Jim Thomson lived that life.
And he often thinks about his friends in the NHL’s enforcing fraternity: John Kordic, Marc Potvin, Bob Probert, Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard.
All of them are former friends because they’re no longer with us.
He thinks about his own experiences in the NHL and AHL over a 10-year span in the 1980s and ‘90s. His memories of that decade are clouded by drugs, alcohol, pain, painkillers and even thoughts of suicide.
Thomson lived that life. And now he wants to rid hockey of fighting and the role he so dutifully served for so many years and on so many teams.
“There’s no need for it,” said Thomson who played for six different NHL teams with 115 games and 416 penalty minutes. “Yes, I did it for a living. Yes, it gave me an opportunity; but it’s a terrible life and it’s destroying human beings.
“A lot of us enforcers have died. I can tell you, John Kordic, Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard and all these guys – we were all the same. Some of us made it through. . . some of us died. So if you want your kid doing that, if you’re that old school, shame on you. Violence is not the answer we don’t need these young men beating each other up, it’s barbaric.”
The issue regarding fighting in hockey is definitely a lightning rod and Thomson shockingly found himself right in the middle of the storm Thursday night. Don Cherry, from his public pulpit on Hockey Night in Canada, attacked Thomson and fellow ex-enforcers Chris Nilan and Stu Grimson for speaking about the same kind of violence that sells many of Cherry’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em compilations.
"The ones that I am really disgusted with ... are the bunch of pukes that fought before: Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson," Cherry blasted through the TV.
"(They say) 'Oh, the reason that they're drinking, (taking) drugs and alcoholics is because they're fighting.' You turncoats, you hypocrites. If there's one thing I'm not it's a hypocrite. You guys were fighters, and now you don't want guys to make the same living you did."
Thomson said he’s heard that kind of criticism before and equates it to views on smoking – when people learned their once fashionable and addictive habit was killing them.
“We got proof it was killing us,” said Thomson of smoking cigarettes. “We change with the times. What was good in the past doesn’t mean it’s good now. So call me a hypocrite, I don’t believe I am a hypocrite because I did the role, I lived the role and the role was wrong. There’s too much violence in the world and we don’t need it.
“Would they want their son to go through what a lot of us enforcers have lived with?”
Like many players pushed into the enforcer’s role, Thomson put up decent numbers in junior when he played during the early-to-mid 1980s with the OHL’s Toronto Marlies. In his final year he scored 23 goals and added 28 assists in 63 OHL games. He says all it took to be stuck with the tough-guy label was a few fights mixed in with an equal measure of lucky punches.
“I started doing well in fights and then the next thing you know I get drafted and Washington’s saying, ‘Listen if you’re ever going to make our team you’re going to have to fight,’ ” said Thomson, who was taken in the ninth round of the 1984 NHL entry draft. “The next thing you know I’m (in the AHL) with Binghamton and one year I had 41 fights in 57 games and 360 penalty minutes.”
It wasn’t long before he was in the NHL fighting on a regular basis and using drugs and alcohol to help quell his anxiety.
“I needed to freeze the pain because I knew if I was going into Philadelphia the next night I’m fighting Dave Brown and Rick Tocchet and Jeff Chychrun. Do you think I’m sleeping?” said Thomson. “But after two bottles of wine and maybe some painkillers, yeah I’ll get to sleep.”
Thomson, who today operates a hockey school in the Toronto area and coaches minor hockey in Aurora, Ont., said he doesn’t understand why the Canadian Hockey League hasn’t banned fighting outright as a part of their new crackdown on eliminating head injuries from the game. Recently the Western Hockey League has adopted a “seven-point plan” to curtail hits that target the head, while the Ontario Hockey League has started handing out stiffer suspensions for head hits. But of the three CHL leagues, only Quebec Major Junior Hockey League commissioner Gilles Courteau has come publicly in favour of eliminating fighting from his league.
It’s a contradiction in philosophy that Thomson has a hard time understanding.
“How does it make sense that we’re taking these headshots out but I’m still allowed to drop my gloves and land three bombs on your melon – hit you square in the skull with three punches – but we’re taking head shots out?”
David Branch, the OHL commissioner and CHL president, said that fighting in his league is on the decline and that over time the role will eventually die out because of the shift in attitude towards squaring off during a game.
“I think that old attitude that we need fighting to sell our game is certainly ill-founded and is not part of who we are and what we are (as a league) in this new day and age,” said Branch.
This season the OHL is already averaging more than a fight per game with 60 bouts in the first 51 games of the fledgling 2011-12 campaign.
"Our area of focus and concern has been head injuries,” Branch explained during a conference call to the start of the season. “The leading factors for head injuries are clearly not as a result of fighting. First and foremost, that should be understood. We've been going through an educational process, we've put in some new rules, we’re really focused on the health and welfare of our players."
Still, Thomson said any action to curb the number of head injuries caused by fighting should be taken especially when dealing with junior-aged players.
“Dave Branch is going to say what he has to say,” said Thomson. “Fighting is violent. We’re punching each other with bare knuckles in our damn brains. Why do we need that?”
He believes that fighting during a game should lead to an automatic ejection and premeditated fighting or instigating should result in a two-game suspension to start.
“I fought in the OHL and I can tell you how many headaches I had and how many concussions we didn’t know at the time we had,” said the 45-year-old. “You ask any fighter when they get smoked straight in the head, when they’re glassy eyed and then the next two days you’re feeling dizzy, don’t tell me that maybe there wasn’t documented head trauma.”
For others like former NHLer Warren Rychel, who played with Thomson briefly with the Los Angeles Kings, the issue of removing fighting in hockey isn’t as black and white as some might suggest.
“I don’t know if that necessarily is the right thing to do and if you could guarantee me that other stuff – stick (infractions) and hitting from behind would decrease – then maybe,” says Rychel who is part-owner and general manager of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. “It’s obviously a touchy subject.”
Rychel, who collected more than 1,400 penalty minutes in 406 NHL games, says he feels the OHL’s rules regarding fighting – like automatic suspensions for removing helmets during a fight, fighting off the faceoff or being the second fight on the same whistle – are adequate enough to protect junior players. His son, Kerby, plays for the Spitfires and Rychel said the only thing that truly frightens him as a parent are hits from behind into the boards.
“That’s the scariest thing,” said Rychel. “You can fix a nose or teeth, you can stitch cuts – but you can’t fix heads and necks. I think my son had (11) fights last year and yeah, you’re nervous and concerned but it’s still a part of the game. You never want to see anyone get hurt and as soon as you drop the gloves you have a chance of getting injured, much like you have a chance of getting injured carrying the puck wide. You have a chance of getting injured crossing the street in traffic – there are risks in life all the time.”
Knowing the toll it takes mentally and physically on those who fight in the NHL for a living, Rychel isn’t sure why hockey still allows fighting at the NHL level and said he believes it would have to be mandated out for it to stop.
“Maybe it’s too much old-school thought or the fact that it’s always been a part of the game,” said Rychel of the pushback. “I don’t know if I would miss it or not. It’s weird thinking of hockey without (fighting), but I’m sure it’s going to be discussed some day – probably sooner than later.”
For Thomson, that day can’t come soon enough.
“You want to go fight? Go to the UFC or boxing. Hockey is a beautiful game.”