Will We Still Love the Flyers Without the Blood and Violence?
DANNY BRIERE IS AN UNLIKELY POSTER BOY for the barbaric, bare-knuckle side of hockey. Listed at a generous five-foot-10 and 179 pounds, the Flyers center had a total of two throwdowns in his career, until a game against the Ottawa Senators in January. Briere was fed up with the agitations of opposing forward Kyle Turris, and the two lightweights squared up, trading blows to the head. (In hockey fights, no one bothers with body shots.) Briere left the ice as the home crowd chanted “Dann-y! Dann-y!” and his teammates tapped their sticks on the ice as a sign of respect. Moments like that are why former Flyers like Chris Therien say that brawling still belongs. “That was a passion fight,” says Therien, color analyst for the team’s radio broadcasts. “Those are the best fights, the ones that come from emotion. That’s what the game is all about.”
Even if you’re not well-versed in NHL lore, you’ve probably heard the old Rodney Dangerfield joke: “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.” While fisticuffs date back to the sport’s early days, historians have a difficult time explaining exactly how or why throwing punches became acceptable behavior. Some have traced the game’s violent roots to Montréal’s club teams of the late 1800s, which were divided among ethnic lines and prone to fierce animosity—think Gangs of New York, but in Canada, on skates.
Whatever the root cause of the fighting, Dangerfield’s one-liner probably wouldn’t exist without the Flyers of the ’70s—and specifically without Ed Snider. Sick of watching his upstart squad get outmuscled in the late ’60s, the Flyers owner vowed his team would never get pushed around again. Enter the guys known as Hound, Moose, Big Bird and The Hammer—like Mick, Keith and Jimi, they were rock stars who didn’t need full-name introductions. Their two-fisted play made intimidation as important as scoring and goaltending.
To hockey enthusiasts outside Philadelphia, the Broad Street Bullies were thugs, gap-toothed animals who glorified hockey’s crudest aspects. Here, they were lunch-pail heroes, grinders from the Canadian hinterlands who’d march fearlessly into New York and Boston and win by any means necessary. For a town low on championships compared to our East Coast rivals, the Flyers were revenge incarnate, the schoolyard punching bag who had spent the summer lifting weights and was ready to settle old scores. Though the Flyers were partly responsible for a number of rule changes to curb violence in the game, to this day, nothing gets a crowd—here, and in arenas around the country—fired up like a good scrap. As retired enforcer Georges Laraque once said, “When a team scores, the fans of the team that scored will get on their feet. But when there’s a fight, everyone gets on their feet.”
The cheers faded for a moment last season when the deaths of Boogaard and the two other hockey hit men prompted new debate over fighting. It’s hard to say whether their stories led to the lack of tussles this season—as of January, fighting penalties are down from 1.2 per game to .8. But the potential for long-term brain damage has prompted a handful of retired bruisers to speak out in support of a fighting ban. In an episode of HBO’s Real Sports, a Boston neurosurgeon said that NHL enforcers have admitted they suffer concussions regularly, but hide their symptoms to keep their jobs.
Ian “Lappy” Laperriere was that kind of player for the Flyers. His willingness to sacrifice his body earned him an almost cult-like popularity here, and the title of toughest player in the NHL from the Hockey News. Although Laperriere is technically still on the team, he hasn’t played since the 2010 season, thanks to post-concussion symptoms he suffered after taking two pucks to the face. He guesses he’s had at least 10 concussions in his career. But he has no regrets about the state of his health today. “I get my moments sometimes, but I don’t know if it’s this [last] concussion or the past or just aging,” says the 38-year-old. “The danger is a part of it, but the rewards are so great, you forget about any of that. I was a physical player who fights. I wasn’t a goal scorer. I knew it was the only way I’d be effective.”
Laperriere sees no need to change the game—nor does Fedoruk, who is now an assistant coach for the Flyers’ minor-league affiliate in Trenton. For someone who racked up 1,050 career penalty minutes in just 545 NHL games, the 33-year-old Fedoruk is more easygoing and articulate than one might expect. In the past, he’s admitted to drug and alcohol abuse problems that nearly consumed him, much as they did his friend Boogaard. He also refuses to link his addiction struggles to the head injuries he’s suffered, or worry about what might lie ahead despite being a married father of three. “It’s ignorant not to pay attention to it,” he says, “but until more studies are done, you can’t jump to conclusions.” More succinctly, Laperriere sums it up this way: “It’s a physical sport. If you want a safe game, go watch badminton.”
The Flyers fan in me hears a line like that and wants to skate full-speed into someone, preferably a guy in a Sean Avery jersey. When I was growing up, my favorite player was goaltender Ron Hextall, known for slashing opponents with a two-handed swing of his stick. Some fights are unforgettable, like when Flyers goalie Garth Snow came charging out of the net to defend his teammates, prompting Buffalo’s Dominik Hasek to initiate the rare but beloved goalie brawl. But even Schultz can understand the arguments against fighting, now that the players are so big and the effects of “getting your bell rung” are often much worse than cobwebs and chirping cartoon birds. These days, Schultz spends time speaking to schoolkids about the dangers of bullying. “I never fought before I was drafted by the Flyers,” he says. “I hated it. It was stressful. It wears on you. I’ve never had a fight on the street in my life. Most guys are like me.” Maybe it’s the wisdom that comes with age, or a sense of relief that the game doesn’t appear to have crippled him, but the legendary fighter sounds less like a pugilist and more like a concerned parent. “He’s pretty young,” Schultz says when asked about Fedoruk, who idolized him and the Broad Street Bullies as a kid. “But in 10 years, they might want to test that one. He could have some serious problems later in life.”