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Director's Cut: ‘Down Great Purple Valleys,’ by John Lardner

Director’s Cut: ‘The Making of a Goon,’ by Johnette Howard

An annotated version of a classic story from The National

Johnette Howard was 28 years old and a sportswriter with the Detroit Free Press in the summer of 1989 when Frank Deford invited her to New York to talk about The National,1 the nervy, new daily sports newspaper (backed by the Mexican business magnate Emilio Azcárraga) he would be editing in 1990. It was the first time Deford and Howard had met; they talked about his growing up in Baltimore and her growing up in Pittsburgh, and he hired her over, as Howard recollects, “a 2½-hour lunch and two bottles of wine.”2

Deford had for more than a decade been the acknowledged master of the long “takeout” feature, known within the walls of Sports Illustrated as the “bonus piece.” When The National debuted the following January, Deford had pointedly made the long features a priority. The sharp, gifted editor Rob Fleder had been hired away from SI to oversee an All-America team of takeout writers, including Howard, Charles Pierce, Peter Richmond, and Ian Thomsen. The quartet would be contributing regularly to The National‘s daily analog to the bonus piece, called “The Main Event.”3

One of Howard’s early story ideas was to write about an enforcer in the National Hockey League. Her first choice, the infamous Bob Probert, was in prison, serving time for a cocaine possession conviction.4 Her second choice was the Red Wings laconic enforcer Joe Kocur, who agreed to sit down with her and discuss his unusual path to stardom. It was the editor Fleder who suggested the title of the piece — “The Making of a Goon” — and it was the first story Howard filed for The National.


The Making of a Goon
From The National Sports Daily
February 18, 1990

By Johnette Howard

HE WENT FROM nobody to notorious with a cudgel of a fist, and there was no rung of hockey to which it couldn’t take him. Once he got to the NHL and stayed, the job became one of maintaining his niche — even after the bone showed through the sliced skin of his knuckles and he had to soak his punching hand in ice between periods, even after doctors nearly had to amputate his right arm.

Joe Kocur, the Detroit Red Wings enforcer, is sometimes referred to by the rabid cult of fight-video collectors around the league as “the Mike Tyson of the NHL.” But earning that reputation was one thing; maintaining it led to a frightening night against Pittsburgh when Kocur’s whistling right hand dropped Jim Kyte, a six foot five Penguin defenseman, to the ice unconscious; it led to a night against Quebec when he shattered Terry Karkner’s jaw and the shaken Nordique team took a week to recover; it led to a game last February when Kocur flattened New York Islanders winger Brad Dalgarno with a single wallop, then watched Dalgarno teeter off the ice, only to learn later that he’d fractured Dalgarno’s left eye orbit, his cheekbone, and — people now whisper — his resolve to go on.5

In the beginning, it wasn’t Kocur’s idea to fistfight his way to the NHL. His first fight? He was just fourteen, playing in his first exhibition game with a new team, and an older kid cornered him and dared him to go. He says he was just fifteen when his coach was Gerry James, a sort of Bo Jackson of Canada, who had dual careers with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. James pulled Kocur aside and told him that if he wanted to make hockey a paying career, he had better start fighting with his fists.

“So I did,” Kocur recalls. “I had about ten penalty minutes in the first twenty games. In the last forty games, I had two hundred fifty.”

But Kocur’s start — his real start — came at age seventeen, the night he knocked out a kid named Bruce Holloway in a Western League game in Kamloops, British Columbia. Not every man can recognize a peek at his destiny when he gets it, and even then, not everyone accepts it. But there was no question in young Joe Kocur’s mind that he had done both after he saw Holloway collapse with a suddenness that was astounding.

Word of his savagery proceeded him — “like wildfire,” Kocur says — in stops at Seattle and Portland, in Swift Current and Moose Jaw and Victoria, too. At every arena, scouts with wizened eyes and sharp pencils secretly began pulling Kocur’s Saskatoon coach aside, all wanting to know: “Was it a lucky punch or the real thing? Can the kid really fight? How hard does he throw?”

Holloway’s coach, a celebrated tough guy named Bill LaForge, said back then: “Kocur took a couple real tough shots that didn’t faze him, then he came back and threw a bomb that, I’m sure, Bruce will remember the rest of his life.” The other guys on Kocur’s team remarked later how he seemed changed as he lunged after Holloway. At that moment, the Saskatoon kids said, Joey Kocur was someone they did not know.

“I never really remembered this myself — I mean, the other guys had to tell me — but I just clicked … I mean, something inside of me just snapped,” Kocur says today. “I just remember I was coming across neutral ice and he high-sticked me. And I remember saying something — screaming — that I was going to get him.

“Up to that point I’d been fighting before, but I never really got mad because I guess I was just enjoying it. But right then, against that guy, I just got mad. After that, it was odd because I didn’t really know what had happened to him, didn’t know what to do — it was the first time, you know? I just remember standing there, thinking, ‘Geez, what do I do? Do I hold him up? Do I hit him again? Should I just keep fighting or let him go?’ But the refs jumped in quick and the trainers came out running.”

And Kocur’s teammates were right — he was changed.

“After that I just threw caution to the wind,” Kocur says. “After that, I just felt that I could fight and not get hurt. That I would never lose.”

It was a far cry from his first hockey fight two years earlier. “That one I didn’t throw too many punches but I sure received a lot,” Kocur says. “As I skated off I just thought, ‘What a way to make a living.’”

WHEN THE NHL All-Star game convened in Pittsburgh last month, Joe Kocur was not one of the skaters who glided out for a pre-game bow. In fact, in his six NHL seasons, his name has never even appeared on the ballot. But if you were to take a poll among the NHL’s players and coaches, you would certainly find Kocur, twenty-five, mentioned among the league’s top five “heavyweights” — NHL parlance for players whose main role is to police the ice, always ready to punch a nose when the team needs a boost or to mete out retaliatory justice as seems fitting. In his particular case, Kocur says, that especially means “keeping the flies off Stevie.” (Yzerman, that is, the Red Wings superstar center and Kocur’s sometime line mate).

Any poll would show one other thing, too, says St. Louis Blues center Adam Oates: “No one in our league punches harder. In that regard, Joe’s the absolute best at what he does.”

If any pangs of conscience come with the job, if Kocur feels a measure of regret on those mornings when he wakes up and finds blood on his pillow from his mangled right hand, he will not confess them. Doctors have told him to expect arthritis and calcium deposits in his punching fist. “Put it this way,” Kocur says drolly, “I’ll never play piano.”

Detroit General Manager Jimmy Devellano hopes to find Kocur a job with the Red Wings after his playing days are through because “he’s given his hand for the organization.”

Devellano’s assessment of Kocur’s contribution is closer to the literal truth than perhaps he intended.

Along the back side of Kocur’s always bloated right hand, a three-inch red scar carves a crooked path from the middle knuckle toward the wrist. He split the hand open during a 1985 minor league game in Halifax, when he knocked out a six-three, two-hundred-pound Nova Scotia defenseman named Jim Playfair.

In the dressing room later, a doctor needed forty stitches to close the gash. But when the rest of the team came off the ice, Kocur got some good news, too: The Red Wings had called him up to the NHL.

The next morning, Kocur took the first plane out and flew all day. He checked into a hotel in Detroit, then spent an excruciating, sleepless night watching his right arm balloon to three times its normal size. When sunrise finally came, he got to the rink early for the Wings’ morning skate. But a trainer noticed the new kid was wearing only one glove. The team doctor was summoned, then a hand surgeon, too.

“This was about 2 P.M.,” Kocur says, “and the next thing I knew, they got me a hospital room, got me an IV. I was in major surgery by five P.M.”

Because doctors in Halifax didn’t realize Kocur had cut his hand on Playfair’s teeth, they sewed the wound shut, preventing it from draining and allowing infection to take hold. Just a day and a half later, the poisoned tendons and tissue between Kocur’s third and fourth knuckles had already begun to rot.

When he emerged from a morphine-induced cloud two weeks after surgery, doctors explained what had happened. “If I’d waited even one more day, they might have had to amputate my whole right arm,” Kocur says.

And how did that make him feel?

“Well,” Kocur says, “it made me realize how bad I want to play hockey.”6

WHEN ASKED IF he ever dreamed of being a goal scorer — maybe a star center who glided along the ice, protected by guys like him — Kocur won’t commit. “Maybe,” he says. Then he adds, “I also know what got me here and how I’m going to stay.

“I know the day I start playing a fancy hockey game without hitting anyone, without fighting, is the day I’ll either get sent down or released from the game,” Kocur says. “It’s put food in my belly. It’s what has kept me in this game. And I wouldn’t give up this lifestyle for anything else in the world. So I’m not about to trade in my boxing gloves for a, for a … a wand.”

But what about that year in the juniors, that year he scored a career-high forty goals?

“That,” Kocur says with a sardonic smile, “was also the year I knocked out Holloway. Guys tend to give you a little more room.”7

ON THE SURFACE, the fighting and machismo that abound in hockey may seem like an archaic ritual, the folly of men in oversize shorts. But hockey’s insiders — men like Kocur — shake their heads and explain not only why intimidation works but why they believe that policing the ice is necessary. Their reasoning also explains why hockey’s tough guys are almost as celebrated as the great scorers.

First remember, they will tell you, that hockey would be a violent game even without fighting. Players wear heavy padding. They carry sticks they’re unafraid to use, and their skate blades are so sharp that several NHL players have nearly died from gashes suffered in pileups.

The danger is multiplied even further at the NHL level by the sheer speed of the game and the inevitability of collisions. Today’s swiftest skaters hit speeds around thirty miles per hour in rinks just 200 feet long and 85 feet wide. And every hockey trainer’s black bag contains a pair of forceps, just in case the impact of a collision causes a player to swallow his tongue.
In a game like this, the indecisive and the fearful cannot survive. On rinks this small, there is nowhere to hide. And perhaps it’s no wonder that hockey’s past is dotted with instances of players retiring because of “nerves” and goalies who suddenly begin to suffer from agoraphobia. Once the puck starts ricocheting around, says Kocur, “you have to be absolutely fearless out there. You have to think that you can’t be hurt and never will.”

Then, once you have that conviction, hockey also asks that you hold on to it, even when it doesn’t make sense.

“Outsiders look at these guys and marvel at how they keep coming back, coming back, playing with broken noses and their jaws wired shut,” Red Wings Coach Jacques Demers says. “But it’s funny — as a coach, you almost get used to it. They skate off and take stitches and sometimes they miss one or two shifts. You look and they’re back in there. They’re tough.”

Like no other sport, hockey celebrates its toughest players.8 Gone are legends like Detroit’s Ted (Scarface) Lindsay and savage Eddie Shore, the Boston defenseman of the 1930s who ended his career with a total of 9787 stitches. But inside the current edition of The Hockey Register, an annual compilation of NHL players’ career stats, there appears below each man’s name a sort of living lore, a boldface paragraph recounting calamitous injuries or noteworthy fights.

DEAN CHYNOWETH (October 27, 1988) — Left eye injured by Rick Tocchet vs. Philadelphia and missed nearly two months.
BRUCE DRIVER (December 8, 1988) — Broke right leg in three places when checked by Lou Franceschetti vs. Washington and had surgery to implant a plate and 10 screws.

The Register’s grisly cataloguing sometimes includes fetishistic detail. Under Guy LaFleur’s name it reads: “(March 24, 1981) — Fell asleep at the wheel of his car, hit a fence and a metal sign post, sliced off the top part of his right ear after the fence post went through his windshield.” But there’s some unintended humor, too. Take Larry Robinson’s entry: “(January 1, 1987) — Broken nose. (November 9, 1988) — Sinus problem.”

Though the NHL has taken steps, especially in the last fifteen years, to limit the bench-clearing brawls and dangerous stick-swinging incidents that fatten those boldface paragraphs in the Register, no one foresees that game’s unique nightly phenomenon — legal, bare-knuckle fist-fighting — being banned anytime soon.

Not as long as NHL President John Zeigler, like his predecessors, continues to define fighting as “the spontaneous combat which comes out of the frustrations of the game.” Not while league executives are buoyed by modestly increasing attendance and a discernible statistical decline in violent incidents. And not in the absence of any serious uprising among the players.

Before the 1974-75 season, the players’ union asked owners to ban fighting for one year and were flatly refused. But in a survey taken last season, players were “divided about fifty-fifty” when asked about abolishing fighting, says Sam Simpson, director of operations for the NHLPA.

Salaries are now the hot issue among NHL players, who see major league baseball’s average climbing to $500,000 and the NBA median approaching $1 million a year. Against those numbers, the NHL average of $180,000 seems paltry.

“To be honest,” says Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames, “the only real debate going on about fighting is in a couple of magazines and a few newspapers now and then.”

As a result, tough guys remain not only legal but important enough to a team that the Red Wings’ Demers candidly admits, “I know we wouldn’t trade Joey Kocur for a thirty-goal scorer even though Joey has never scored thirty goals.”

Why?

“Intimidation,” Demers says, shrugging his shoulders. “It works.”

“It works,” says New York Rangers General Manager Neil Smith.

“It works,” says Calgary’s Fletcher.

Evidently, it works.

FEARLESS HOCKEY FIGHTERS, like fearless hockey players, are not so much born as they are made. There’s a very good reason for that, too, says Demers: “No one enjoys getting punched in the head.”

Though Kocur’s father, Joe Senior, is a strong, sturdy man — he’s got “a handshake that you remember for days,” says Demers — Kocur says his dad “never fought in his life.” And that was pretty much true of Joe Senior’s only boy as young Joey was growing up with two sisters on a Kelvington, Saskatchewan, farm.

Fighting on the ice never occurred to Kocur back then. But once he started looking beyond his small town, Kocur also understood that hockey requires players to grow up fast. By age fifteen or sixteen, most Canadian prospects leave home and live with foster families while they play fifty- or sixty-game schedules for traveling teams. These prospects, who often don’t finish high school, encounter such concepts as “career advancement” early.

Besides, once Kocur started scuffling, he discovered something unexpected: “After the first couple times I got hit, I just thought, ‘This ain’t so bad.’”

When he looks at his role now, Kocur says, “I guess I enjoy it. But I don’t want to sound like an animal, like my sole intention is to hurt somebody permanently. I just look at it as a job that I’m paid to do. And my job is not to lose. I won’t fight dirty. I won’t jump someone from behind. But when I go to hit someone, I want to hit him in the face. I’m trying to hit as hard as I can. And a few times it has happened that someone got hurt.”9

That’s partly because fighting on skates changes things. “See, hockey fighting is different than boxing,” says Kocur, who once visited the training camp of Detroit’s Thomas Hearns — courtesy of Red Wings owner Mike Illitch — to pick up a few tips. “In hockey, fighting is pulling and punching. If you just stand there and hold a guy out and hit him, you won’t faze him. But if you can pull him into you and punch at the same time, that’s when you start hurting people.”

How to hit hard is just one of the lessons an enforcer must learn. There’s also an unwritten and often unspoken code of honor that governs who hits whom, and under what circumstances. Kocur also likes to do research of his own; knowing other fighters’ tendencies helps him avoid surprises. But nothing, Kocur says, supersedes the most basic fighter’s rule: Never, ever lose.

“You’ve got to understand some things about the fighter’s job,” says Demers. “Tough guys in this league are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Unfortunately, many of them are untalented except for fighting, and they’ve gotten here the hard way. And once you’re recognized as a tough guy in this league, you go from having targets to becoming one.

“As long as you’re beating up somebody, the fans are cheering and shouting our name. But the first time you lose one, everyone gets down on you. You have to be fearless. I’ve seen guys lose just once, and pretty soon they just sort of fade away.”

Though coaches and other players all say that Kocur has good all-around hockey talent and that Demers encourages him to use it, Kocur considers himself a fighter first. He believes that preserving his aura of invincibility is essential because “it pays off down the line. Maybe I’ll be going into the corner to get the puck and the guy going with me will think, ‘Uh-oh, it’s Joe Kocur. This guy’s crazy. I won’t give him the elbow in the face. I’ll give him that extra step and poke at the puck instead of trying to take the body.’ And then maybe I can make a play, make a good pass. And maybe we’ll put the puck in the net.”

Or maybe, as in Brad Dalgarno’s case, Kocur will go after the guy who follows him into the corner anyway.

Dalgarno has heard the explanations of why Kocur stalked him for two shifts during that game last February: that the Red Wings thought the six foot three, 215-pound Dalgarno had earlier put too aggressive a cross-check on Gilbert Delorme, that the penalty Dalgarno received wasn’t enough.

“In the first place, I thought the penalty was a rather questionable call,” Dalgarno says. “But sure enough, two shifts later, Kocur was out on the ice every time I came out. I was kind of, well, nervous. I knew he was tough, and the guys on my team kept skating by and telling me, ‘Be careful, be careful Brad. He’s out to get you. He’s a dangerous guy.’ And sure enough, after two shifts, we were fighting.”

Before that single punch from Kocur shattered his cheekbone and eye socket, Dalgarno had always had nagging questions about the ethos of the game and prickly doubts about the coaches who kept trying, futilely, to turn him into a fighter because of his size. After Kocur’s punch, that chasm grew deeper.

While recuperating at his parents’ home in Hamilton, Ontario, a letter arrived. “Someone sent me a newspaper article from Detroit,” Dalgarno says. “In it, Delorme was interviewed after I was hurt, and he made it look like, ‘Oh, he deserved it.’ And I remember I just thought, ‘Wait a minute. Who deserved what?’ Where’s the justice, the value, in that?

“The doctors had to drill a hole in the side of my head [during surgery]. I could’ve lost my left eye, or my eye could’ve sunk into my orbital bone and I would’ve lost my vision. The nerves in the left side of my face might never have rematerialized. Fortunately they have, or I’d look like I had a stroke. I thought, ‘Deserves it, deserves it? Who deserves that?’ ”

Knowing hockey wasn’t going to change, Dalgarno decided that he would. He says he holds no grudges toward the game and doesn’t blame Kocur for triggering his dissatisfaction. Dalgarno says other players feel “trapped by the game,” just as he did.

“Ninety-nine percent of the guys in the NHL have been playing since they were five and have no idea what else they would do, or could do,” he says. “It’s tough for intelligent men to try to put things in hockey into perspective, because you’re never told the answers. Hockey doesn’t have them.”

And so, for Brad Dalgarno, it all came down to this: On the eve of the 1989-90 regular season, with people whispering that his game wasn’t the same, Dalgarno, age twenty-two, a former number one draft pick, a potential twenty-five-goals-a-year scorer — officially retired.

THERE IS A TV on in a Red Wings coach’s office, and one shelf below it a VCR whirs and sighs. Joe Kocur, who is pushing buttons on a remote control, says he didn’t see a small classified ad in The Hockey News touting “The Bruise Brothers,” a two-hour bootleg tape of every fight between 1983 and 1989 involving Kocur and ex-Wing Bob Probert. Kocur can hardly believe there is such a tape.10 But, he says, he’d like to see it.

Five days later, courtesy of a reporter, Kocur has the tape. As he fast forwards past fights he doesn’t care to see, the combatants swirl on the screen at a comic, Keystone Kops pace. At one point he hits Play, and the announcer suddenly shouts, “Kocur’s pulling some hair now!”

“Aw, shaaaaddup,” Kocur says, scowling sheepishly, hitting Fast Forward, then Play again.

Announcer: “If Kocur’s going to be a fighter in this league, he’s going to have to avoid turning sideways!”

“Awwwww, what does he know?” Kocur says, restarting the fast-forward frenzy but hitting the Mute button to kill the voices, too. In a few seconds it becomes clear that the entire tape consists of nothing but fights spliced end to end. For $45, there are 170 fights in all, 84 of them Kocur’s.

Most of the time, Kocur watches quietly, looking serious. When other Red Wings players begin to straggle into the room, their faces are serious, too. Sometimes they wince.11

In time, the crowd grows to nine. And suddenly Kocur pipes up and says, “Hey, did any of you guys see ‘Sports Final Edition’ last night on TV? They had this story about people in sports who’ve injured other athletes. And one of the guys was this NFL linebacker that got hurt by Freeman McNeil, this running back for the Jets who had to block him and blew out the guy’s knee.”

Eyes remain on the screen.12 But Kocur continues: The linebacker said McNeil called to apologize later, but he said he felt sorry for McNeil, too. Once he saw what he’d done, McNeil was so distraught he could no longer play effectively that day. For that, Jets Coach Joe Walton publicly criticized McNeil’s sensitivity.

“In the end,” Kocur says, “this linebacker says that, to him, that makes Freeman McNeil a good guy, you know? A real person.”

Later, when the office has cleared and the door is shut, Kocur is asked if the linebacker’s story made him think. Reluctantly, Kocur says, “Well, yeah. I thought about it.”

There is a long pause. When he doesn’t continue he is asked, “Would you like to share what you thought?”

Without looking away from the TV or the silent fighting still going on, Joe Kocur says, “No.”


Howard delivered the piece in late 1989, and then moved on to other assignments. Deford read the story well before publication and offered effusive praise. “If this is your first piece,” he told her, “I can’t wait to see the rest!”

Three weeks after The National‘s launch, on the Sunday of the 1990 Daytona 500, “The Making of a Goon” ran.13 Howard knew the Kocur piece was good, but the instant and nearly unanimous reaction, both inside the world of hockey and beyond, was still surprising. She remembers Kocur’s reaction as typically taciturn: “He said he thought it was OK.” And then it was back to work and the dozens of other stories she had to produce that year.

While The National folded in June 1991, a victim to ridiculous deadlines and dodgy distribution, Howard’s piece lives on. In 1999, it was included in the anthology Best American Sports Writing of the Century.14

For Howard, the piece stands as one of her personal favorites.15 “This gets lost a lot now,” she says. “But I’m a big believer in context. If this succeeded, it’s because it put him in the context of the sport. That was important to me.”

Nearly 22 years after the story first appeared, she still has people come up to her and quote her the first line from memory. “That’s flattering,” she says, “but weird a little.”

Michael MacCambridge is the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured A Nation, and the editor of the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia.


Previously from Michael MacCambridge:
Director’s Cut: Bringing It All Back Home
Director’s Cut: Silent Season of a Hero