On August 9th, 1988 the Edmonton Oilers held a press conference to make an announcement that would change the landscape of hockey in North America. Hockey had existed for years in the southern states but it wouldn’t be until after the “Trade of the Century”, which would land the game’s greatest player ever in Southern California, that the game would really take root in the southern parts of the US. In the decade or so after the Wayne Gretzky deal, eight new NHL franchises popped up in the Southern belt of the US and dozens of minor league teams would follow, winding up in cities like Pensacola, Biloxi, Shreveport, Waco, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Bakersfield and Long Beach.
Owners and visionaries like Bruce McNall who had a passion for hockey finally saw a window to try and grow the game and capitalize at the same time. Why not open up these markets to a new, fast and exciting game. A game filled with violence and grace all mixed into one fast-paced drama. With hockey’s biggest name playing in a southern city and his face plastered on every billboard, this was the time to make a push for hockey in the south.
Hockey couldn’t just be brought to these new markets without some frills to help entice fans to come and spend good money on an experiment. Hockey had to be packaged and sold to fans who didn’t know what they were buying. There had to be fireworks and spectacles. Just like any sport, you weren’t really selling a game, you were selling entertainment.
I spent three seasons in the Southern US in Augusta, Georgia; Amarillo, Texas; and a very brief stay in Shreveport, Louisiana. In Augusta, we played in the southern division of the ECHL and traveled around to cities like Charlotte, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Pensacola, Florida; Fort Myers, Florida; Biloxi, Mississippi; Beaumont, Texas; Gwinnett, Georgia; and Columbia, South Carolina. Before I played in Augusta I had never been more south in the US than Princeton, New Jersey. I was interested to see how the game had grown in these southern cities.
One of the biggest differences I noticed about hockey in the southern states was that it was more of a circus with regards to the atmosphere and frills between whistles than a hockey game. Firstly, our team had cheerleaders who would entertain fans throughout the game doing routines in the aisles. I think a lot of our male patrons came to the games more to see them than us. Also, we had a team mascot, “Louey the Lynx” who would skate around before the game and taunt the other team.
During TV timeouts, there were also some games being played with an announcer and a fan in the stands that would be broadcast over the big screens and they were always giving away prizes. Between periods the cheerleaders would perform a dance routine on the ice and a big truck with a T-shirt gun attached to it would launch a dozen t-shirts out to screaming fans. There was always “Chuck a Puck” and another game where fans had to race around on the ice in their shoes, sliding everywhere, trying to pick up items in an obstacle course.
A few times they brought in the “Zooperstars” who were large inflated zoo characters, wearing Joe Sakic and Wayne Gretzky jerseys with a person in the bottom of it running all over the ice falling down and banging into each other. There were chances to win free dinners, a year-long raffle for a Harley Davidson Fat Boy and two-for-one beers at the games on Thursday nights and dollar beer Tuesdays. After the game, the three stars of the game would be named and each Lynx player who was named a star would come out and throw t-shirts into the stands and wave.
Before games there would be a fireworks display when we would enter the ice and at a lot of rinks the players would enter through a large inflatable entrance congruent with the theme of their team accompanied by a smoke show and lasers. In Amarillo, after we scored a goal, the fans would rain down rubber bananas onto the ice because we were the “Gorillas”. The fans could buy these bananas for a dollar at the game and then they would be tossed onto the ice after a goal and scooped up and resold. This was just another way to squeeze out a few bucks and entertain the fans.
One of the strangest differences between hockey in the north and hockey down south was that in addition to the national anthem, players had to stand and wait on the blue lines while a prayer was read out aloud just before the anthem. Sometimes these prayers would drag on to three minutes. Just before a hockey game when your adrenaline is flying, three minutes is a lifetime. Religion was a big part of life in the south and hockey was no exception to that.
The biggest change from hockey in the north, other than all the bells and whistles, was the way the game was viewed from a fans perspective. In the south, hockey is a distant fourth to sport lovers behind NASCAR, football and baseball. It’s probably actually more like fifth if you count throw in basketball in some areas. People in the south were just being introduced to hockey and really didn’t understand what the game was all about or any of the finer points that Canadians celebrated and cherished. It wasn’t that they were ignorant or anything, they were just new to the sport and were being given a crash course from a bunch of money-hungry owners.
I remember meeting a first-time fan after a game one night in Augusta. It was “Military Night” and there were probably 6,000 fans at the game and we were playing Mississippi, a team we usually had a pretty physical affair with. There ended up being four or five fights that night and this fan who had just witnessed his first hockey game said to me, “The game was OK, I mean ya’ll won and all but I thought there would be more fights. There weren’t really many fights!” I just laughed. In that game we fought more than we had all year and here was this guy who was disappointed because he was expecting a royal rumble of some sort.
That’s just how people viewed hockey in the south. They were usually more excited by fights and huge hits than goals or big saves. When a fight would start, the arena staff would play “Eye of the Tiger” over the sound system. Everyone in the place would be on their feet screaming and cheering with every haymaker and uppercut.
On most teams in North America, the team heavyweight is a player that has limited skill, a large frame, lots of strength and toughness and acts as a judge, jury and executioner on the ice. This is a job that isn’t necessarily a coveted position but sometimes guys have to do what it takes to play pro and make it to the next level. For every Wayne Gretzky there is a Dave Semenko; for every Steve Yzerman there is a Bob Probert and Joey Kocur. In hockey whether people want to admit it or acknowledge it, fighters do exist and serve an important purpose.
When I played, I used to like to play on the edge and sometimes if I would see an opportunity to catch a guy with his head down or in a bad position, I would take it. It’s the competitiveness that gets into your blood, when you see a player that you hate you want to inflict damage when you can. You try and hit to hurt. Not to injure per se, but to hurt so that they know it was you and that you’re coming all night.
When teams had a known heavyweight like a Peter Worrell, who played in Charlotte, or a Nate Kiser or Grant McNeill, who both played in South Carolina, you were less enthusiastic to take those liberties on players on the other team. I used to get matched up against Travis Morin’s line when we played against South Carolina and he used to chirp me and get under my skin. Travis Morin ended up making his NHL debut during the 2010-2011 season with the Dallas Stars. All I wanted to do was catch him coming across the middle, admiring a pass and send him into next week, but I knew that if I played too hard on Morin, I would have to answer the bell at the hands of Kiser or McNeill.
One thing a fight can do is give a team momentum. The last thing you want to do is get embarrassed at the hands of Kiser or McNeill and give South Carolina momentum. Coaches really hate untimely fights. Now that I coach I always tell our players there are two types of fights: team fights and individual fights. A team fight is when a player answers the bell for a team mate after a cheap shot or if you want to slow or change momentum in a game. This is a fight that benefits the team. An individual fight is when a player wants to fight to promote their own glory. This may be picking on a smaller player to guarantee a win or trying to prove yourself by fighting a tough guy to impress your team when it’s a close game or you have a one-goal lead. All this does is risk giving the other team momentum. Team fights you will support, individual fights you don’t.
As much as people say, you don’t need a fighter on a team and it’s a waste of a position. Enforcers serve a huge purpose on the team and keep the dirty play to a minimum. I really feel that if there weren’t people to answer to on the ice, cheap shots and stick work would escalate to a dangerous level in hockey. I know from my own experiences, if it weren’t for guys like Worrell, Kiser, and McNeill, I may have let my temper get the better of me and done some regrettable things in the heat of the moment. When there was the threat of impending doom looming on the other bench, you always kept a better check on your actions.
Off the ice, the team enforcer was usually the nicest guy on the team. On our team we had Will Bodine. Bodine was a 6’5, 235 lbs teddy bear. He was the nicest guy I think I’ve ever met over all my years playing hockey. He was the kind of guy that would wake up at four in the morning if you called to come and pick you up an hour away. He would do anything for his team mates, and on the ice that was his job.
When Will put his gear on, there was a level of focus that came over his eyes. Will knew he had a job to do, he took it seriously and he instantly became a warrior when he put on that sweater. During our one season together I saw Will in some epic bouts against some of the scariest figures in minor pro hockey. I saw Will break his nose sideways on the first punch of a fight against Phil Oreskovic of Columbia only to continue on for another 40 seconds in that fight. The next period after having his nose reset and his eyes blackened, Will challenged Oreskovic to a rematch and won.
One time in South Carolina, Will and Grant McNeill had a spectacular toe-to-toe battle. After the center-ice affair, Will skated to the box and was handed his gloves by the referee. When he tried to put on his right glove he couldn’t. His pinkie finger was broken completely sideways and he had torn every tendon. He was so focused and adrenaline-pumped that he didn’t even realize the injury.
Will had the toughest job in hockey in my opinion and I had the utmost respect for him. I knew that if things got heavy on the ice, Will was going to be the first guy at my side to keep things equal. As tough as these guys were, I never once saw an enforcer take any liberties on a skilled player or lesser combatant. They never went out of their way to attack players or act like idiots, but rather were there to protect the team’s assets and to fight equal combatants when the timing was right.
There are different times in a game when the timing is right for a fight. Obviously when a liberty or cheap shot is taken, the offender will usually have to pay the piper. There are other times however when a fight is beneficial to a team. If a team scores two or three quick goals back-to-back, a fight can be used to help slow or change momentum. A fight can charge up a team and can also get the fans involved in the game. Sometimes when two known heavyweights are playing against each other and the score won’t be affected, the two combatants will square off to establish themselves in a ranking amongst league enforcers.
Players always like to debate over who is the toughest in the league and who can beat who. Even though the enforcers all share a bond of burden in their duties on the team, they also are competitive and would all like to be known as the league’s toughest player. A lot is riding on how heavyweights fare in fights just as it is for skilled players to produce. The NHL and AHL are always looking for guys to come up and protect the next Crosby or Ovechkin, so there is a lot of honour on the line when it comes to performing and keeping your rank amongst league heavyweights.
Being a fighter in hockey doesn’t come with anywhere near the recognition and praise the role deserves. In the NHL, there is the “Hart Trophy” for the league’s most valuable player, the “Norris Trophy” for the league’s best defenseman, even the “Lady Byng Trophy” for the league’s most sportsmanlike player. There is no “Shultz Trophy” for the league’s toughest player or “Probert Memorial Award” for the protector of the year. Being a fighter is a tough job and at the end of the day, people like to whine and criticize that they don’t want fighting in hockey and that these guys are just no-talent goons.
In the south, however, the team enforcer is the “Toast of the Town”. After games, fans wait anxiously for the team heavyweight to duck into the room to sign autographs and pose for pictures. They account for the most jersey sales, public appearance requests and autograph requests. During jersey auctions, the team enforcer’s jersey usually sells for two or three times the amount of the team’s leading scorer. It’s the only time when everyone “wants a piece” of the fighter.
When I was out with a knee injury, I joined the team on the road one trip to participate in morning skates as part of my rehab. We had a three-game set in Beaumont, Texas against the Wildcatters and I remember during one of the intermissions they had four kids on the ice participating in a relay race. Once the race was over, the announcer asked each youngster who his favorite hockey player was and each kid said, “Riley Emmerson”, who was the Wildcatters’ 6’7, 260 lbs enforcer at the time.
In the south they celebrated the rougher side of hockey and they embraced the glorification of the heavyweight fighter. There would be more fans at the games where there was a chance for a fight between the league’s toughest players than any game seven of the playoffs. The enforcers reigned supreme below the Mason-Dixon Line. The toughest job in hockey was finally being celebrated and appreciated.
Growing up playing hockey you learn how to multitask and about time management. In minor hockey you are going to school, playing hockey, participating in other activities and finding time to just be a kid. In high school there is junior hockey which becomes more demanding and time consuming and school becomes more difficult also. In University, you are forced to balance two full-time jobs in school and hockey and the pressures become more intense.
Hockey at the professional level came with a lot more freedom for the players than what is experienced in major junior or college. Time management wasn’t as much of a priority as it was at the lower levels. You where there to play hockey and whatever else you did in your spare time was your business.
When I turned pro, all of a sudden I just had one full-time job and a lot of free hours in the day. In a 72-game schedule, you typically played three to four games a week, practiced two to three other days and usually had a day off on a Sunday or thereabouts. On the days you had practice it was usually a quick, hard hour and some physio treatment or a workout after. We always practiced at 9 am so I was usually out of the rink by noon. I remember at the time thinking, “what’s all this talk about 9 to 5, I’d rather work this 9 to 12 gig.”
It was quite the lifestyle to be able to live comfortable financially and only have to work three hours a day. The smart thing for players to do would probably have been to mix in another workout or put your extra time into taking online courses towards an undergrad degree or master’s degree, however there were a lot of other temptations and vices to distract you.
You see a minor pro team is made up of a variety of different players at different stages in their career and from all different backgrounds. Generally you had some “Big Club” prospects that were young and fresh out of junior. Then you had some veterans who had already played at higher levels and are on their way down the ladder. You also had some “minor pro lifers” who have seen more disappointments than anything and have come to terms with the fact that they won’t be getting “the call” anytime soon.
When you are a young prospect, you are easily swayed or tempted to be a bit careless basically because you are a hormone-raging youngster. When you are a “minor pro lifer” you are already used to the lifestyle and have already embraced it. When you are on your way down the ladder, there is a reason you are still deciding to play even if the only teams that will pay your bills are in the bus leagues. The fact of the matter is you have lots of free time, money to spend, and golf courses, bars, and women at your disposal.
Minor pro hockey isn’t the NHL, but in these small towns, it’s the closest thing to it. When you are living in a small-town and you are playing for the only professional team around, you experience the closest thing to being a big-time celebrity. You see yourself on billboards, TV commercials, and pretty much everywhere you go, people know who you are and treat you well.
When I played in Augusta, we had a golf membership through the team at two different courses, Jones Creek Golf and Country Club and The River Golf Course. These courses were the 2nd and 3rd most beautiful courses I had ever seen behind Augusta National, which our housing complex was located on the backside of, just behind the trees looming over Amen’s Corner. During my season and a half in Augusta, I golfed four times a week and trimmed my handicap by seven strokes.
A typical day in Augusta for me used to look like this, practice at 9 am, workout till noon. Go home, grab a quick lunch and jump in the car with three other guys and head to the golf course with a quick stop to grab a case of beer for the round. After golf, we’d head back to the housing complex, which was in a gated community, and fire up the barbecue and eat dinner and lounge by the pool. After dinner we would hang out by the pool and drink beer until around 10 pm when we’d head over to “The Vue” or “The Country Club”, which was a big honky-tonk bar with live bands.
The lifestyle was fast and furious and we took advantage of everything at our disposal which usually included free golf, free admissions to bars, free drinks, and fast women. Some players stayed away, but a lot of players partook in the fast life, at least for the first year or two. A lot of times the older vets would stay at home and rest their old creaky bodies while the younger bucks would go out and paint the town. The odd time the old boys would come out to show the young lads that they still had it.
We played hard and lived hard but we would only do it when it was the right time. Our Coach Bob Ferguson had played pro and had been through what we all were going through. Fergie didn’t have curfews. He gave us some rope so we made sure not to hang ourselves with it. He would always say, “I’ll give you some freedom but don’t embarrass me.” We had it pretty good so we didn’t want to disrespect Fergie. I truly believe we played harder for Fergie because we respected him.
Another rule Fergie had was to leave the bar before last call. He said, “Only trouble happens at bars past one o’clock. Have a few pops, pick out your gal and be out of there before the ugly lights come on.”
One way or another, almost all players experienced the fast life of minor pro hockey for a season or two, while some never gave it up at all. It was just the way it was, year after year. It’s not like the rookies ever really needed to be nudged, when you present a 20 or 21 year-old with freedom and vices it’s only a matter of time before they indulge.
The problem with the lifestyle of minor pro hockey was that it could easily catch up to you and with a lot of players it did. You could go out and party all you wanted, but if you couldn’t do that and perform on the ice, you weren’t going to last very long. Some guys could handle it and some guys had to make a choice before it ended their careers.
There were times to pick and choose your spots to go out. For the most part, the guys respected this and would pick nights to go out when it wouldn’t affect play on the ice the next day. Guys respected the night before a game, but it wasn’t uncommon for guys to roll into a morning practice smelling like a brewery. As long as you performed at practice and didn’t drag ass, coaches usually left it alone. If you were messing up drills and your passes were off, then the whole team would hear it and you’d face consequences.
If you wanted to live fast, you had to learn how to play hung over. The problem was, or benefit depending how you look at it, that most players who made it that far already had an extremely high tolerance for alcohol and could play hung over without much affect. I don’t know why it was that way. Maybe it was just because we had the resources, time and freedom, or maybe it was how we dealt with stress.
At the minor pro level there are a lot of stresses that can take their toll. From day to day, you never knew what could happen. There was no job security, pension or guarantees. One day you could score a hat-trick and be named 1st star of the game and the next morning you could be packing your bags because an AHL team was reassigning three players and there wasn’t enough cap space for you anymore. You were always looking over your shoulder and it became very stressful.
Whenever news came down that the Big Club had signed a new player or made a trade or someone came off the Injured Reserve, you knew the ripple effect was going to affect your team. I remember when Scott Neidermeyer decided to come out of retirement and play for the Ducks, there was a buzz about our room. Who is going to get the chop? Who is it going to be? We knew that with him coming back, someone was going to be sent down to Portland in the AHL and in turn they were going to send someone down to us. Sure enough, the next day we received Ryan Dingle from Portland (who was on an entry-level contract with the Anaheim Ducks) and my roommate Matt Johnson had to pack his bags and find a new team.
It took 24 hours for the ripple effect to hit our team, and I can tell you that everyone was on pins and needles for that day in waiting. It’s never a good feeling to think your job is in jeopardy, but we all knew it was part of the game. It would happen so many times throughout the season. You just had to find a way to deal with it.
At the end of the day, playing hockey in the “Cocktail Leagues” had its benefits and also came with some drawbacks and cons. Just like anything in life, nothing comes for free. There is always some price to pay. For minor leaguers, sometimes the price was bigger than they could have ever imagined. A lot of players lost relationships, families, and their feeling of self worth as a result of the lifestyle and stresses of the grind of minor pro hockey. For some it was like playing blackjack. You stay in for a hand or two and you might win big. Stay in for too long and you can lose everything.