Quesnel, British Columbia 1991–93
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Welcome to the Wild West
Quesnel is a small mill town smack dab in the middle of British Columbia — everything above the Okanagan is considered northern BC. I had been brought out west by the Tri-City Americans, who wanted to make me their first-round selection that year. I had to actually move to western Canada in order to be eligible for the WHL draft, as I had played all my minor hockey in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland.
I was really nervous. My father, as I said, had played pro hockey, and I put all my trust in him because this was a big move and I was too young to really know much about it. On the plane I remember him saying that it was up to me, I could bail on this idea at any time and he would support me. Still, he said that he had seen and played a lot of hockey, and in his opinion I was a bona fide NHL prospect (being 6 feet tall and 180 pounds at 14 didn't hurt). Another point he made was that I had to do my best to fit in once we got to Quesnel. These guys were older, so I had to be ready to grow up and mature a little faster than the kids I had been hanging with to this point, who were back in Newfoundland, starting grade nine. This meant a lot of changes — on and off the ice. On the ice, the biggest challenge was the size and physicality. I had come from peewee the year before, where there was no hitting, let alone fighting. This was a league for big boys, Dad said, and it would be easier to get respect if I didn't show signs of weakness. Off the ice the differences were obvious between a kid my age and these dudes, so I had to be ready to mature quickly!
Now, I don't want to make it seem like I was a saint as an early teen, because I wasn't. A few of my buddies — Gary "the Shark" Clarke, Mike "Smitty" Smith, and Jeremy "Taz" Charles — and I were into mischief here and there. We'd often put Vaseline and pepper on our faces and pull a hat down over our heads in order to give the impression we were old enough to be in the bar, and go to strip clubs to see naked women; we would collect beer bottles "for our minor hockey team" and spend the money on porn mags and pellet guns; we'd buy eggs and throw them at our buddies' houses ... things like that. We bent the rules and had fun, but I was a good student and a decent fella.
But now my maturation had to accelerate — and it wasn't easy for a while. The whole first year was eye-opening and unforgettable. Girls, booze, parties, sexual frustration, acne — I had to deal with all this on top of beginning high school in a foreign place!
The first few days were tough, and I remember it being very obvious that I was nervous and awkward, although my actual play on the ice was average in relation to the other guys — and for a 14-year-old that was more than you could ask for. Camp was going well and now it was time for the first exhibition game, which was only a big deal to one person in the building — me. The league — the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League — had a reputation as one of the toughest junior circuits in Canada. Quesnel is a blue-collar town; many fans came to see the fights and hits more than anything else. If the team won, it was a bonus. By the way, I don't consider this a bad thing. I still have a lot of friends there and visit frequently. Good people, good values. But don't piss anyone off, or it's go time. I learned a lot in that small town, and I think it helped shape my character.
It was game day, and it was time to eat our pre-game meal. For hockey players, a game day usually consists of a skate in the morning, pre-game meal at around noon, a nap, and off to the rink by 5 for a 7 p.m. game. This was the first time I'd perform that game day routine, and I remember it vividly.
Things were a little sketchy from the get-go. I remember trying to be funny, to gain acceptance from the older, more experienced guys. I was still getting to know them, though, and it was hard for me to differentiate the leaders, the selfish, the nerds, and so forth. To me, they were all to be looked up to because of nothing more than age.
You Wanna Go, Kid?
I remember my hands sweating, which hardly ever happens — I wanted to be accepted, plain and simple. I wanted to be able to relax and until I hung out a little and actually played a game, I knew that wouldn't happen. I met up with a few of the guys for brunch in the early afternoon, but my anxiousness was obvious. When the waiter came to take our orders, he announced the specials. At the end of his spiel, he said, "Oh yeah, and we have any breakfast, anytime." Trying to impress by using a little wit, I answered back: "In that case, I am gonna go with an Egg McMuffin and some Denny's pancakes during the Ice Age."
Everyone froze, and the waiter challenged me to a fight, believe it or not. Had I not been with my teammates, I was in for a beat-down for sure! Funny thing is, when I got to the rink and retold the story, they all laughed and thought it was a great comeback, but confessed to not understanding me at the time because of my Newfoundland accent, which made sense. I had a thick one back then. That was another obstacle I sometimes forget about while reminiscing. Even though we all spoke English, there was a little bit of a language barrier.
We were playing the Williams Lake Mustangs, and before the game the guys made me feel as comfortable as possible. Ron Coleman, our coach at the time, put me in the starting lineup. The building was full ... it was my first game ... everyone was staring at the flag during the singing of the national anthem ... starting lineups were announced ... the referee waved at both goalies ... it was time for puck drop! Breathing in and finally managing a smile and sigh of relief that the waiting was finally over, I got set for the opening faceoff.
Well, I should have expected the unexpected, because apparently a Williams Lake player who shall remain nameless was ready to teach me a lesson. He cross-checked me in the face without hesitation and dropped his gloves before I could say "Nintendo," and I went down. I was caught off guard, and when I got up, everyone was goin' at it. Our defencemen were skating at the Williams Lake bench. My linemates Chris Spencer and Dave Standing — two great lads who would later deal with anyone who dared look at me the wrong way — were goin' toe to toe, old-school style, and as I looked up from my "turtle" position I saw the goalies actually pass Spence and Davey. Now they were going at it. Coaches were yelling and even some fans were mixin' it up. It happened fast, but it seemed like it was taking place in slow motion, and I remember deciding to just roll with it.
I got up and went at my dancing partner with reckless abandon and pent-up rage. The ice looked like a yard sale as I dodged a couple of helmets and regained my footing. I grabbed my opponent's jersey, pulled back to deliver a punch to his big, fat melon, and ... I got my head punched in. Although I don't remember feeling the blows (with so much adrenaline flowing they rarely hurt at the time), I remember the linesmen coming to my rescue. I couldn't really see much of the melee going on around me with blood flowing down my head in front of my eyes and the officials escorting me to our dressing room.
I was whisked behind the door along with the rest of the starting lineup, one by one, and as it closed behind us I started to process all of the preceding events. I will never forget the moment — it plays like a home video in my cerebrum. Spence walked over and hugged me and told me not to worry. He said they were always going to be close by for the next two years, and nobody would mess with me in or away from the hockey rink. My dad came into the room. Davey opened a beer and passed it to me (we had been ejected from the game), and that was the first sip of beer I had in front of one of my parents. I know that sounds awful to many parents out there, but it was symbolic. Giving me the beer wasn't to get me drunk, it was to welcome me to junior hockey. People have to adapt to different circumstances when growing up, I guess, and my childhood life in Newfoundland — at least during the winters — was but a memory. I was closer to a man than a boy that day.
I started to laugh — and cry. I think most of it was tears of joy as all that built-up tension was released. Now I really felt like a Quesnel Millionaire. I felt as if I finally had something in common with the many Canadian icons I had looked up to since I first tuned in to Hockey Night in Canada.
So there it is: a fight before a bodycheck, and a beer before a goal. And friends for life.
I didn't forget what happened that first game. Days passed and the exhibition season finally came to a close. I think we played five or six times, but I can't be sure, and I can't tell you what our win-loss record was — all I remember was that I felt more comfortable each and every game. It takes a while to get used to the speed and timing of a league as you move up the ladder, and I had skipped eight levels, so I was shaky at first. I got hit with my head down, a lot.
The time was coming to play Williams Lake again, and I was quite understandably nervous because I'd be addressing the meatball who kicked the shit out of me the first game. I had to have my payback, and this time it wasn't for the boys, it was for me. I had too much pride for this donkey to be taking out his anger on me and using my face for a punching bag/stress reliever.
I called my linemates and we met for coffee. I was hunting for the best advice I could get on how to prove my point. Dave Standing, Chris Spencer, and I were joined by our captain, Ashley Fennell. Ash was a good guy who loved the game. An Edmonton kid, born and raised, he would routinely show up at Quesnel Secondary School to make sure us high school guys were doing alright and not skipping class. Dave Standing was a former super-prospect who got a little sidetracked in his teen years and never pursued hockey or took it as seriously as he should have until he was 19 and it was a little too late. Davey was a loyal guy, and it became evident that he didn't want me making the same mistakes as he did. Chris Spencer? Well, Spence is one of the toughest men I have ever seen, pound for pound. He was almost 6 foot but real slender at 175 pounds and frequently fought players much bigger. Spence had a high threshold for pain. He was brought up in northern BC, in a place called Mackenzie, and he was one of those dudes who commanded respect upon first glance. I will never forget, as long as I live, the time he got hit and punctured a lung during a very rough first period in Fort St. John. Spitting up blood, he not only finished the game but tried to hide it from the rest of the team because he didn't want any attention brought to himself.
After an hour or so of shooting the shit, the plan was simple. Dump the puck in this gronk's corner and let Spence have at him. Fairly easy, right? Well fuck that. I had other plans.
During warm-up we were treated to a blaring medley of hard rock songs as the place filled up. Spence stared into the Mustangs zone. He didn't say anything, and in this case his actions spoke way louder than his words. I could tell the whole Williams Lake team knew it was going to be a rough one. They hadn't forgotten what happened last time either.
As is usually the case in games with a lot of tension and expectation for a stepped-up level of physical play, things started out a little slow. Nobody wanted to make the first move. I felt the tension in the air, looked at the fans, looked at the Mustangs bench, and looked at my teammates. I would have to say the moment right before hockey retribution is one of the biggest rushes in sports. Most hockey fights aren't premeditated, though. In fact, later in my career I would have handled the situation differently, but let's face it, I was still a super-rookie with a temper who had a lot to learn.
The first period was winding down when I skated to the Williams Lake bench with a few rehearsed one-liners. "Hey Meatball," I said. "I bet you would be the toughest guy in my math class. I mean, sure, you're six years older, but the word on the street is you like beating up kids, and you're pretty good at it. Plus, you have reason to be upset. My bruises from last game healed, but your face will always look like that! Tough break, asshole."
Their captain, Lenny Forschner, actually started laughing. Even I was astonished I had gone ahead with phase one of my ridiculous plan. I had Meatball's attention, and people on the benches and in the crowd stared in disbelief and anticipation. Meatball jumped over the boards and skated towards me, ever so slowly, licking his banged-up lips like a predator closing in on his prey.
We met at centre ice, and once again he knocked me down with the first punch. But I got up and grabbed on and actually began fighting back. I could feel my nose blood trickling down the back of my throat.
What happened next I don't think anyone could have predicted.
I was wrestling with this guy, trying to get close, and got a few rabbit punches in. I was basically caught in a wrestling match, which is exactly what I wanted. My hands were all over him, groping his face, head, and jersey while he peppered the back of my head. He kept throwing punches but never got any big ones in — I was doing okay and hanging in there. His hands were a bloody mess, and he was hitting my helmet more than anything. After I could sense him getting tired, I started coming back with a couple of haymakers of my own. The crowd was into it, my team was cheering me on, and his team was in shock. Finally the fight came to an end as I threw down my opponent and raised my hands in victory, proudly staring into the crowd. I must say, for a brief moment I felt like a Roman gladiator. As I skated towards the dressing room, I knew I had made an impact on my status in school as well. Things were good.
After the game, the boys all high-fived me and admitted they hadn't seen that coming. They asked, "Newf, how the hell did you pull that off?"
"Well, boys," I said with a grin and a nod, "I appreciate that you all look out for me, but this was personal. I knew he was gonna try something, so I figured I would beat him to the punch. I shaved the sides of my helmet down with a file (I learned that from a local legend in Quesnel — a tough guy named Jason Helzel), and when he was hitting me it was actually ripping the skin from his hand." Now everyone was staring at me with open ears and open mouths. "Then I put hot sauce all over my hands so that when we got in tight I would rub it in his eyes so he was unable to focus clearly for the rest of the fight. After that, I just plain kicked the shit outta him."
The boys were flabbergasted, to say the least. But I can tell you with a straight face that although I got in many other skirmishes that year, I wasn't ever considered a pushover again, and people thought twice before attempting an encounter with me! At season's end, I was the leading scorer of a Junior A franchise and focused on the NHL draft in a few years time.
I know that story's a little violent. But that's the way hockey can be. At 14, of course, that doesn't usually happen, and it shouldn't. Fourteen-year-olds play minor hockey and my jump to junior at that age was extremely rare, but there is truth in the fact that once kids get to junior hockey they have to learn how to fend for themselves and be good teammates. Not everyone has to fight; as people start to understand themselves as players, they get comfortable with their boundaries on the ice, and by the time you are a professional, the hockey world has a pretty good idea of what kind of player you are. I admit, I got into a few fights just because there were scouts in the stands evaluating me and if I had a bad game, I figured I could always show them some spunk by grabbing a monster and challenging him to a tilt. I usually did it for a reason, and those reasons were justifiable within the context of the game but not always necessary. If a guy hit our goalie, for example, it was go time. If the team needed a boost and we were being out-hit by the opponent, I'd find a willing combatant, ideally one who was bigger than me, so a win became a huge lift for our squad. If our best player got hit by a cheap shot? I'd track down the culprit and start throwin' haymakers! You have to think like a warrior.