As told to: Josh KlokeBelieve it or not I started playing hockey when I was 10, which was late. Kids start playing organized hockey at five sometimes. My Dad had played at Boston University, then he played after the war in Europe. I grew up just outside of Boston. At 10 years old I was tall and lanky and all these kids I was playing with had been playing for years. They could skate and stop much better than I could. And I wanted to quit, believe it or not. But I didn’t want to let my Dad down.
I kept with it and started to surpass the other kids. I grew into my size and it got to the point where I was a pretty good player. After high school I went to Northeastern but I wasn’t good enough to play on the Varsity team, according to Fernie Flaman. He was the Coach and a former Boston Bruin. So I left. I ended up in Canada with the Sherbrooke Castors of the Quebec Major Junior league. I liked to check and I liked the physical aspect of the game. I hadn’t had many fights up until that point. When I got to Sherbrooke they needed an enforcer so I became the designated enforcer. It was a tough league but I did what was asked of me. My coach told me that if I skated hard and worked hard he’d get me a tryout in the International League.
I made it to the Saginaw Gears and I became a heavyweight, though I never saw myself as that. But I was a left-handed fighter. During that time I was visited by Gerry McNamara, who was a scout with the Leafs. They invited me to training camp in 1974-75. They liked what they saw and signed me to a three-year deal. I then went to Oklahoma City who was their top farm team. I tore that league up a bit as well. During that time the Broad Street Bullies were intimidating everyone so the Leafs felt it was time I make an appearance. I started a bench-clearing brawl right away. I had a two-minute shift and got about 40 minutes in penalties. That was in Philadelphia. As I was going to get on the bus afterwards, Harold Ballard and King Clancy were standing there and Ballard says “Where’s your stuff?” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. He said my car and clothes and that. I told him it was in Oklahoma and he said “Go get it. You’re here for good.” That was the beginning of my tenure with the Leafs.
My dream was to always play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I saw that movie Face-Off (1971) and I thought “This is great. I want to play for the Leafs.” Playing in Canada was a lot different than playing in the States in terms of what was expected. I had to learn very quick and adapt my game. Being an enforcer is not an easy role by any means. It’s quite difficult. Instead of trying to plan how to score a few goals, you’re thinking about who you’re going to fight. These were big guys, they were men. I wanted to work on my game though. Unfortunately some coaches saw me only as an enforcer. Playing junior in Canada changed a lot about my game. When I got to the Central Hockey League, good coaching was very advantageous.
Dave Schultz was a force to be reckoned with. I knew I was going to fight him and he was very skilled at what he did. I held my own with him. I fought Don Saleski, Dennis Polonich – who was a real instigator – a tough individual. One of the toughest fights I had was with Stan Jonathan of the Boston Bruins. He was one of the toughest guys in the league. He had just ended Pierre Bouchard’s career in a fight. Jonathan really took him apart. I had to go to Boston and play in front of my family and friends and I remember replaying that fight in my head before the game. I knew I was going to fight, I just didn’t know who. I knew I couldn’t lose or I could never come home again. I ended up in a real toe-to-toe fight and I think I won. It gave me some more recognition and credibility.
When you’re young, you feel invincible. You think you can do whatever you want to do and nothing will bother you.
When you’re young, you feel invincible. You think you can do whatever you want and nothing will bother you. I sustained more injuries than most players. But at that age you never think about the ramifications of after the game. I remember getting a few headshots, going to the bench, and the trainer would talk to you and you’d be in a fog. You’d get a little smelling salt, take a bit of a rest but there was still so much peer pressure. You didn’t want to go to the locker room and have the guys be on you about not playing. You did the best you could. You probably thought you were playing great but that headshot probably caused you to not play as well as you could. I remember a lot of headaches, and to this day I still do.
There were times when I was afraid to go to sleep. Head trauma was very serious but we didn’t have the medical staff onboard to provide us with the information we needed. I’ve talked to many players who remember getting hit real hard and the team would go to the next game. The coach would tell them to get to the next game and they would have no recollection of playing that next game. The long-term effects that we really didn’t know about have all come to fruition now. I’ve had 17 surgeries, 10-plus concussions, and I pay the price every day.
Hopefully the league’s help will address that.
The NHL alumni is just a clique and we can forget about that. It’s just 40 guys who are taken care of and the rest of us don’t matter. A lot of guys feel that way.
There’s a false sense of security when you’re playing. You’re making money and you think everything’s always going to be OK. But the average span of a professional athlete in any sport is 4.2 years. That’s not a long time. So when you’re finished, someone just opens the door and says “Thanks for your time, here’s the real world.” But all you’ve ever done is play hockey. Most of us had basic education. It was an awful transition for me. For two years I went through hell. I was broke, no money, and nothing to fall back on with respect to education. For two years it was the worst period in my life after being so happy and grateful for being able to play the greatest sport in the world. And then you find yourself out on Front St. It’s awful.
I’m trying to start a website to help former players from the 70’s and 80’s who got shafted if you will, with respect to pensions, and obviously the medical issues that are ongoing with concussions and the lack of a healthcare plan for us. I started this Facebook page called Dignity After Hockey. There’s former players who are members and we talk about the issues of the day that are bothering us that need to be addressed. That keeps me fairly busy.
JOSH KLOKE is a writer from Toronto (VICE sports, NOW magazine) whose first book, “Escape is at Hand” documented a personal history with the Tragically Hip band.
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One thought on “THE PRICE OF PLAYING”
Awesome article Kurt