Soul on ice
It having become apparent to him that his was not the brightest of futures, Bob Probert punched out another boy’s upper bridge of teeth.
He didn’t know what else to do. His junior-league teammates and opponents had caught up in terms of ability. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t the most talented guy on the ice. He still scored OK, and professional scouts still came to his games—only now they were watching the wispy underagers who toyed with the puck as though biding their time. Probert was getting left behind, and he knew it. He saw but one way forward: become a tough guy.
So he swallowed his pride and assumed the role of his team’s enforcer. He made sure no liberties were taken; he fought when they inevitably were. And, as it turned out, he was good at it. A kind of outlaw artist, like some juke pianist, rowdy types arriving from all over to see him mash ivory. Scouts took a renewed interest. Before he could say goon, Bob Probert—Probie, as he was known to his teammates, enemies, and cultish fans—was launched on a sixteen-year pro career. Along the way, he collected millions of dollars and 3,467 minutes in penalties (the vast majority for fighting), and he came to be known as the most dreaded tough guy—the most indomitable man—in ice hockey’s recent history.
Probert died four years ago, age 45, after collapsing on his boat on the Ontario side of Lake St. Clair. Surrounding him as he went were his wife and four children. Though results of Probert’s autopsy were never made public, his biographer revealed that he had been taking eight OxyContin per day at the time of his death—two in the morning, two with lunch, two with dinner, two before bed. He liked to dissolve the pills’ time-release coating by dipping them in Coca-Cola; then, he’d grind them into powder and inhale them in lines.
The following summer, a smallish tough guy named Rick Rypien killed himself. Rypien had hoped to earn his keep in the National Hockey League by going after opponents well above his weight class. But he lost often and never quite secured a place in the bigs. They say he’d been suffering from clinical depression for a decade when he decided to end it.
About two weeks after Rypien’s death, a hay-haired colossus of an enforcer named Wade Belak hanged himself in his Toronto condominium. He’d only just walked away from a modestly lucrative NHL career. He had a job in broadcasting awaiting him.
One researcher said hockey enforcers “tell me that about one out of every four or five times that they fight they suffer what sounds to me like a concussion.”Tweet
Three months before these suicides, Derek “The Boogeyman” Boogaard overdosed on a combination of alcohol and painkillers. Boogaard was a mantid six-foot-seven. He caved in faces with his fists. Everyone agreed he was Probert’s heir apparent. The booze and pills had been his way of self-medicating another in a long string of fight-related concussions.
Like Probert’s before him, Boogaard’s family donated his brain to neurological researchers at Boston University. And like Probert’s before him, Boogaard’s brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a degenerative disease common to boxers, hockey and football players, and combat veterans.
CTE can be diagnosed only posthumously. While alive, though, the afflicted exhibit symptoms like memory loss, depression, anxiety, and rage. They live in a bruised fugue that used to be called dementia pugilistica, punch-drunkenness. Lately, ex-enforcers like Dave Semenko, “Missing Link” Gaetz, “Chief” Gino Odjick, Darren McCarty, Brian McGrattan, and Chris “Knuckles” Nilan have come forward with corroborating stories of post-hockey lives ruined by addiction and psychological anguish.
Concussions appear to be CTE’s leading cause, but no one knows how much head trauma is needed for it to develop. One researcher said hockey enforcers “tell me that about one out of every four or five times that they fight they suffer what sounds to me like a concussion.”
Hockey is, essentially, entropic. Its central drama revolves around men attempting to create, maintain, and subvert order where there is none. To begin with, the foundation of the game is skating, onice, something that comes naturally to zero humans. On top of this balancing act, hockey asks that you: control a rubber disc; pass that rubber disc to your teammate as he, too, skates on ice; retrieve the rubber disc by jarring it loose from another man, also ice skating; all while moving at Olympic-sprinter speeds (via knives attached to your feet) throughout a circumscribed field of play where contact is not only encouraged but guaranteed, as the only things scarcer than respites are exits. Also, everybody’s got bludgeons.
We’re talking here about a frontier pastime, first played by sanguinary ruffians on the ice of the northern waste. Referees, when present, chose what to call and, like lawmen in the sticks, were pained to do even that. A hook might be a hook in the first period but not necessarily in the third. In overtime, or the playoffs—forget about it.
You get viciously bodied down; the game continues. Your temper flares as infractions pile up; still, the game continues. Something begins to seep into the play, something bad and communicable. Your frustration leads you to take advantage of hockey’s unique amnesty vis-à-vis the legal system. You slash the backs of knees with your stick, cross-check vertebrae, butt-end ribs. You, and everyone around you, commit assault.
All involved believe in the personality of the law. A foul is as much an offense against the victim as it is a violation of the rules. The cry in hockey is “Let ’em play,” which rings about the same as “Boys will be boys” and actually means “An eye for an eye.”
Reprisal has always been at least one half of the game. (One Canadian poet called hockey a “mix of ballet and murder.”) It’s the unforgiving element hockey’s fugitive grace floats on: original violence tolerated, then accepted, then in time turned into custom, into spectacle, into tactic, and finally into theory.
Thus does the game continue until, at last, your baser nature has flooded and colored your soul. You’re ready to crack open an opponent’s coconut—slavering to, like a castaway—when two men decide it’s time to fight. They drop gloves. The game stops. They throw hands for retribution, or intimidation, deterrence, protection, or momentum—really, what they fight for is catharsis. The way things were going, someone might’ve gotten hurt. They do single combat, and then the game can start up afresh, purged for now like a drained wound.
That’s why there’s fistfights in hockey.
This willingness to drop the gloves—win or lose, for oneself or a teammate—is called “showing up.” Traditionalists would have you believe that, time was, every man on the ice showed up, even immortals like “Rocket” Richard and Bobby Orr. This changed when hockey leagues expanded nationwide in the late ’60s. Suddenly, the talent pool was diluted; all these new teams in the South and West were filling up their rosters with muckers and hatchet men. (Their seats and coffers were filling up, too.) It was no longer viable for a hockey player to be some combination of skill and grit, a willing draftee in any fight. These new guys were thugs, animals—laboring skaters who kept getting bigger and stronger, punching harder and harder, even as their quarry’s skulls changed not one bit.
The game became specialized, stratified. Now you had (1) your scorers, (2) your less-skilled players who tried to stop the scorers by any means necessary, and (3) your guy at the end of the bench who beat the bejesus out of the 2s when they got overzealous. This guy belonged to the new lowest class of player, the grunt whose sole job it was to look out for 1s: he was the enforcer.
“When I think of Dave Semenko now—and I often do,” Wayne Gretzky wrote of his enforcer, “I don’t picture the piercing glare that caused other heavyweights to look down or up or anywhere but back at David. I remember instead the little smile, the quick wink, and the words, ‘Don’t worry, Gretz.’ And you know what? I never did.”
The former head of the NHL players union once said that Gretzky would’ve played “several hundred” fewer games had it not been for Semenko absorbing and meting out punishment on his behalf. It was this seeming indifference to pain that earned Semenko the nickname “Cement Head.” He did things like box Muhammad Ali to a draw. He was a thoroughly terrifying enforcer—though nowhere near as terrifying as Dave Schultz, the dread warlord of the most fearsome team of all time: the late-’70s goon squad known as the “Broad Street Bullies.”
Schultz today is still mentioned in hushed tones. Saying his name is unsettling, spooky; no one wants to chance it, like with “Bloody Mary.” Instead, he’s called “The Hammer.” He threw his right fist like a man releasing a bowling ball. His single-season penalty record will never be eclipsed. But ask Schultz who he thought the scariest was, and he says, “John Brophy was the toughest and wildest I ever fought.”
When Schultz got his clock cleaned by Brophy, he was barely out of his teens, playing in his first professional season. Brophy was at the end of his minor-league rope, having spent the years between 1952 and 1973 bouncing around the now-defunct Eastern League, skating in snakepit arenas in decaying industrial cities. The violence there was so thick that Brophy went gray before he was old enough to drink. The closest he’d get to the National Hockey League was breaking an NHLer’s leg during an exhibition.
Schultz wrote in his autobiography that Brophy “employed his hockey stick the way a samurai uses a sword. If he had any scruples, he must have buried them the first time he put on a pair of skates.” By the time he ended his twenty-year playing career, Brophy had racked up 4,057 minutes of penalties, which comes out to three fights fewer than Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, and Derek Boogaard combined.
Props to Bob Probert and Theogenes—but John Brophy was the baddest. Yet the last anyone heard from him was 2007, when he quit his equally storied coaching career. (Only one head coach, the Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, has won more professional hockey games.) Then he just . . . disappeared.
Did he eat a gun? Shove off and put fire to his own Viking funeral?
I had to know. Such is how I found myself one spring morning in a diner in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Brophy’s hometown, feeling stiff and brittle, having not slept well. I ordered two eggs, scrambled, and took a seat at one of the truck stop tables bolted into the linoleum. The space had the dimensions of a shoebox or budget coffin—low, rectangular. In one corner, an ancient empty Coke fridge chanted Gregorian.
Fat men in khakis tinkled the doorbell and sighed while walking past rows of empty place settings. A few elderly couples were drinking tea and scanning the paper. I went ahead and leaned across and called to one huncher gumming toast: “John Brophy, yeah?”
“Brophy’s a Maritimer, sure.”
“What’re you saying?” asked another gent around the way.
“Brophy went and he played in the States where they got down on hands and knees and marveled at the indoor ice.”
“Team bus’d need a police escort to the county line,” the first agreed. “Yessir.”
Another old-timer, this one fox-faced, lifted his head from his breakfast and added, “I’ll tell ya right fuckin’ now—sorry, Ma—I saw a fan spit one on Brophy, right? He spits one on Brophy, and then later Brophy makes like he’s digging the puck away from the boards in front of the guy—they didn’t have glass separating you from the ice back then—and Brophy butt-ends the guy right in the teeth. Right in the kisser. And then how does he go? He goes, ‘Now spit, motherfucker!’”
“I seen him fight Don Perry. I thought it was like those Japanese monsters. The world was ending.”
“When he coached, the fans would throw batteries, and the security guards had to keep him from going up after them.”
“Brophy. Whatever it took to get things done, he didn’t mind doing.”
“Once, he got to stick-swinging with Bobby Taylor, the football player. Like somebody was gonna die. The sticks were shattered all over the place, and they were trying to spear each other with the splinters.”
“I don’t even know how many times he came out of the dressing room with the needle and thread still in his face, the brawl still going.”
“Haw, you miss three shifts back then and you were out.”
“Different back then.”
A leathery waitress in a nurse’s uniform brought a patron his milk on ice and then told me where Brophy was: an old folks’ home outside of town.
I got directions and found a farmhouse awash in green pastureland. Behind it, a flock of dingy sheep grazed in a Fibonacci spiral. The wind was tossing fistfuls of slitty rain every couple beats, like wedding rice. I walked in—the door wasn’t locked—and tried the first bedroom. A big guy, not big like tall but big like a mascot, was sliding a cable-knit sweater over his head. I waited, and then we shook hands across the threshold.
“I didn’t think anybody’d come,” Brophy said.
“It’s an honor,” I said.
Our handshake stalled, and he looked at me obliquely, beginning to grin, as if, fine, I’d mangled the pronunciation, but he’d accept the shibboleth.
“I’m going walking today,” he said. He stared until I’d retraced my steps to the front door. “Come back tomorrow.” Outside there was one heckler, a crow.
The traditionalists would have you believe that enforcers took accountability out of the game. (Do not get the traditionalists started on what would happen if all fighting were taken out of the game.) To them, the unprecedented level of technical ability in today’s hockey is a kind of decadent virtuosity. A different sport altogether; an exhibition that ought to be scored by judges. One does not simply get to be an engine of consequenceless will and expression in this game, according to the traditionalists. Fuck around, and you should have to answer for it. But, no, guys now are able to have their picnic and eat it, too, because enforcers are smoldering blackly at the periphery, keeping out bloodsuckers.
The way the traditionalists see it, time was, each new crop of players had to venture into hockey’s brutal element and test themselves against it, like sailors. And, like sailors, the old would tell the green how poorly they were measuring up. The toughest were dead or retired; the way they played—perfectly irretrievable. Old-time hockey, it’s called. It could never exist in the present, any present, because present hockey is always too slick, sleek, knowing, and indulgent. “If some of the longhairs I see on the ice these days met Sprague Cleghorn,” coach Red Dutton once remarked, “he’d shave them to the skull. Jesus, he was mean.” Dutton said this a lifetime ago.
Old-time hockey is in perpetual retreat, never further away than at the present moment—but still it keeps hanging around, like a sun slow to set on the horizon. This is just how generations work, I guess. The ideal of old-time hockey lingers in rinks because so do the graybeards who lived it. Or think they did. If it’s not how they played, then it’s how they wish they played. And, with time, it has become how they remember themselves playing, their fuzzy past and obscure present cohering like bad binocular vision.
It is no less true now than it ever was: old-time hockey is disappearing. There are many reasons for this, most of them cultural and economic. The short of it is: in the past fifty-plus years, as hockey grew exponentially around the world, peaceable goalchiks began arriving from the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Western Europe—places where the game’s revanchist grammar didn’t translate. This globalized workforce has sped up the pace and quality of the play to the point where tough guys have had a hard time keeping up. They still enforce, but their pressure-release methods have come to seem more and more atavistic to our otherwise sports-and-violence-saturated public.
This is why today’s hockey leagues—ever after broad appeal and the casual fan’s pocketbook—impose stiff penalties on the instigators of fights. They suspend players for on-ice offenses that used to be settled mano a mano. They dock pay for overt retaliation. They are legislating violence out of the game.
Meaning that all of a sudden, and for the first time, tough guys are being put out of work. The ones lucky enough to have jobs have begun to fight only one another, night in and out, to contest their right to exist. Traditionalists would have you believe that this is the enforcer’s just deserts for fracturing old-time hockey’s unified nature. As the game is now, though, the enforcer also happens to be the last guy left embodying it.
Let’s picture him in a locker room before a game in the minors. He punches into the hard sickle of his left hand, testing the give in his taped wrist. Now—and here especially, in New Haven’s clammy dungeon of a rink—his body feels frangible. Flash-fossilized. Let’s have him spool another half roll around his wrist.
On his and the other plywood benches, teammates touch elbows to knees and hike socks, adjust shin guards. An 18-year-old Albertan, so pale and thin that he appears to be both flesh and light, says, “Colder than a well digger’s ass in here, eh? Just as soon start a brawl in warm-ups so as not to catch cold.” Let’s have our guy think, Bust a bone in your hand and it will never heal right.
He doesn’t look up from his tape, which he’s wrapping now around either side of his right thumb, aligning his knuckles. Our guy should like to say that it’s them he does it for, personally, his brothers. After all, they’re minor-league lifers, just like him. Just like him, they have mouths like tied balloons, puckered and toothless, and running tallies of scar tissue all over. Just like him, they’ll never do better than $700 a week playing ice hockey. They’re just like him, except for the Albertan kid. If he can be kept alive long enough to learn how to skate with his head up, he’ll be on his way to the Show.
Every cheap shot, each subtle disrespect, any advantage unfairly taken—these have to be balanced out.Tweet
Our guy should like to say that he’s happy to intercede for them, but he can’t. Long Island is his eighth professional club and his third in five years. This is a job, same as it ever was. Shit, I’ve had fights with three guys in this locker room, he’ll think. No hard feelings.
He remembers what precipitated them. Dutchie there braked hard in front of my goalie, sprayed ice chips into his eyes, an absolute fucking no-no. Gomer got worked up and said some unfortunate things about Rusty’s wife. The Métis by the coffee urn, he was just tweaking out before a face-off, talking gibberish, making me uncomfortable. So away we went.
His memory is elephantine. It must be; it’s part of the job. He accounts for discrepancy. Every cheap shot, each subtle disrespect, any advantage unfairly taken—these have to be balanced out. This game or the next.
Take New Haven’s Jackie LeClair. He clipped the Albertan kid in the face at the end of their last meeting; now our guy has to demand satisfaction. Everyone knows it. “Don’t you go get mellow on us,” his teammates say with their eyes when they glance at him. “No, I haven’t forgot,” he says with his. “Do it to him,” they conclude, as always, lowering their heads to their gear, “or we’ll find someone who will.”
Our guy’s near done taking close care of his hands. They’re the guarantors of his self-sufficiency, the guns of a gun for hire. He butts them together and is satisfied with the distant crackle of pain in his bones. Because of all the chipped and poorly mended metacarpals in his right, he imagines the worst-case scenario, the one that would spell the end, where he tags some numbskull but has his skin split open like a trash bag with broken china in it.
He forces this thought to the bottom of his mind, stands, taps gloves with his teammates, and tinks down the concrete runway to the rink. The smell’s what you fall in love with, damp and raw, like a box of fresh nails. New Haven are warming up, their wild shots barking against the glass. The couple thousand in attendance are already half in the bag. Our guy can hear every word they call to him, up until his right skate touches ice. Then, he’s as keen as a bird dog in a field.
A cold, gnatty drizzle was riding in on the wind when I returned to Brophy’s farmhouse. He lived here with four elderly women, three of whom were seated with us at the lunch table. The last one couldn’t join, but the pneumatic gulping of her oxygen machine lent her a ghostly presence.
Brophy was next to me, eating a ham sandwich. He had a ruddy, swollen face that looked as though it had continued to annex space long after exceeding its bones’ infrastructure. He chewed while glaring at the woman across from him.
“She says she wants the death penalty, but she doesn’t want it,” this woman was saying, referring to the latest development in the sensational trial of Jodi Arias, who had just been convicted of murdering her ex-boyfriend.
“It certainly wasn’t self-defense,” another added, dragging iceberg lettuce around her plate with her fork. Brophy turned and centered her in his good right eye, rime blue. His left one was half-closed and askance. It looked like the last digit in a broken odometer.
The first woman said, “She snuck up behind him, cut his throat, shot him, and stabbed him—what—twenty-nine times?”
“They should just hang her,” a third woman concluded. She fingered a big wicker crucifix resting on her breastbone. “That’s what they do? Hang them, still?”
I accepted an oatmeal cookie. The grandmother nearest me asked what on earth I could be doing out here. I told her I’d come for Mr. Brophy; he’s a folk hero. She said she doesn’t know about all that. “Though John sure knows how to get under your skin when he wants to, boy.”
Brophy pawed across his mouth. Everyone stopped talking. “I once seen a long drop,” he said. “The head comes off like a champagne cork.” He crumpled his napkin, stood up with a little difficulty, and waved me into his bedroom.
He wanted to get away from the house nurse. “I wasn’t feeling well a little while ago, so she gave me one of those tests, where you got a letter here and then a letter down there, there’s a letter, who knows.” She took his driver’s license away.
“What would you be doing if you had it, your license?” I asked. He sat down heavily in a waffled corduroy recliner aimed at the door.
“I don’t know. Probably nothing. That’s not the point.” He did not put his feet up.
The only hints to his past life were on top of his dresser: three Brophy bobbleheads, all emphasizing his shock of pure white hair. Three lucite stalagmites, from the halls of fame of bush-league shitburgs and naval towns. A black-and-white photo of him in his playing days, hip-checking a guy. (“Ass over teakettle! He got the worst of that one!”) And hanging above it all was a plaque from the double-A Wheeling Nailers, commemorating his thousandth win as a coach. put it in the books! it read.
An NHL playoff game between Detroit and Chicago was about to begin. I flipped on Brophy’s bedside TV and scooted over in a chair. The walls of his small cell were painted Peep yellow. All else he had in there was a framed photo of a chocolate Lab, two twenty-pound dumbbells, snakeskin loafers, and one pill bottle, nonprescription.
The lowing wind sent feelers through the poorly sealed window. When the puck was dropped, Brophy squeezed the end of each armrest. His hands were to other men’s hands as puffed rice is to rice. A player on-screen picked his head up just in time to dodge a big hit, and Brophy went, “Whoa ho ho! He fuckin’ bailed himself out there!” Then, as though a tuning fork had tinged the right resonance and shaken something loose, he inundated me with stories of what his playing days were like.
Our guy’s on the bench. Been on the bench. He plays maybe eight minutes a night. But look at the Albertan. Look at the time and space he’s given. It’s like public skating. Without it, the kid wouldn’t be able to develop the team’s offense. His decisions would be rushed and his perception narrowed by anxiety; he’d play as though looking down a length of pipe. But instead he’s free to create—see how he both moves through and directs the action, like the open eye that pinions a hurricane?—because it’s understood that if he’s touched, there’ll be hell to pay.
So the kid doesn’t worry. But our guy does. The fighting for him started a couple days before. He looked at the schedule and saw New Haven and knew he’d have to go with LeClair, who ate his lunch a month back when they last fought. Anyone who does this work and says he isn’t scared is a liar. Our guy tried going to the movies before tonight’s game, to distract himself, but he couldn’t follow along. He kept imagining LeClair, the way he’d made these faux-scared faces while fighting. A brassy taste flooded his mouth then, something like a kissed ring.
Their last tilt had not been a good one. Our guy was at the end of a rare shift, gassed. LeClair knew this but challenged him anyway, violating one of the game’s implicit rules of conduct, known simply as “the code.” Our guy obliged, though, and LeClair surprised him by pulling to the left and throwing southpaw. Tagged him bad right off the bat, and our guy wondered, Is this it? Is this when I become obsolete?
He was able to hang on. But LeClair had bloodied him, and then he’d done some pro-wrestling hamming for the crowd on his way to the penalty box. Trotted like a dog just done pissing.
Now, sitting on the bench, it’s as though our guy is back in social studies, looking at the clock, knowing the bully’s waiting for him by the monkey bars.
He never did make it through high school. He played major-junior hockey instead, spent his teens crisscrossing the Canadian prairie on thousand-mile bus rides. That first year, he was forced to ride in back, next to the piss hole. This gap in the floorboard that screamed freezing air and reached for my overnight bag with yellow tentacles. He was allowed to sit away from it once he had his first fight.
It went down like this: Coach had seen just about enough of our guy—a gangling punk with feet slow as Christmas—try and fail to be “Rocket” Richard out there. So one scrimmage the old bastard sends out someone to test him. Kim Something, our guy’s height. But whereas our guy would’ve had to put kettle bells in his pants pockets to come in at 175, Kim Something went 200, easy. He had a five o’clock shadow.
“Wanna go?” Kim Something asked.
This was all brand-new to our guy. He’d never been in a fight before. And not just a scrap during a hockey game—he’d never been in a fight, period. The world might not be ready for the news, but our guy had been a prolific goal scorer in his bantam and midget leagues. Certainly nothing of Wayne Gretzky proportions. Hockey Night in Canada never came knocking on my old man’s door. But he’d topped points columns. He’d been scouted for major-junior.
Yet here he was in practice in godforsaken Swift Current with a grown man in his face, shaking free of his gloves. Our guy just reacted. I was too scared to be a coward. He reached out with his left hand and grabbed Kim Something’s jersey. He looked at his right hand, and there it was, pistoning back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, as though a switch’d been flipped. Before he realized he was in a fight, it was over. Kim Something was down, holding in his face. I knew right then I was in for it.
He’d have much rather just played hockey. Contributed with goals or assists. It was beyond me why anyone would want to take themselves out of the game over a silly thing like a fight. But he had a job on the team, and there were plenty of other guys lined up to fill the role if he didn’t. He made sure Coach never had to say to him, “Go and fix that sonofabitch.” He didn’t need to be told what he had to do to get on in the game. He went out and he fought when he knew it was warranted.
Was it demeaning? Even if it was, our guy refused to let shame stop him. The way he figured it, he couldn’t start to think he was a thing to them. A thing draped in colors and paraded around, like some communist missile. You start worrying that you’re just a goon, and then you find yourself trying to prove you don’t deserve that characterization. You end up going from crusher to rusher to usher. And, anyway, fighting made our guy a celebrity. Crowd roars just as loud for a fight as they do a goal.
When he got his first professional contract at 20, it occurred to our guy that he could earn a living playing the game he loved. If he did his work, if he didn’t let a lot of irrelevance creep into his thinking, he could make a good life for himself and a family. He could help people he wanted to help; he could have the freedom to make choices. And the price? If the price was getting tenderized now and again, so be it. It’d’ve been nice to win those freedoms the way the kid did, but that wasn’t up to me. He was just another guy whose one opportunity had come bound up with obligation, like the Army ads say.
“The game now is easier to play,” Brophy said, eyes on the TV. “Everybody’s more skilled, and they skate better, sure, but that’s because they’re allowed to. Nobody hits anybody anymore. You can be any pretty princess you want when there’s nobody out there’ll take you to task.”
“How would Sidney Crosby do back in the Eastern League?” I asked.
“Who could fuckin’ say?” The wind and deathly metronome of the oxygen machine combined in eerie threnody. “Guys like him and Gretzky, though. Gretzky was such a little shit. A whiny little shit. When I coached against him, he goes—” Here Brophy rubbed limp-wristed hands against his eyes and said in an effeminate voice, “‘You guys don’t deserve to hit me. You guys can’t hit me.’
“We can’t hit you? OK. Here’s a bucket to cry in.”
In his playing days, Brophy’s post-game ritual sometimes included nights spent on the bathroom tile, prone and puking. His off-season regimen was manufacturing hangars in Labrador and working high steel on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Opposing teams would sign guys away from their day jobs just to have them go after Brophy on the weekends. Amateur boxing champions, barroom heroes—he beat them so badly that some nights, the riot police had to be called in to the arena. Some nights were worse: after one game in Connecticut, the apocrypha goes, a fan of the rival club climbed the rink’s fire escape, peered through a window that looked into the locker room, saw Brophy in the shower, aimed a Saturday-night special at him, and fired. The bullet ricocheted around the room before spinning to rest at Brophy’s dripping feet. Some say he laughed.
All in all, Brophy played for twenty-two years, never reaching higher than the double-A leagues two rungs below the NHL. He wound up his playing career in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, living out of a closet in an apartment he shared with teenage teammates. “I just wanted to play as long as humanly possible,” he told me. “Fighting made it twice as good, and I could do it. I vowed that I’d never lose my job to another. I didn’t.”
When he was done playing, he started coaching. He coached his way through several minor leagues—the Southern, Central, American, North American, World—imparting his same means of survival onto his players. He taught them that fighting was about minimizing weaknesses, and hockey about never showing them. He wanted to make sure his boys were prepared for the sport as he’d known it, so he instilled in them a slow habituation to pain, a numbness to violence.
“Don’t consider this a threat, boys,” he used to say, “but I’m coming after each one of you.” He dared them to hit back. He saved his most hateful language for anyone who refused a fight. “Look at that Charlie Bourgeois!” he’d say. “Turtling up like a pussy!”
His playing ability never got him to the NHL, but he did coach his way there for a few seasons in the late ’80s. Toronto, the richest club in the league, thought its roster had become complacent, spoiled, so they brought in Brophy to straighten them out. His motivational tactics worked long enough for the team to make the division finals. Soon after that, though, they turned on him. “We’d all like to go and shoot him between the eyes,” one of them said. Years later, reinterred in the minors, Brophy discovered that all of his young wards had come to feel the same way. No longer able to make himself understood, he quit the sport.
What was the greatest moment in his lifetime of hockey? “The hell kind of question is that?” What was the first thing that just came to mind? “This time in Clinton, New York, when Don Perry was beating the fuck out of this Charlie Bourgeois, and a fan jumped on the ice and ran for him. I laid as nice a hit on him as you could’ve asked for.”
During a long commercial break, one of the other residents shuffled in, joggling a tray of hard caramels in one hand and a shot glass full of pills in the other. “Oh, please, you’ve got to put him in the Casket,” she said, referring, thankfully, to the local rag.
“I said I’d get them,” Brophy told the woman, pointing to the shot glass.
“I’ve tried to get my children to tell the editors, ‘Make Brophy famous!’” she said to me. “Take his picture. Promise me you’ll take his picture.”
I did as she asked with my cell phone. Brophy looked from me to her with pursed purple lips.
He stirred the air with his shot glass, smiled. The TV announcer (whom Brophy once coached) interjected: “Let’s watch that contact to the head!” Brophy took his medicine. Then he said to the two of us, “Oh, yes, let’s.”
Our guy’s in a corner of the rink, in a one-sided fight. His hands have shed their gloves and are flying about the face of some plugger like new moths around a sodium lamp. Everyone else on the ice has found a partner to hold on to while they watch our guy get his. He’s hitting mostly forearms and elbows; the plugger is hugging his face and sinking to his knees.
Moments earlier, the Albertan kid had been handling the puck with his head down when this nobody here took a run at him. The kid sensed the hit at the last moment and sidestepped it, but the plugger stuck out his right leg and knee-on-kneed him. It’s a miracle nothing snapped.
Our guy had just jumped onto the ice as part of a line change. He saw the kid spin down, writhing, and he didn’t need to look for the puck or listen for a whistle. Heard a piercing sound, like when regularly scheduled programming’s interrupted.
“Pull that shit again, fish,” he says. Manhandle isn’t the term for what he’s doing. It’s something more desperate, the way he’s clutching and yanking and pawing at him—our guy is ragdolling his antagonist.
He’s easing up on punches to the skull because the plugger’s got a helmet on. Things’re dangerous; things’ll pop a knuckle. Uppercuts, however, he’s wheeling with abandon.
Did the plugger mean to do it? Does it matter?
Our guy keeps throwing until an official steps in. On the way to the penalty box, this official asks him no questions as to why. No one ever has, or will.
Shortly after, the Albertan kid does score, and his goal’s a thing to behold. He glides from behind his own net, calls to the man with the puck, takes his pass in stride; then he blows past the first forechecker, cuts inside on the next, crosses the blue line and powers through a heavy slash—he can stay upright when he wants to, the fucking gamesman; then he gets the right-side defenseman to go fishing on a deke, then he fakes to the backhand before cutting forehand and sliding the puck between the goalie’s legs—then he punctuates it all with a war whoop and a punch to the glass. Our guy is on his feet, thinking, A little selfish, maybe.
And watching from the box as the kid’s mobbed by teammates. Given affectionate face-washes and attaboys. The child beaming, at home in his body as only one whose body is not his job can be. Our guy catches himself smiling at the thought of looking the other way, spreading the evening paper in front of his face, letting the other team’s boys have at him.
Brophy didn’t want to finish watching our game. Instead, we bundled up against the wind and went outside with Lady, the home’s communal golden retriever. The late-spring landscape was vibrantly green, the tint of inexperience.
“You suffer a lot of concussions in your career?” I asked.
“I should fucking say so.” He knocked a knuckle against the mantle of his skull. This was the thick head, I’d heard, that not once but twice was ejected through windshields (Brophy having truck with neither man nor belted seat). That was such a reliable weapon that it was not unusual to see Brophy in the box shunking incisors out of his forehead the way Civil War soldiers used to do Minié balls. He rapped this head, and if a sound was made, I didn’t hear it.
We ambled along a post-and-rail fence some stallions were grazing behind. “Jesus, look at them,” Brophy exclaimed. “Jesus Christ, they’re beautiful. You know who’s in shape? Waists like this.”
I wondered aloud if his thick skull was the reason he wasn’t susceptible to all that scrambled-brain shit. “I don’t know.” Wasn’t he ever scared about what comes next? “I don’t lose any sleep over it. I might not win it, but I sure won’t lose.”
He chuckled, the sound of a single stone plinking down a well. “Are we in a prescription-drug ad? You want me to talk to my doctor about pills for my guy?” In the daylight, I could see the faint blue webbing of burst vessels in his cheeks. He said, “Look, you could die on the bench, but you could not die on the ice. You crawled to the bench. Your own players would shanghai you if you were out there rolling around. No, you crawled. And I made lots of ’em crawl. But they made the goddamned bench.
“They say now that they’re addicted?” Brophy went on. “I coached Dave Semenko. Piece of shit. Worthless. Worthless alcohol addict. Once, he missed a home game. A HOME GAME. I went into his room, found him with, I don’t know, bottles of wine everywhere. He said he needed help. Help. You drink—you’re a hockey player, of course you drink. But then you quit when you quit.”
After a moment, I said, “That sounds about as feasible as squeezing it off mid-pee.”
Brophy dropped a trembling hand onto Lady’s head, letting it do the petting the way an electric mixer beats an egg. Then he bowed once, twice, three times to relieve the tightness in his lower back, and added, “I never considered the fact that anything could keep me from doing my job.”
It’s late, and our guy’s team is down a goal and looking flat. He’s on the bench with his elbow over the lip of the boards, effervescent with adrenaline. He knows what’s coming. The couple thousand in attendance know what’s coming.
New Haven changes lines on the fly—out comes LeClair. Now our guy’s like a rocket about to lift off. Shaking from the inside out. He’s anticipating the moment he’ll be released from gravity, his body falling away like a delivery booster. He gets a pat on the back from Coach. Over the boards he goes.
The arena’s ringing palpably, an expectant tinnitus. The tough guys are rounding the ice, a little behind the play. People stand and point.
He and our guy toss sticks and gloves well clear at center ice. Being both righties, they circle counterclockwise.Tweet
Our guy glides up behind LeClair. He runs the toe of his stick’s blade overlong his head, ear to ear. “Now or never,” he says. LeClair pivots into a backward skate, spits, and smiles.
He has an inch or two on our guy, as well as a shovel chin and a forehead lined deeply from squinching while punching. His hairline is in deep retreat, so he’s shaved his round skull clean. He looks, like most bullies, obtuse.
He and our guy toss sticks and gloves well clear at center ice. Being both righties, they circle counterclockwise. They hold their left hands out and open in front of them, snatching at the air as if after a fly. LeClair lunges, and because of his extra reach is able to grab our guy’s jersey where it rests over his right shoulder. He’s bringing back his fist for a punch when our guy reaches out and takes hold of the fabric around LeClair’s right elbow. Our guy tries to deflect LeClair’s right, but it comes in over our guy’s left arm and lands one on the crown of his head. LeClair throws a few more glancing blows while our guy attempts to shake his right arm free.
Neither man is angry. They are, in fact, in an almost ecstatic state, agape, as though finally able to relieve themselves.
Our guy’s trying to land rights, but whenever he throws one, LeClair pushes his own jersey-gripping hand deeper into our guy’s shoulder, tethering his range. Now LeClair is popping our guy in the jaw with a few rabbit punches delivered by that jersey-gripping left hand. He rears back as if to come with another overhand right, but instead slides underneath our guy’s guard and shivers him with an uppercut.
A male chorus is howling around them. Teammates, coaches, fans, fathers, and sons—each of us is singing his release. We’re urging or critiquing a fighter, cheering or hissing, pushing him to give more of himself or ridiculing him if we think he’s holding back. We’re a bizarro panopticon, thousands of guards overlooking our captive.
It’s us our guy has to bend and comply to; we who hold his life in our hot little hands. We each think meanly of ourselves and how we’ve shaped up in the eyes of one another, so we have our guy play the part that we decided was meant for us.
We watch him, weigh him, judge him—we made him! He’s a tough guy, but he’s a tough guy only so long as we say he is. We conferred his status; we’ll take it away if he fucks up once.
Together, we are a petulant god, as vindictive as a sewing circle. And we will cut out heart after heart until we get our perfect sacrifice.
Our guy butts his lowered head into LeClair, causing him to lose his grip on our guy’s right arm. They seize each other around the collar. They open up.
They turn away their faces and reel off punch after punch as though burning through a currency about to go defunct. They hold one another upright, counterbalanced, and spin with blows. They are gusto, vigor, and virility, or else they’re the recurrent problem of civilization. They beat on all the more fiercely because, in another world, they might’ve been friends.
With each hit, their fists bloat and soften, sponge. It’s been forty-five seconds; they’re almost empty. No clear winner, they try now to wrench each other off their feet, style points going to the guy landing on top. They torque. They make awful strangled noises, hnnnghh!s. They’re forehead to forehead, swapping perspiration. Our guy watches as one and then another drop of blood blots the ice. He doesn’t know if it’s he or LeClair who was cut in the punch-up. They spin one last time, skate blades spraying red shavings. Then the linesman steps between them, saying, “That’s it, boys! You’re done.”
Our guy glides arm in arm with the official. From behind him comes the sound of both teams drumming the boards with their sticks, thunderous recognition. He doesn’t need to look to know the kid is one of them, nodding as he does so. If intoxication means going too fast from feeling worthless to worthy—so be it. Everything else might go to shit, but this is something I can rely on. He feels relief wash over him like helicoptered water dropped on a wildfire.
And we just clap and holler, happy to have seen it played out. The official closes the door on our guy. Sealed in the box, he does whatever a rung bell does after the sound fades.
A lovely young nursing student from Uganda came and prepared meatballs, steamed vegetables, and perfect scoops of whipped potatoes for dinner.
“You get drunk again last night?” Brophy asked, half-chewed olio in his open mouth. She looked seriously flustered. Then he added, “Na, I’m just funning.” Under everything was the absent respirator’s puncture/sibilance/gasp/puncture.
A halo-bald Irishwoman in a tartan skirt, tartan blazer, and tartan bib sat next to Brophy and told indecipherable but really ribald-seeming jokes. Everyone but him guessed politely at her punch lines. (“Tea?” “Brie?” “Who took high tea?” “No, we don’t have any Hi-C.” “Bees??”)
Then the others chatted hopefully about a Jodi Arias execution while I watched Brophy struggle to feed himself. He could scoop the food just fine. But the nearer to his face he lifted his spoon, the higher the frequency of the tremors in his hand. Again and again he’d scoop some succotash, and again and again it would shake free on the way to his mouth. I could see the rage trapped in his dead eye, all pupil and a thin ring of iris, this black-and-blue Saturn. On the cheek below it was a keloidal blossom from who knows what. A bite, probably. Looked like a cauterized kiss.
“You really want to know why those guys offed themselves?” Brophy asked, putting down his spoon. “It’s because of now. They came up one way. They were told that they were great scorers, they got trophies and mentions in the newspaper. All that bullshit. Maybe it was true, to some extent. But then it turns out that to get to the next level they had to change. Lower expectations. Play their part. They had to stop with the Gretzky shit and fight. They thought they’d make it as Charlie Bourgeois!
“So they do it, but they don’t like it. But they still have to do it. And they try to cope. Tell you the truth, they’d be better off if they’d grown up with it, instead of having to change. Nobody plans for being a fighter anymore.”
After dinner, we watched a horse race on TV. I was slow in leaving, but when I did say goodbye, I said, “Mr. Brophy, you’re a legend.” What I meant was, it’s a shame you’ll disappear from life before you can see yourself become a myth.
He said, “How I saw it, I fought, or I disappeared. And if I wasn’t playing hockey, I knew I was going to die.” Then he smiled with his whole face, leading with his chin.