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The Survivor

Stu Grimson and the rash of hockey-enforcer suicides

On Labor Day weekend, Stu Grimson drove down from Nashville — the last of eight stops he made over the course of his long and violent career in the National Hockey League — to Panama City, Fla. There, he threw himself into the surf, a short vacation from his new professional life as a lawyer and an occasional hockey commentator. It’s been nearly 10 years since he last traded punches: On December 12, 2001, he fought the last of hundreds of fights, a messy heavyweight bout against Sandy McCarthy of the New York Rangers.1 It’s been so long hardly anybody calls him The Grim Reaper anymore.

One of the best of a golden age of fighters, Grimson — now A. Stuart Grimson, Of Counsel, for the firm of Kay, Griffin, Enkema, & Colbert — fought virtually every big-name enforcer in the league, most of them more than once. He had epic, bloody battles with Bob Probert, Rob Ray, Georges Laraque, Peter Worrell, Krzysztof Oliwa, Rocky Thompson — names that hockey fans will forever attach to unforgettable images of taped wrists and fight straps.

In December 1998, Grimson fought a young Prairie kid and member of the Colorado Avalanche named Wade Belak. It was only the ninth fight of Belak’s career; like Grimson before him, he was trying to establish a reputation for fearlessness, for toughness. Like Grimson, Belak had no illusions about what was expected of him and his career. He understood the perils that he faced, the potential costs of his profession. Both men had done their math. Maybe they wouldn’t be the players they had dreamed that they might be, but they would be players, at least.

Two weeks ago, Belak, 35, arthritic and facing down his first winter without professional hockey, hanged himself in a Toronto hotel room. His was a stunning death for a thousand reasons, but not least because, on the surface, he was buoyant and funny, a happy presence so long as he wasn’t trying to fill you in.

He was also the third young man, each of whom had made his living by fighting on ice, to suffer a self-administered death this summer. Two weeks earlier, Rick Rypien, who had been signed to protect the reborn Winnipeg Jets this season, died of an apparent suicide in his Alberta home. In May, Derek Boogaard, one of the most feared fighters in the league, died of an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol in the middle of a post-concussion haze.

With the added loss of some of its best players to concussions — Sidney Crosby’s return remains doubtful, Marc Savard won’t play again this season and might be gone for good — hockey feels as though it has reached a kind of vanishing point, a horizon beyond which no one can see. Changes appear destined — “These tragic events cannot be ignored,” the league and the NHLPA said in a joint statement — but nobody seems to know what, exactly, to make of the game’s tragic summer. Nobody knows where we go from here.

Stu Grimson seems like a good person to ask.

“It’s deeply sad,” he says over the phone from Florida, “but I’m not sure these three men should be put in the same basket. They’re different people who had the same role. I’ll be honest with you — it might be the hardest job in professional sports. I know I had a hard time playing that role. The threat of losing, the physical suffering, the humiliation of defeat — none of that is easy.

“But I loved my life. I had a ball. And then leaving …” he says, his voice lost beneath the sound of the wind and the waves.

On the ice, enforcers breed fear; off the ice, they’re more likely to inspire affection. They’re usually the best guys in the room.

Laraque is now the deputy leader of Canada’s Green Party. Oliwa used to unwind after games by taking his telescope into his backyard and counting stars. Grimson graduated from law school.

Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak, too, were each well liked and respected. They will be unfairly lumped together because of their deaths rather than their lives — they were different players in different circumstances — but the common theme after their departures was how much each of them was loved.

“Man for man, the guys I fought were bright, outgoing, good people,” Grimson says. “A lot of them also happened to be from Western Canada.”

There, the three lost fighters can be more truly linked. They shared the same geography. Boogaard and Belak were from Saskatoon, with its wide streets and bronze statue of Gordie Howe, his elbows up. Rypien was born and died in tiny Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. (Grimson is from British Columbia, played his junior hockey in Regina, and began his education at the University of Manitoba.) They were all Big Sky kids.

As sentimental as it might sound, Westerners really are shaped by their landscape. The expanses of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta, giving way first to folds, then hills, then mountains …

“Living there makes you humble,” Grimson says. “You spend every day of your life humbled by nature.”

That’s why Western Canada is an enforcer factory, why it continues to produce these men so well versed in the lost farm-boy arts. Being a hockey fighter requires bravery and balance and fast hands and a strong chin. But perhaps more than anything else, it requires humility. It requires reconciliation, an understanding of the limits placed on every one of us.

Grimson was pretty handy as a junior. In his last season in Regina, he had 56 points in 71 games. (He also accumulated 248 minutes in penalties.) But after he was drafted by the Calgary Flames, the physical winger saw a different future opening in front of him: He wasn’t quite good enough to play in the NHL unless he brought to it a very particular set of skills.

At first he resisted. “I wasn’t comfortable with the idea,” he says. Grimson chose instead to go to university for two years, where he earned his first credits toward a degree in economics — as well, he says, as the maturity to accept his fate. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he says, “except to say that I grew up a bit. I picked up the emotional equipment I needed to assume that role.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Grimson also found religion around the same time. Throughout his career, the church gave him an outlet, a community far removed from hockey’s sometimes pitiless corners where he could share his secret despairs. His faith, like the Prairies, also humbled him.

“I finally understood that I needed to release the grip on my life,” he says. “If God created me, and He also created the circumstances in which I live, then how I fit is not worth worrying about. These were the gifts I was given, and this is what I’m supposed to do. So I did it.”

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Belak said something similar: “On nights you knew you had to fight, there were nerves, you never slept the night before. But you dealt with it or you didn’t. You don’t really get over it, you just go out and do your job.”

That’s how each of them was able to sit on the bench for much of a game, called to action only when someone needed to get punched. That’s how they reasoned with their violence — by turning it into something selfless, the sacrifice that they would make for their teammates so that they could do what they might do. That’s how they found their temporary peace when they looked across the locker room at the flashy forwards and their collections of significant pucks while they pushed their own swollen hands into buckets of ice.

In Grimson’s first NHL game, back in 1988, he tallied a single statistic: a five-minute fighting major for banging heads with Buffalo’s Kevin Maguire.

Belak got his first fight, against Daniel Lacroix, out of the way nearly as quickly.

That was it.

Like Boogaard, like Rypien, like so many fighters before them, they had found their release.

Unlike the others, Grimson returned. He made it back alive. He’s made it to university classrooms in Manitoba and next in Memphis, and to the offices of Kay, Griffin, Enkema & Colbert, and now to the sunshine coast in Panama City. His life reads like a Mitch Albom book.

“Hockey was one of the most enjoyable parts of my life,” Grimson says. “It was a lot of fun, I met a lot of good people, and I left the game substantially intact.

“But I would be naïve to sit here on this beach and tell you that this is the end of the story.”

Grimson has felt these three recent deaths, most especially Belak’s because of their shared Nashville connection and time on the ice together. But he felt another one more: last summer’s death of Bob Probert, at 45, the victim of a heart attack on his boat. For Grimson, there is no better mirror: He and Probert were born the same year, drafted the same year, and fought each other an incredible 12 times over the course of their parallel careers. “The only difference was he was a much better player,” Grimson says.

Grimson can only pray there’s one more difference. Probert died with clear evidence that he had sustained chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He had shadows on his brain from his many fights; his future, had he lived, might have included dementia, memory loss, and severe depression. And there’s no real reason for Grimson to believe that he somehow escaped without the same damage.

“It really got my attention,” Grimson says. “I could very easily be walking around with the same condition. I expect to live a long, happy, healthy life. But if at some later stage, if it turns out that my profession led to the premature deterioration of my health, I’m sure I’ll tell you I have regrets. Yeah, I think that’s fair to say.”

When Grimson stepped off the ice for what would prove the last time, after that fight against Sandy McCarthy and that game against the Rangers, he had no idea that everything had changed.

He’d fought the game before against Laraque. Then he fought McCarthy. Then came the team flight back to Nashville — and that’s when Grimson felt the first waves of sickness, the first unmistakable heaviness in his head. He told the team trainer and was scratched. They thought his symptoms might clear in two weeks. But then the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into more than a year, and by the time his symptoms had vanished, Grimson was gone from the game, too.

“I think I was as well prepared for my post-hockey career as anybody,” Grimson says, “and it still knocked me on my heels.”

It’s impossible to know what Belak was thinking in his hotel room; none of us will ever really know what it was that chased him into that corner. But he had made plain his love for the game and his sadness at leaving it. Those first few months and years after retirement are punishing for athletes, and it’s more punishing the longer they stayed. They still feel in their hearts as though they are capable of playing — they only just did, the day before last — but they’re not out there anymore. And there’s such a fine line between humility and invisibility. It’s such a short journey between found and lost. The cheering, the money, the nights on the road, and the card games in the back of the bus, they’re all gone, just like that, after so many years of their having provided anchor. Giants disappear; they become golfers or sit on the beach. When even a man like Stu Grimson — a man who had so carefully built a second future for himself — suffers from the game’s absence, it’s not hard to imagine what it might be like for others without the same graces.

The most brutal thing about all of this — about these terrible deaths and brain damage and our fears of unknowable ends — is that in some ways, there’s no escaping any of it. Nothing can be done today to save the lost. They can’t be rescued retroactively. Axons are sheared forever. Stu Grimson is smart and honest enough to know there’s nothing he can do but hope: “My understanding,” he says, “is that there’s no way of knowing, and there’s no remedy even if we did know, so I’ll just live the best life that I can until what comes comes.” The only futures that can be changed are those of the players who haven’t yet played. They’re the only ones who might benefit from our corrections, whatever they might be. For everyone else, it’s too late. There are only so many possible paths.

“I think in every stage in your career or your life, all you can do is take honest stock of your situation,” Grimson says finally. “You have to decide if you can still contribute, whether this is something you might still pursue, or whether it’s time to walk away. Those are really the only choices we ever have. Pursue it or walk away.”

Chris Jones is a Writer at Large for Esquire and is a regular contributor to Grantland. You can find him on Twitter here: @MySecondEmpire.

Previously from Chris Jones:
The Odd Death of Arturo Gatti
The End and Barry Zito
The Art of the Body Shot
The Lost Magic of Bartolo Colon
Ayrton Senna and the Sports Documentary of the Year

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