The fight begins like many do in minor league hockey: Music pounding from the arena speakers as two combatants drop the gloves, grab each other’s jerseys and then the punching commences.
Oh, lord, the punching. Joel Theriault’s fight with Gaby Roch on March 8 wasn’t exactly out of place in Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey, a Quebec-based semi-pro league renowned for its fisticuffs.
But the quality of the brawl was superb: Theriault and Roch throwing punches by the dozen before it becomes a war of attrition, neither man refusing to allow the other to knock him off his skates. Theriault rallies. Roch responds. It’s over a minute of stamina, determination and pride on display.
And then it happens: The fight stops, and moments before the officials officially break it up, the two men share an emphatic high-five followed by a legitimate hug, unlike the embrace they’d been in for the previous 60 seconds.
“In my career, I’d never seen that before,” said Dean Lygipsakos, Roch’s head coach with Jonquiere Marquis.
The clip went viral in the U.S., as the original video is closing in on 200,000 views on YouTube. It’s easy to figure out why: an awesome brawl followed by a moment of empathy and celebration that would seem to juxtapose the warrior aesthetic embodied by the combatants.
The story behind that moment is a valentine to hockey’s lore. Roch wasn't just fighting an opponent. He was helping to celebrate the end of his idol's hockey career.
Gaby Roch is a 26-year-old right wing from Joliette, PQ in Canada. He played junior hockey in Quebec until 2008, when he was drafted to the LNAH. After showing some offensive flourish earlier in his career, coaches made his path to pro hockey clear: Drop the gloves, work the corners and be an energy player.
Joel Theriault is a 37-year-old defenseman playing his last season in the LNAH with the Thetford Mines Isothermic. Like Roch, he began in Quebec junior hockey, but was drafted by the Washington Capitals in the fourth round (No. 95 overall) in the 1995 NHL Draft. He embarked on a journeyman career as both a defensive defenseman and a pugilist: 367 penalty minutes in two seasons with Hampton Roads in the ECHL; 211 penalty minutes in two seasons with the ECHL Jacksonville Lizard Kings; 170 penalty minutes with Quebec in the AHL, the highest level he’d reach as a pro.
By 2005, Theriault had joined the LNAH, and had become one of its most feared and frequent fighters, playing nine seasons and earning over 230 penalty minutes in four of them. In a league filled with punchers, he was the champ; to drop the gloves with Joel Theriault was akin to an NHL player dropping the gloves with the late Bob Probert 25 years ago. It was a moment to measure one’s ability, and a moment to try and create a legacy against a legend.
Roch had watched Theriault growing up, before coming to the LNAH.
He idolized him. He also knew, as a fighter, they would inevitably meet on the ice. To put it in cinematic terms: He was Doug Glatt from “Goon,” only with actual playing ability; Theriault was Ross “The Boss” Rhea, the unstoppable veteran monster he’d have to slay.
Roch said he had only fought Theriault once before, as a 21-year-old player in the LNAH. Theriault cross-checked one of Roch’s teammates, Derek Parker, and Roch skated over to play enforcer.
It ended up being a lopsided win for Theriault.
“At the time, we said Gabby did a heck of a job hanging in there,” said Lygipsakos. “He knew that one of the biggest challenges in his career was going to be facing him.”
After that loss, Roch vowed he’d get another shot at Theriault, but for various reasons the opportunity didn’t materialize over the years.. Then came Saturday night’s game between Jonquiere Marquis and Thetford Mines Isothermic, which was an unofficial stop on the Joel Theriault Farewell Tour.
Theriault has been engaging in a fight nearly every night this season. (“Joel is trying to entertain the crowd in every rink he visits,” Lygipsakos said.) That included a bout against storied minor league brawler Jon Mirasty, as “Nasty” and “L’Animal” met for perhaps the last time:
(Hey, what do you know? A high-five at the end of the fight…)
Roch sensed in the warmup that it would be the second chance he was looking for. Roch’s team had a few injuries; he thoughts, perhaps, that they’d need a fight to change the energy in the game at some point.
His intuition was spot-on. Jonquiere Marquis was the Walking Dead from an energy level during the game, losing early. Roch learned over to his coach, Lygipsakos, on the bench and asked if he could fight Theriault.
Lygipsakos said he knew his team could use the spark, but wasn’t sure about the matchup: Roch is about 20 pounds lighter than Theriault.
It was a middleweight asking to take on Mike Tyson.
But he knew the history. He knew what it meant to Roch. “When Joel retires, he’s going to be one of the best fighters ever in this league,” said Lygipsakos. “Gabby said, ‘I think it’s time. Don’t worry, I’ll do the job.’”
The two fought, and fought epically. The majority of the votes on HockeyFights.com were cast as it being a draw, although Theriault’s opening flurry earned him 29 percent of the vote as the winner.
But it was that high-five and hug at the end that turned an excellent hockey fight into a classic clip.
“I’m very surprised that the press is more surprised about that part of the event than the tilt itself, which was one of the best bouts in recent memory,” said Roch, whose team still fell to Theriault’s, 7-2.
And the celebration? Roch said he initially was trying for a helmet tap for a good fight and it ended up being a high-five.
“It happened spontaneously,” he said. “A little bit of the emotions and adrenaline flowing, and respect. We both spontaneously knew that we had given everyone a really good ride.
“I’m not embarrassed about it at all. We both got a couple in. We’re both standing up. It’s not strange, but I can see how people might see it as unusual.”
It was unusual enough to turn the clip viral and have Roch’s inbox flooded with messages from friends and former teammates down in the U.S.
“I find it fun. My only pleasure’s not only to fight but to win hockey games. But part of my job is to fight, and when I make a good fight and my teammates are energized, then I feel like I contribute,” he said.
“Some media have found it ridiculous. But some media don’t like fighting, and you have to respect that. But it wasn’t staged. It was spontaneous."
A spontaneous high-five, and an instantaneous bit of hockey fame for Roch.
"I’m a little bit confused that they’re focusing on the high-five aspect," he said. "If I were to been a celebrity for the quality of my fights, it would be better than being a celebrity for my high fives. But if I’m a celebrity for a high-five, so be it.”
Thanks to Dean Lygipsakos for the translation help.