With one year left on my contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, there was no question I had to fight to keep my job, literally. I had over 400 career games and 1,200 penalty minutes, yet it meant absolutely nothing. With Cliff Fletcher out as general manager, and Ken Dryden taking over as president, and Mike Smith as associate GM, I would have to prove myself all over again, just like back when I was a rookie at training camp with the Flyers twelve years earlier. That night, we had a preseason game in New York and I knew I was going to have to fight. It was September 15, 1997.
They like to tell you the slate is clean for every player starting training camp, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth for me. Leafs management put the bug in Tie Domi’s ear that they wanted to see more toughness out of me. Tie gave me the heads-up just before we embarked on the preseason games. GMs have a tendency to forget your contributions in the past and, more importantly, they don’t really give a damn. “What have you done for me lately?” is really all that matters to them. That part of the game will never change.
The major off-season roster changes that brought the Leafs Derek King and Kris King (no relation) made that abundantly clear. Kris and I had similar tough player reputations. I knew at this training camp I wasn’t just fighting for my job with the Leafs: I was fighting to prove to the rest of the league that I could still get the job done, that I still had value as a role-player.
This training camp could play out in a number of ways. The season before I had played only 35 games. I missed half the season with a spiral fracture I suffered in a fight with the Buffalo Sabres’ Matthew Barnaby, which set me back in the eyes of management. So this preseason game would set the tone for my hockey future. Would I make the season-opening roster? Could I be traded, waived, or demoted to the minors? It wasn’t only about surviving training camp; it was about saving my career.
Like so many other nights that I fought—over a hundred—I tried not to overthink. Get the job done. It became a mantra of sorts. Don’t overthink. Get the job done. Don’t overthink. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Some enforcers in the NHL had so much anxiety that they couldn’t sleep the night before a game. The anticipation was intense and some resorted to alcohol or sleeping pills. For me it was the opposite. I had to be in control of my mind. That’s why I never did drugs. I was quite comfortable with my ability to control alcohol generally, but with drugs I was never willing to take that chance.
When I broke into the league, I had never seen players throwing up before a game. If there’s anything that can deflate a dressing room full of testosterone, it’s the sound of a guy puking in the garbage can. In this way, tough guy Neil Sheehy is one of the players I remember most. When I played with him in Washington, Neil fought some big boys. I watched him on some occasions and his way of dealing with nerves was through his stomach. Maybe it had something to do with his Battle of Alberta rivalry against Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers in the eighties. Facing Dave Semenko, Marty McSorley, and Kevin McClelland would be enough to make anyone sick. Believe it or not, for some players getting sick before a fight became so commonplace that it was actually routine. There is no denying the brain-gut connection. Tough guys did whatever it took to help alleviate their nerves. Who am I to ever question that? But I could never comprehend being that affected before competition. Maybe it was my saving grace. Maybe it was my demise.
My routine that night before the exhibition game was the same as usual. I’m not overly superstitious, but my pregame routine was similar from one game to the next. I arrived at the rink at the same time, around 4:45 p.m. I taped my sticks, and then put my equipment on in the same order, all prior to warm-up. I wanted to let my instincts take over from there. Get the job done. Don’t overthink. I’d keep telling myself this before heading onto the ice for the first period.
I always knew I could lose a fight, end up with a black eye, maybe stitches. Or a long shot: maybe a broken bone. But never could I have imagined that just a few short minutes into the game, my career would end.