The playoff beards have been shorn and the year’s award winners will be honored in Las Vegas tonight. With next season’s schedules already out, the NHL year is utterly and completely finished.
But if you’re looking for something to help fill that void, Helena’s Brian D’Ambrosio may be able to help just a bit. The local author has published a book titled “Warriors on the Ice: Hockey’s Toughest Talk,” in which he catches up with more than two dozen former enforcers and tough guys. A longtime fan of the game, D’Ambrosio said the collection of old-time stories was most certainly a labor
“I’ve always been interested in the psychology of the tough guy, and the mental prowess that goes into that preparation,” he said. “When I moved to Missoula a couple of years ago, I realized that Jim Agnew was the sheriff. I thought that was pretty cool, and then thought it would be interesting to see what happened to a lot of those guys.”
And, since it all started with Agnew, it is fitting that the book begins by telling Agnew’s story.
Playing in 85 career NHL games between 1986 and 1993, the Canadian-born Agnew piled up 263 penalty minutes in his time on the ice. Much of his career was spent in the minor leagues, and Agnew admits to D’Ambrosio that he was an on-the-bubble player.
As a result, Agnew, like others in that position, realized that a bit of toughness could go a long way. So, out of necessity, he picked a fight now and again. Chronic knee problems eventually forced Agnew from the game, and he decided to “get away from the city stuff,” settling in Missoula. He received his U.S. citizenship in 2006.
While there are certainly still players like Agnew in today’s NHL, there aren’t nearly as many as there once were — and as rules continue to be added to discourage fighting, D’Ambrosio said the time of the enforcer may be over.
Becoming a fan of the game during the heyday of tough guys, it was a bit of sentimentality that pushed him into writing his latest book. But that curiosity of what makes a guy like that tick played an equal roll — and the answer to that question may surprise many.
“Just to see how diverse they are and hearing their opinions on the status of fighting today was great,” he said. “These guys have interesting stories, and they’re all really different people. Brendan Witt is covered head-to-toe in tattoos, and Jim Agnew is a sheriff with a mustache and completely straight-laced.
“They’re all so different, and yet they are a small fraternity, too.”
Witt, like Agnew, settled in Montana, and lives on a 100-acre ranch in Darby, south of Missoula. He retired in 2010 after 17 seasons, picking up 1,468 penalty minutes over 931 games.
As he did with every player interviewed for his book, D’Ambrosio talked with Witt about the way the game has changed — and Witt was clear in his stance.
“You can’t finish a guy at the blue line like you used to because of concussions,” Witt says in ‘Warriors’. “A guy like Bob Probert was honest. You could run him, but if it was legal he was cool with that. Dave Brown was like that. Joel Otto was like that. I love that. There was a respect there. The game has changed that way. Today, you’ve got a bunch of wimps.”
Since the beginning of the game, fighting has been a part of hockey. In the early years of the NHL, tough guys like Eddie Shore, Red Horner and Black Jack Stewart were hugely popular — and reviled. And Gordie Howe, now known as Mr. Hockey, is among the greatest players, and fighters, of all time.
But like many other tough guys of the NHL’s early days, Howe could also play the game. (This is why a player can achieve a Gordie Howe hat trick with a goal, an assist and a fight.) The NHL went through a bit of a shift in the 1970s, though, and teams began employing the goon — a guy who could skate a bit and fight a lot, and not much else.
Still, the goons had their place, primarily serving as on-ice deterrents and body guards for the team’s smaller, more skilled stars. It was a system that proved largely effective for decades. But sentiment in the commissioner’s office began to shift. That shift turned into a full-fledged slide 10 years ago after a brutal incident in Vancouver.
The game was March 8, 2004, between the Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks. With anger boiling over early, the game saw four fights in the first period. One of those fights pitted Vancouver’s Matt Cooke against Colorado’s Steve Moore — who, a month before, had injured Vancouver captain Markus Naslund with a borderline hit.
With the Avalanche up 8-2 in the third period, Vancouver’s Todd Bertuzzi began to shadow Moore. When his constant attempts to goad the center into a fight failed, Bertuzzi grabbed Moore’s jersey from behind and punched him in the back of the head. Moore fell to the ice, with Bertuzzi on top of him, his face slamming into the GM Place ice.
The attack ended Moore’s career. He suffered, among other injuries, three fractured vertebrae in his neck and even today experiences severe headaches. A lawsuit between Moore and Bertuzzi and the Canucks will go to trial in September.
That incident came four years after Boston’s Marty McSorley swung his stick into the head of Vancouver’s Donald Brashear with just two seconds left in their Feb. 21, 2000, game. Eventually found guilty of assault with a weapon, McSorley was sentenced to 18 months probation and never played another NHL game.
Both incidents crossed over from the niche NHL-fan crowd into the non-fan mainstream, igniting an outrage that forced the league to respond.
“Bertuzzi/Moore and Brashear … those two incidents, as appalling as they are, they rightfully signify the death knell for fighting,” D’Ambrosio said. “Those are the two things that put a lot of this in place. And the thing about Bertuzzi is that Steve Moore actually had a fight in that game. It was of no consequence; nobody got hurt. It was a short grappling match, and that’s how it should have been and how it’s supposed to be. What Bertuzzi did to Moore was reprehensible. It was just a vile, vile, horrific thing. There’s a difference between the spontaneous fight and a premeditated act — which that was.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand that the spontaneous fight has a place. But we’re not seeing that any more … and it might be time to say goodbye to it.”
That’s an issue discussed in his book with the ex-NHLers. Many of them are open about what they did and why they did it, but some are still reticent to talk about their past. It’s a sensitive topic. There’s some angst and, in the words of D’Ambrosio, “some hidden hurts.”
But while there are collective similarities in the past, the book gives readers a fascinating look at where those tough guys are today. It’s a group in which some fall into the stereotypical mold, others restore and repurpose old chandeliers and antiques, and still others now hold PhDs.
“I think I just wanted to connect with these guys and share some of their pride and dignity, and let people know the guys that did it and continue to do it may not be doing it for the reasons you expect,” D’Ambrosio said. “I think a lot of people who don’t follow hockey will find it interesting. And it’s always fun getting into the psyche of who we are, what we do and why we do it.”
The book can be purchased on Amazon.com and a Kindle version is also available.