Mick Vukota:


As told to: Dave Bidini

I left home at sixteen to play in North Battleford, then had a 3 game try out with Winnipeg Warriors, whose coach was Graham James. Fortunately for me, he hated me. After junior in Spokane, I slipped through the cracks in the late rounds; guys I’d fought like Craig Berube and Todd Ewen were drafted instead of me. One night I was at a bar where I used to bounce, and saw Joey Kocur sitting around (Joey had bounced there, too). I told him I was going to Capitals camp, and got excited: “You got drafted?” I told him I hadn’t, but was going anyway. I picked his brain and he told me what to do. “When you get there,” he said, “there’ll be a guy named Dwight Scofield. He’s huge and tough. You’ll have to fight him.” I asked him how he thought I’d do and he said, “Oh, he’ll kick the shit out of you. But don’t stop. Fight him again. Fight him in the dressing room and fight him in the shower and fight him in the hallway.”

By my count, that was five beatings, and I said that to Joey, but he told me, “Don’t worry, they’ll know your name. You’ll get on their radar.” I only ended up fighting him once, but a few days later we were warming up during a rookie game and I guy from the other side skated over the red line. I went the length of the ice and shot the puck at the goalie in the other team’s net and a huge brawl started. The Caps’ head coach Bryan Murray was there and, after, he came down and said, “Who are you?” I told him and he said, “Lemme guess, Western League right?” I told him he was right and he broke into this huge smile: “I knew it! The guy from the other team skated on your side, right?” I nodded. “I knew it!” he said again. I didn’t stick with the Caps, but Joey was right. I was noticed and the next year I signed with the Islanders.

I fought the first night I was called up. Dave “Tiger” Williams and I lined up together and he tapped my shinpads: “Wanna go kid?” We were winning 3-2 and I couldn’t believe that my first fight was going to be with Tiger. I was thinking about what my friends and family at home were going to think; how awesome it was going to be. As soon as the linesman twitched his fingers, I sold out– gloves, helmet, stick, everything– but Tiger skated away.

As I was picking up my stick, I could hear the crowd roar: he’d gone in and scored to tie the game. After the game, I went to the bus and everybody’s bag had been loaded into the bay, excep mine. I was sent down, and I thought was it. I told myself, “Well, at least you got to play one game in the show.” But the Islanders’ coach was Terry Simpson, another Western league guy, and he brought me up at the trade deadline.

As soon as the linesman twitched his fingers, I sold out– gloves, helmet, stick, everything– but Tiger skated away. As I was picking up my stick, I could hear the crowd roar: he’d gone in and scored to tie the game.

There’s a bond among fighters because we all have a fear of failure. Most fighters, off the ice, are the nicest guys because of this very real weakness that we have to stare down and try and face, but sometimes, cannot. We have a realization of failing that never leaves us, and it’s why a lot of guys drink or self-medicate. When fighters fail, we fail hard: knocked out in front of thousands of people and on tv all around the world, played over and over on the highlight reel. Guys make mistakes all game long, but when we fuck up, we fuck up huge. And sometimes that can come in the form of turning a guy down for a fight, which happens a lot these days. You’re exposed and you have to live with it. Sometimes a fight means your career is over. Almost no one has come back after being knocked out.

We were up 3-1 going into the third period  against Pittsburgh in Game 7 in the quarter finals in 1993. But the Penguins– with Lemeiux and Jagr, having just won two Cups– scored twice to force overtime. Coming into the dressing room, everybody’s head was down, even guys like Steve Thomas. A few moments before the overtime began, I realized why Al Arbour had dressed me for the game. I stood up and I kicked it over, telling the guys that, at the beginning of the year, we would have killed to be tied with the champs going into OT of Game 7. You could feel the room change, and I remember thinking that all of the bus rides and endless card games and nothing games were to get to this moment. When we won, the faces of the guys were unlike anything I’d seen before: joy, relief, defiance. In the dressing room, Al Arbour, who never ever looked down on me, came into the room and pulled me to my feet with a hug. It felt so good.

Darius Kaparitis was on our team. He was Lithuanian, not Russian, which guys like Yashin and Malakhov didn’t let him forget. I loved Kaspar, but we had our conflicts. One night before going into Philly, I told him that Dave Brown (the enforcer) would probably only get one shift, and suggested he leave him alone and not wake him up. On the first shift, Kaspar hipchecked him in front of our bench, his ankles windmilling in the air. I called him out in the dressing room and he got right in my face: “Nobody tells me who to hit.” Things evened up a few years later, though, when we went to a men’s wear store in Philly, where the team was given a gift card to buy suits. Kaspar was moaning that he only wore Versace– the place only sold Hugo Boss men’s wear– and next day, we nailed his shoes to the dressing room floor. Kaspar freaked out. His shoes had cost him 1000 dollars.



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