picking fights and finishing them. In 2006, Derek set a league record with 508 penalty minutes in 51 games. After flirting with retirement to train for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Parker returned to hockey and racked up 145 penalty minutes in 35 games for the IHL's Dayton Gems.
The history of hockey is more or less the history of hockey violence, and almost from the beginning, violence — and occasionally even death — was treated as a necessary component of the sport. In 1862, just as hockey crawled out of its own primordial soup, a letter was published in Toronto's Globe newspaper complaining of stick-wielding players harassing skaters on the frozen Don River. Later, with the advent of elite leagues and trophies and salaried players in the early 20th century, violence became commonplace. It degenerated to such a level that in 1904 the Ontario Hockey Association president, John Ross Robertson, cautioned, "We must call a halt to slashing and slugging and insist upon clean hockey ... before we have to call in a coroner to visit our rinks."
One year later, Allen Loney of Alexandria swatted Maxwell player Alcide Laurin over the head with his stick during an exhibition game between the two Ontario towns. Laurin died on the ice. Loney was arrested on murder charges and spent a month in custody. When his legal proceedings began, the charge was reduced to manslaughter. At trial, Loney's lawyer told the court, "A manly nation requires manly games. … When a life was lost by misadventure in manly sports it was excusable homicide." He was acquitted.
On Jan. 12, 1907, three members of the Ottawa Silver Seven, a rough team that had once injured seven players in a single Stanley Cup game in 1904, were charged with assault after three vicious stick infractions against the Montreal Wanderers. Seven assault charges were filed. Here's how the Montreal Gazette described the violence: "[Cecil Blatchford] was smashed over the head by Charles 'Baldy' Spittal, a short, quick jab with the stick, that laid Blatchford prone, with the blood pouring from a cut over the temple. … Harry Smith put Johnson down and out with a smash across the face. … Smith skated in from centre ice and smashed the Wanderer cover-point across the temple with his stick. Stuart went down in a heap. ... When Stuart was lying helpless on the ice. Smith was heard to remark, 'Did you get that one, Hod?' Then he skated away chuckling."
This style of play had its supporters, many of them in the press, who decided on "strenuous hockey" as the operative euphemism for on-ice assault; those who objected to violent hockey were dubbed "squealers," a minority who would become hockey's Mensheviks. Judging from demand for tickets to the March 2 rematch between the Silver Seven and Wanderers, the squealers were in the minority. The Ottawa Evening Journal ran a story declaring that "no more exciting scenes have been witnessed in Ottawa for many a long day than those of the early hours of this morning, when thousands of people fought for tickets for the Ottawa-Wanderer hockey match." It appeared on the front page.
On March 6 of the same year, during a game between the Ottawa Victorias and the Cornwall Hockey Club of the Federal Hockey League (FAHL), Charles Masson of Ottawa clubbed Owen "Bud" McCourt to death. McCourt, who was the leading scorer in the FAHL that season, had been fighting Masson's teammate, Charles Chamberlain. Masson came to Chamberlain's aid and attacked McCourt. The next morning, just before the Victorias were scheduled to return to Ottawa by train, Masson was arrested on a charge of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. McCourt died while Masson was in custody.
The charge was now murder. At the coroner's inquest, the Ottawa goaltender testified that it wasn't an abnormally violent game. E.A. Pilon, who refereed the game, agreed. Pilon's upholding of the code helped reduce the charge to manslaughter at a second pre-trial inquiry. Finally, the case went to trial. Doctors testified that McCourt had received several other stick-to-skull smashes and couldn't definitively pronounce Masson's particular blow the fatal strike. The jury spent just 30 minutes deliberating. Masson was acquitted. When he was released from custody, the Montreal Star reported that several of the dead man's teammates congratulated the killer on his acquittal. The Ottawa Evening Journal, in keeping with the early tolerance for hockey violence, wrote, "The general feeling in Cornwall is that the fatality is a most unfortunate affair and the result of hot-headedness and unpunished rough play rather than viciousness." Remove the puck from each of these cases and it was 25 to life. But because of hockey's "culture," the fans, media, and the justice system pardoned these murders. — JB (with research assistance from Stacy Lorenz)
"He's the other guest instructor tonight," said Trevor, who began explaining the three-part structure to the clinic: video analysis, fight theory, and on-ice instruction. He left the room to let me study the clips by myself.
Derek arrived in person a few minutes later and sat down at the table. His nose began near the equator of his forehead and plumbed a lazy arc to the southeast. He, too, had a buzz cut and stood about 6 feet tall, his wide shoulders housed under a turquoise track jacket with "Muay Thai" printed on the back. We exchanged hellos, and he immediately began scrawling coaching notes, ignoring both the parents who'd walked into the room and his own highlight reel playing behind him.
Onscreen, Derek and his team skated in a pre-game warmup pattern, arcing a long circle that started behind the goal and notched its widest diameter near center ice. The other team skated the same circular path on the other side. On one pass, Derek lightly whacked one of his opponents on his shin pads with his stick, just a tap, and it sparked a scrum. While the other players grabbed jerseys and exchanged face-washes, Derek and his opponent sneaked out of the fray and skated to center ice, purely for the showmanship of fighting at center ring. They dropped the mitts and removed helmets without taking their eyes off each other. Derek brought his fists up to his temples, weaving each hand as though it orbited a tiny, invisible planet. After 10 seconds of staring each other down, Derek reached for his opponent's right shoulder with his left hand and then threw a right at the other player's left eye. The blow connected, and Derek unleashed three more punches, missing two. Derek's opponent staggered and fell to one knee, but Derek kept punching until the referees intervened. The crowd went nuts.
Derek looked up from the table then, seeming for the first time to notice the parents, whose facial expressions were stuck somewhere between awe and horror. There was a palpable awareness that this man was going to spend the next three hours with their children. The room was quiet.
A few minutes later, Derek excused himself and left the room. I took the opportunity to ask some of the parents why they had taken their children here. Duke Prendinchuk, father of 13-year-old Tyson, told me his son had played tier 1 hockey, the highest level for his age, his whole life. Tyson's participation tonight was "more my idea than his." He was in a transition year between Pee Wee (ages 12 and 13) and Bantam (ages 14 and 15) and it was time to "toughen up." "He's gotten into fights in the last couple of years," Prendinchuk said. "It's for self-protection because people come at him. That's part of the game. He's in games where he gets hacked and one thing leads to another."
One of the mothers, a pretty blonde wearing irony-free acid-washed jeans, wouldn't talk because she was worried the camp might be shut down if I wrote about it. She seemed legitimately afraid for its future. She turned her attention back to the fight reel and resumed ignoring me.
Trevor walked in. I asked him when the video analysis session would officially begin. "You just had it," he said. "Go get changed into your hockey gear with the kids."
* * *
Derek and Brad stood in the middle of the dressing room, surrounded by 13 kids and me. We were all wearing hockey pads and sat on a narrow bench that wound around the room. Tall wooden cubbies with hooks were attached to the wall above the bench, a feature typically found in dressing rooms of elite teams. Trevor told me that it was flourish he had insisted upon because he believed it settled players into an elite frame of mind before they went out to skate.
Trevor introduced Brad, who was in full hockey equipment. Then he introduced Derek, who, for reasons clear only to him, was wearing a teal-colored martial arts gi, only one made of terrycloth. Tonight, the terror of the Quebec league would be teaching us to fight in his bathrobe.
"These guys are true experts," said Trevor. "Derek, how many fights would you have in each season? What, about one every other game or so?"
"No. I'd say more than that."
"Like … one fight a game?"
"No. About four."
"So you'd spread them out during the game?"
"No. I'd fight all four in the first period."
"So you'd spread them out … in the period?"
"No. I'd fight them all during the first minute, though sometimes during the warm-up."
Derek then went around the room and asked each kid why he came to the camp. Most of the kids said they were here to learn how to protect themselves, but one kid, a skinny teenager with a short mop of blond hair, said he had come "to learn how to be a complete player." Derek commended him on this answer.
"That's right. Fighting pumps up your team and gets you in the game," he said. "It's about doing what it takes to win though it's never about hate." Derek then added what he considered the final proof: He and Brad had twice fought during junior hockey and yet here they were, kibitzing. The kids seemed impressed.
The lecture then shifted from motivation to fight theory and rules of engagement. "The number one rule with hockey fighting," Derek said, then pausing for effect, "is don't get hit." Taking a bare-knuckle punch is an unacceptable risk. "I'd rather have a fight where neither of us lands any," Derek added. "In my mind, you still win. You've sent a message."
Though the video portion of fight camp was a disaster and possibly optional to attend, the mood had shifted inside the dressing room. The kids were rapt. All of them watched Derek, except for the eugenics experiment, who was sneaking evil looks at me.
I was being sized up.
* * *
Fighting will never return to the levels set during the nightly bench-clearing shitstorms of the 1970s. Still, it will never go away, and for a number of reasons. For starters, hockey fights win hockey games. Unlike fights in football (silly, considering the helmets stay on) or baseball (born of errant pitches) or basketball (rare, but fight-to-injure situations), hockey fights are strategic. Success hinges on a team's will and the liveliness of the crowd. If the home team is down by two goals in its own rink, the fans have essentially paid for a $200 nap. At this point, a coach will assign his designated pugilist to fight, or the fighter will take his own initiative. In theory, the fight should shake the crowd from its slumber and get things loud. The home team will then convert this fan energy into momentum and, ideally, score. In 2008, the Detroit Red Wings fought more than they did the two previous seasons combined and won the Stanley Cup. The year before, the Cup went to the Anaheim Ducks, who had led the league in fighting.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Years earlier, the NHL had attempted to curb violence with the so-called Instigator Rule. Adopted for the 1993 season, the rule adds two extra penalty minutes to the player who starts a fight. The penalty initially dissuaded teams from fighting, but it since has fallen out of favor with referees. In 2007, only 18 instigator penalties were issued — one in 18 fights — while the 2008 season spawned 339 more fights than the previous year.
Moreover, fighting sells tickets. Never mind that I went to college and know which one is the salad fork: When a fight breaks out, I'm on my feet and high-fiving strangers. And I'm aware that fighting makes hockey seem as legitimate a sport as American Gladiators. I know that fighting is a zero-sum game for global audience development; that it appeals only to the passionate few while marginalizing the sport to the masses; that fighting has killed a player and injured countless others; that the Montessori/Whole Foods set would sooner let their children watch Glenn Beck before teaching them these values. I and my hockey-loving tribe are supposed to know better. Because there isn't a hockey fan on earth who hasn't been subjected to the dogpile journalism devoted to the social and physical pathologies associated with hockey brawls. But that's not for us. We dismiss the hysterical nanny-state politics because we recognize excitement when we see it. And more important, we understand that hockey is a momentum game. You have it, you win. And short of scoring a goal, fighting is the surest way to gain momentum. We know that it wins games and Cups. So we tolerate fighting. Love it, even. It's a big part of why many of us go to the rink. In January 2009, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who sought to complete the Disneyfication of hockey into good, clean family fun, admitted it for the first time. "I believe that most of our fans enjoy that aspect of the game. … It is a part of the game," he said. Paul Kelly, formerly the head of the NHL players union, agreed, stating in a February 2009 television interview that fighting actually mitigated violence in the game and that star players needed protection. Kelly told the Versus network that Gretzky would have played "several hundred" fewer games without Dave Semenko's help. No stars, no face of the game, no product to sell.
Two recent studies support Bettman's and Kelly's assertions that fans like what they see. In a 2009 survey, 63 percent of Canadian fans opposed motions to curb fighting while another survey found that 70 percent of Canadians who identified themselves as "passionate" hockey fans said they supported it. Hockey broadcasts, most notably CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, which attracts some 1.8 million viewers out of 30 million Canadians during the playoffs, have embraced hockey fighting. Hockey Night features two theme songs prior to the game, one of which is Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)," albeit performed by Nickelback to circumvent either royalties, fey association, or both. The song is set to clips of recent fights and especially violent hits. CBC is hardly alone in its fight treatment. Thirty years ago, broadcasters cut to commercial during fights; today, TV crews give every fight play-by-play commentary, reverse angles, and the gratuitous slow-mo treatment.
All of which has fortified the role of fighters in the culture. Derek Boogaard, the Minnesota Wild's designated fighter and the guest instructor at Lakness's first fight camp, has never scored more than six points in an entire season. Yet his replica jersey used to out-sell all of his teammates' shirts but one. This fight culture is even stronger in the minors. It has become ironic and cult, and moved far beyond the decades-old shadow of Paul Newman's Charlestown Chiefs in Slapshot. In August 2005, organizers held a hockey fight tournament in Prince George, British Columbia, without pucks, sticks, or teams. Most competitors were brawlers from the minors. The tournament was attended by 2,000 locals and filmed by a Canadian documentary crew. Four fights broke out in the bleachers.
This was a one-off, however. The only alternative for fight fans is to attend a minor league game. Minor leaguers scrap partially for the support, but mostly because it can launch a professional hockey career. A 1995 York University study of young hockey players found that "increased levels of violence [fist fights], more than playing or skating skills were seen to lead to greater perception of competence by both team mates and coaches." In some cases, fighting can vault a player to higher levels and higher-paying leagues.
This is true for Jon Mirasty, an enforcer for the AHL's Syracuse Crunch and recipient of a fawning profile in ESPN The Magazine. In 2007, Mirasty, who weighs 220 pounds despite standing just 5-foot-10, had retired from low-level pro hockey and was set to coach in an obscure league in northern Alberta. Due to his reputation, Mirasty was recruited later that same year to try out for the Crunch, then a minor-league affiliate of the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets. He made the team and has since played NHL exhibition games for the Jackets. Mirasty, who was well into his sojourn to nowhere, now fights for a decent living. He has a following. He is a staple on hockeyfights.com, a video and chat forum with user posts such as, "Guys you want to see get beat up" and, "Who's the biggest puss?" — each answered with remarkable wit and sincerity. During the hockey season, the site draws nearly 9 million page views each month.
Mirasty's agent, Eric Beman, makes his living as a personal trainer and represents hockey players — enforcers only — as a hobby. Beman's company, One Punch Sports Management, is registered with the PHPA, an agency that represents the professional players in the AHL, CHL, and ECHL. The listed business e-mail address has a hotmail.com suffix.
If there was any question about fighting's place in the sport, especially its lower reaches, consider what happened on Dec. 12, 2008, in the Ontario Hockey Assocation's top-tier senior league — and what happened afterward. With 2:14 left in the game, Don Sanderson, a defenseman for the Whitby Dunlops, a minor league team, fought Corey Fulton of the Brantford Blast. Sanderson lost his helmet during the brawl and both fighters fell to the ice. Sanderson's bare head smashed into the ice, and he lost consciousness. Sanderson was rushed to hospital, where he soon fell into a coma. Three weeks later, Sanderson died. In Canada, the incident received as much media attention as the Obama campaign. Shortly after the public outcry, the junior Ontario Hockey League created a rule that suspends any player who removes his helmet to fight. But the OHL took great care not to excise fighting from its game altogether. A ban on fighting in this league, or any other, would be akin to a ban on tackling in the NFL. What the OHL did was merely make fighting safer. It didn't outlaw its savage element; it simply domesticated it.
The stars need protection (Wayne Gretzky so appreciated Semenko's services that in 1983 he gave Semenko the car he won as the all-star game's MVP). The lesser players need a job. The league needs to sell the game. That's why fighting isn't going anywhere — the incentives are too strong to keep it around. Coarse and slapdash as it may have been, fight camp was teaching kids to cope with hockey as it is, not as we might wish it to be.
* * *
Brad walked us from the cramped dressing room and onto the ice. Todd threw a bucket of pucks on the plastic ice surface. Some of the smaller kids began shooting against the net while the older kids stood by to the side and talked among themselves while Derek and Brad began rehearsing some fighting moves on the other side of the ice. They seemed to be making it up on the spot. The entire class gathered to watch.
A few minutes later Brad arranged us from tallest to smallest at the blue line. "Turn to your right," he said. "That's the guy you're going to fight." I looked to my right. On skates Dominic stood at least 6-foot-5. It still wasn't clear how violent the fights would be, and I was genuinely scared of taking a bare-knuckles punch from Dominic. His size and quiet confidence almost nullified my moral objection to fighting a 16-year-old. Still, I was prepared to play the morality card if he broke my nose.
"Listen up," yelled Derek. "This is how to prevent someone from hitting you. Derek grabbed Brad's jersey, and Brad wadded a handful of Derek's teal bathrobe. "There are three main types of jersey grips," said Derek. "The high shoulder grip, the elbow grip, and the wrist grip." Brad and Derek demonstrated each grip but did not throw any punches. Derek told us that the elbow and wrist grips are not ideal. "These are desperate," he said, "you want to go for the high shoulder grip." Brad took Derek's jersey at the shoulder and told us to watch carefully. Derek drew back his arm and slowly threw a punch at Brad's face. As Derek's fist came closer, Brad pushed his jersey-gripping hand forward into Derek's shoulder. It hemmed Derek's reach. Derek pushed his fist harder, and Brad pushed his shoulder in kind, robbing Derek of range and power to hit him. "The goal here is to take size out of the fight," said Brad. "I've fought guys much bigger than me and they never landed a punch because of this technique."
Derek ordered us to square off with our partners. I grabbed Dominic's jersey and he grabbed mine, though his thumb accidentally clenched a loop of my skin. He twisted the fistful of nylon and flesh and cocked back his arm while I prepared for the inevitable dental work. He threw his first punch. I squeezed my fist around a wad of his jersey with so much force that my finger tendons immediately pulled. I pushed against his shoulder and closed my eyes. When I opened them I saw his fist, six inches from my nose. I could see individual blond hairs on each knuckle. He punched again and I pushed. Nothing. When it was my turn, my punches were similarly stymied. Dominic released his grip. "Wow, that really works," he said, offering a pinched smile that was either polite or deeply condescending.
The rest of the kids were still jostling, and the rink was filled with the sounds of grunting and skates clawing into plastic ice. Brad shouted over the commotion. "If the guy lands a punch with your hand on his shoulder, it's not going to hurt," he yelled. "It's a glancing blow with almost no force. If you looked at the videos in there, it only looks like the other guys are landing punches. But they aren't." That was all we would learn about defense.
Derek then showed us how to break defensive techniques like the high shoulder grab. The two instructors stood in front of us again, grabbing bathrobe and jersey. "The first step is to get your hand on the inside," Derek said, his right shoulder in Brad's grip. "Now punch in an uppercut motion — hard — on the inside. It doesn't matter if you land the uppercut and chances are that you won't." Derek threw an uppercut and didn't come near landing it. "That's only step one," he said. "Now watch." Derek drew his gripped arm back as though he were elbowing someone behind his head. The move not only tore his shoulder immediately out of Brad's hand but left his arm drawn back and ready to punch. Brad was now defenseless. "Now I'm ready to use my weapon," Derek said, looking at his fist. "OK, now you try it."
The kids looked at each other. A few laughed nervously, as if it were sex ed. Dominic and I took each other's jerseys with mutual shoulder grips. Before we could decide who would go first, Dominic threw the uppercut, slammed back his right elbow, and removed my grip. "I could've killed you there," he said.
I tried the move and was just as successful. My fist was near my ear, and Dominic's head was back, his mouth drawn into a grimace. I was ready to use "my weapon." Suddenly, the class exploded into chaos. Kids traded partners. They used unsanctioned and untaught moves. A pair of 13-year-olds started a playful war. It looked fun. I skated out of the scrum until a 14-year-old wearing G-Unit jewelry grabbed my jersey and challenged me to a fight. I asked him if he was sure. He hadn't finished nodding when I grabbed his jersey at the shoulder and pulled it over his head. I administered three stage punches into the lump inside and accidentally connected one. He stopped struggling, and I let him up, allowing him to poke his head through his jersey collar. "Good fight," he said, and moved on to fight someone else.
Trevor, who was on the ice to supervise, had seen enough. He yelled at us to "smarten up" and arrange ourselves on the blue line again. Our next lesson was the art of the cheap shot. Brad and Derek resumed the now-familiar mutual shoulder grip as we watched. "Fake a few punches," said Derek, feinting toward Brad's face. "Then squat to get under his grab arm, move your head to the right, then quickly stand up tall again." Derek finished the sequence. He'd broken Brad's grip and turned his shoulders perpendicular. "Now unload on his kidneys!" said Derek, stage punching Brad in the back. "Try it!"
Dominic's first attempt spun me sideways. I struggled against the move but couldn't break it. Then my back caved in. I felt nausea. Dominic had "accidentally" punched me in the kidneys. "Sorry, dude," he said.
"A lot of players discount body shots but they got me some critical advantages," Derek said. "I was able to reset my grip so I could go back to hitting him in the face."
Brad took over the class for the last lesson, on how to square up properly. He told smaller players to engage cautiously. "I like to let the other guy skate around me for a while. If you're smaller, wait for him to lunge toward you. That way you can get on the inside. If you don't get close to him, he'll use his reach to keep you on defense, and you'll get killed. Remember, it's not about size. It's speed and technique and how fast you can grab him and start throwing punches."
Brad and Derek exchanged vacant looks at each other. They spoke to each other, sotto voce, until Derek shook his head. "That's it, guys," he said. The session was over. We had spent a total of 40 minutes on the ice.
Trevor thanked the kids for coming out as they began skating off. "One more thing," Derek shouted before we left. "WHAT'S THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN HOCKEY FIGHTING?"
I wasn't sure. Was it most important to not get hit and send the message? To hijack game momentum and win and protect your star? Was it to launch your pro career, conceal dirty moves, punch your friends, and undermine the legitimacy of your sport while simultaneously enriching it? Or was it just something to give Philadelphians a reason to get up in the morning? But I went with the chorus line on this one.
"DON'T GET HIT," we yelled back in unison.
"That's right," said Derek. "And, uh … have fun. That's also important."
* * *
The next morning I found blood in my urine. Dominic's kidney punch had turned it a syrupy red. At the meeting of my right bicep and shoulder, where he had grabbed my jersey, I found a deep bruise that was larger than a slice of processed cheese. Still, the damage was light: full set of teeth, face uncut.
Derek, Brad, and Trevor, however disorganized, had taught legitimate techniques that really worked. That fight camp was as successful as it was became less of a miracle the better I got to know the instructors. After the camp, I had a beer with Todd, Trevor, and Derek. Over chicken wings and pints of Molson at The Press Box, a nearby sports bar, I learned that Trevor was a little shy, Todd a dedicated family man, and Derek, while playing in Quebec, had taught himself to speak French so he could talk to girls.
"So there you go," said Trevor, making one final PR move as I picked up the check. "Fighting can be taught, but we teach them to be responsible."
I didn't catch the responsibility message in any of the lessons. Trevor continued, insisting that he wasn't churning out goons. Of all the kids he'd taught, he claimed that only one had turned into a problem and was now looking for extra action on the ice. It didn't matter; none of the details had made it to any of the media coverage. So he had become a pariah, a sort of Barnum figure minus the self-awareness. I wanted to know: With all the controversy, with the loss of insurance and business, was it worth it?
"CTV news was negative," said Trevor, staring into his food. "But then they interviewed Wayne Gretzky and he said the camp was a good idea. If Gretzky had said, ‘That's the stupidest idea ever,' I would look like the biggest idiot in the world. But he didn't."
* * *
Epilogue: Trevor has since sold the business and is uninvolved with Puckmasters. Todd Holt remained to help with some of the coaching duties. And fight camp, as far as I know, is on hold.
Jake Bogoch has lived and worked in four different NHL cities that aren't Calgary. He regularly goes into the attic to sniff Kordic's gloves.
Chris Buck grew up in Toronto, where he played hockey and figure skated. His father worked for Kodak so he decided to go into the family business and become a photographer. He lives in New York with his wife, Michelle Golden. He has been called "damaged," and, separately, "clever," but Donald Trump put it best when he said to Chris, "Make this quick, I have many important people waiting for me." You can find more of his work at ChrisBuck.com.
Pictured at top: Derek Parker at far left; Trevor Lakness at far right.
Derek Boogaard photo by Robb Long Imaging.