Hockey Goons

You know who I’m talking about: the guys who can’t skate, can’t score, but are big and strong and hired as thugs to intimidate the other teams. Warren Zevon sang about such a guy and Roy MacGregor wrote a novel about one.

MacGregor’s novel,The Last Season, is about guy from rural Canada named Felix Batterinski who is trained, from an early age, to be an enforcer, which is what polite people call hockey goons. Batterinski’s youth sounds much like that of Derek Boogard, whose death from drugs and alcohol has been linked, rightly or not, to the brain damage he suffered while playing. When I read MacGregor’s novel I thought immediately of Dave Schultz, one-time tough guy for the Philadelphia Flyers, known at the time as the Broad Street Bullies.

Schultz in action. Note the taped fist.

About forty years ago, I saw the Bullies massacre the Vancouver Canucks — this was during a really bad period for the Canucks, their owner was in prison and management made a lot of poor decisions. One decision was to trade for a bunch of N.Y.Rangers, including Dave Balon, who had been an all-star the previous year. So, in the game I saw, there was a brawl — they used to clear the benches in those days, everybody fought — and Schultz paired off with Balon, grabbing his jersey. Instead of grabbing back, Balon began talking to Schultz, saying he didn’t want to fight. The look that crossed Schultz’s face was amazing: from a feral grin when he grabbed Balon, to astonishment when Balon chatted him off, to disgust. No one knew then that Balon’s body was deteriorating with multiple sclerosis, which would soon end his career and eventually kill him.

Schultz used to wrap his fists before a game; he figured he was going to fight. The League made a rule against wrapping your fists. Schultz set a record for the most penalty minutes served in a season: 472. But, here’s the thing, he could play hockey as well as fight. He scored a few goals but teams used to call on him for muscle. Dave played the role but he wasn’t Felix Batterinski.

Schultz  became a tough guy after he was drafted and began playing in the minors. His team was the Salem Rebels, Eastern Hockey League, Southern Division. I was a student at Roanoke College in Salem when I saw my first live hockey games. The franchise was brand new. In an early game during a brawl, the Salem goalie skated the length of the ice and plowed the opposing goalie with his stick. Or so I heard, I didn’t see that one. What I did see was the Salem captain taking a late game face off and, instead of going for the puck, slashing the referee’s shins as hard as he could. This was a tough league. This was two years before Schultz went to Salem where they taught him to be an enforcer. (from The Hammer: Confessions of A Hockey Enforcer by Schultz and Stan Fischler).

Felix Batterinski had a poison eating at him from inside, or so his old grandmother told him; he was a man full of hate. Schultz didn’t have that, but maybe Brian Spencer did. I saw Spencer when he was with the Islanders. He wasn’t an enforcer as such, he just played hard and mean. Sometimes, watching a Guy LaFleur or many a lesser player, you see someone who exhibits great  joy at just playing the game. Spencer looked like he never took joy in anything.

Spencer’s story is well-known. He came from Fort St.James in northern B.C. Drafted by Toronto, he was called up from the minors to play on a Saturday night. That’s Hockey Night In Canada, folks, and Brian’s father wanted to see his kid play. At the last minute, the CBC announced that, in western Canada, they would show the Vancouver game instead of the Toronto one. Spencer’s father took a gun to the TV outlet in Fort St. James and threatened the techs there, trying to get them to turn on the Toronto feed, which they may not have been able to do. The RCMP surrounded the place, there was a confrontation, and Mr. Spencer was shot to death. Brian refused to take any time off; he played the next night. For a long time he carried the names of the three Mounties who had shot his father in his wallet. Sometimes he said that someone would pay for the death.  

Brian Spencer went on to a relatively successful career, mostly in Buffalo, but was traded to Pittsburgh, who were looking for a goon. His career ended. He drifted to Florida and got into drugs. He was charged with murder, acquitted, and a few months later, was shot to death while seeking to buy coke. (from Gross Misconduct: The Life of Brian “Spinner” Spencer by Martin O’Malley).

Well, people do things and whatever they do, they are still people; no two are alike. Labelling someone a goon is not useful. Even Felix Batterinski can draw some sympathy, like when he suggests to his stewardess girl friend that maybe they ought to be permanent, maybe they should have children. “Who would want your child?”, she says, and right then Felix realizes that he has become something other than human. But these hockey players are human beings, they are real people, not goons. Mostly, they just want to play the game and this is the way they were shown to that end.

Many hockey players tried to help Spencer during his retirement. Many gave up on him. Rick Martin, his Buffalo team mate, didn’t. Spencer’s ashes found a place on Martin’s mantelpiece. Martin and his wife thought that Brian was a decent guy, just a little confused, maybe, and easilly led.  Martin himself died a little while ago. An autopsy revealed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is caused by repeated blows to the head. It seems to be not uncommon in hockey players that have been autopsied.

So the League is concerned about this and has begun cracking down on “head shots” although the rules aren’t all that clear and the referees seem confused sometimes about what they should or shouldn’t call. Along the way, people have asked about fighting, isn’t a punch a head shot? The League has backed off answering that question. The idea is that fighting goes along with hockey. There are various silly arguments that are supposed to support that contention but the fact is, you either accept it or you don’t.

I watched Bobby Clarke in a sports TV session where the topic came up. How do we end these concussions? was the question. Clarke said, bring back the centre blue line, if you don’t have rink-long passes then you won’t have players moving at such speeds when they run into stanchions, say, or each other and get badly hurt. This was a clear and direct remedy from a guy who knows something about hockey and it shut down the discussion. No one wanted to hear about slowing the game down. And, I have to say, it’s pretty exciting to see Sidney Crosby whipping down the ice at 35 kph. Do I want to lose that? On the other hand, is this rule worth a man’s brains? If a return to the old mid-line/two-line passing rule will help people and I don’t boost it, how can I complain about any other aspect of the sport?

 I’ve got no answers to anything; I’m just another of those folks deploring the damage while they cheer on the destruction.


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