I WAS ONCE EJECTED FROM A FLYERS GAME. The year was 2001, and the New Jersey Devils had an overwhelming 5-0 lead headed into the third period. A few work buddies and I had seats behind the visitors’ bench at the First Union Center, and in the final minutes, most of the arena was empty. The Devils added a humiliating seventh goal, prompting a nearby row of punks in Brodeur jerseys to stand up, turn around, and taunt what was left of the Flyers faithful. In my defense, I didn’t throw a punch or challenge them to a brawl. I simply told them, firmly, to sit down, using a particular four-letter word for emphasis. That prompted a security guard to escort me to the nearest exit.
Although I still think a warning would have sufficed, it wasn’t a proud moment. It’s not evidence that I’m any sort of tough guy. But I’m also not the club-box-sitting, chardonnay-sipping type who shakes hands and swaps business cards during a power play. I’ve booed the Penguins and the Rangers (and the Devils and the Sabres). I’ve shouted at refs. And like most Flyers fans, I appreciate a good hockey fight.
Ever since the Broad Street Bullies took on-ice violence to a new level in the 1970s—and won two Stanley Cups in the process—brawling has been essential to the Flyers’ identity and to their bond with Philadelphia. “The colors orange and black [represent] physical hockey,” says Todd “Fridge” Fedoruk, who spent five seasons as a brawler with the team during the 2000s. “If you mess with us, we’ll beat you up. You’re proud to carry on that tradition. My time here was the highlight of my career.”
Throughout his decade in the NHL, the baby-faced Fedoruk tallied around 170 fights. When I ask him how many concussions he’s suffered, he chuckles: “I don’t know what they consider a concussion nowadays. To me, it’s when you’re out cold and can’t remember what happened to you.” He had three of those blackout moments, including one in 2007 when a solid right from Colton Orr of the Rangers sent him crumbling to the ice and Madison Square Garden into a frenzy. The cheers quickly faded to eerie silence as Fedoruk was strapped to a stretcher and wheeled off to a hospital. It wasn’t his first visit: Four years earlier, he’d needed three titanium plates to reconstruct his skull after a bout in a game against the Islanders. “It was nothing that changed the shape of my face,” he says, downplaying the damage. “The orbital didn’t blow out.”
That rugged attitude made the Fridge a fan favorite here, just as his close friend Derek Boogaard was in Minnesota and New York, where the six-foot-seven, 265-pound bruiser was among the most feared fighters in the game. Last year, Boogaard died of a mixture of pain killers and alcohol at age 28. Researchers who later examined his brain discovered he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a condition believed to be caused by head trauma. Symptoms include depression, mood swings and addictive behavior, all of which Boogaard dealt with near the end of his life. Three other ex-NHL players—two of them fighters—had been diagnosed with the disease, which can only be tested for posthumously.
Within a few months of Boogaard’s death, two more NHL enforcers died, reportedly by suicide. Those tragedies, combined with research into sports head injuries, have renewed the debate over fighting’s role in hockey. It’s more than just an academic argument—the physical nature of the game is under assault, with the NHL cracking down on dirty hits and the media raising hard questions about the sport’s violence. Which is why even the purists are now wondering if the brutish prototype that the Flyers popularized—and Philadelphians fell in love with—is headed toward extinction. Dave “The Hammer” Schultz still holds the league’s single-season record for most penalty minutes; when I ask him if fighting should still be a part of the game, despite what appear to be increased health risks, he pauses. “Oh boy,” Schultz says with a sigh. “Probably not.”
It’s quite a statement—the ultimate Broad Street Bully suggesting it might be time for the violence to vanish. The question is whether our city’s passion for the Flyers will disappear right along with it.