As I sat on the bench, breathing heavily through my cage, I knew that my next shift would bring the dozens of fans at the game to their feet. The $7 that they shelled out for their ticket was about to be worthwhile.
Most players track their goals and assists to account for their production. Counting to three could take all season, so instead I tallied my fights. Playing in the Metro Toronto Hockey League (MTHL), now named the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), I was an undersized enforcer, an ineffective goon on the ice.
My minor hockey career was predictable. I had million dollar legs and ten cent hands, good enough to play me on the fourth line. Clever coaches realized that my greatest assets were not going to help their team get on the scoreboard but that I could contribute in different ways. I became accustomed to what now seems quite abnormal. I had the head coach tap me on the shoulder, get down on my level and express his desire for my next shift. All he’d have to say was "15". I knew I had my orders. Soon I would be hopping the bench and squaring up with number 15 because he somehow wronged our squad. Inevitably, the fight would end with him standing over me, proud of his victory. Thanks to my glass jaw, I lost nearly every bout.
At a time where fighting in minor hockey meant being removed for a game and suspended, referees were often lenient. Being involved in a fight meant that the combatants would serve a suspension for the total number of games that matched with the sum of their fights that season. The first fight got a player a single game, the second brought two, the third - three, and so on. Officials knew this, so instead of assessing a five-minute major for dropping the mitts, we were usually just ejected.
At the time, I was proud to be in the mix of every on-ice fracas. My game had purpose and I was lauded by my teammates for always having their backs. In retrospect, I was just a part of a broken culture. Opponents would never back down from the challenge to scrap due to the perceived ideology that masculinity means being willing to lose a tooth or risk concussion (something no one ever considered) for the good of the team.
That same culture leaked into the stands. We watched as those in attendance got into verbal arguments and on one occasion, a multi-parent brawl. The smell of testosterone in the rink was as prevalent as the stale popcorn.
My hockey career followed the same path as many before me. After graduating from minor league puck, I found myself in a beer league with others who fell extraordinarily short of their NHL dream. When challenged, I had the occasional fight. Those I won.
Tension rises high in the sport but I eventually learned that it was ridiculous to stand toe to toe with another man to punch each other in the face. Years ago, my final altercation ended when I pulled the jersey of my opponent over his head, and popped him in the nose. This time, not with a fist but my pointer finger, while I loudly said, "boop". I gave him the toddler treatment and then skated away. For me, this was the equivalent of going out on top.
Hockey has changed. Minor league officials are no longer taught or practice how to break up fights at their re-certification clinics. The removal of a helmet automatically carries a gross misconduct penalty and a multiple game suspension. A player is not likely to have repeat offences in a season and most will never find themselves with their gloves on the ice unless they’re hoisting a trophy. The sport has come a long way, for the better. For those who say that fighting is an essential part of the game, they need to get their noses booped.