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.
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.”
THERE’S ONLY A COUPLE OF TRUE ENFORCERS on the Flyers’ current roster—one is Jody Shelley, who’s played just a handful of games this season. As the game gets faster, heavyweights like Boogaard, Fedoruk and Shelley have become less valuable. Fighters may not be headed toward extinction, but they’re clearly on the endangered species list. And that’s how it should be, says retired Flyers captain Keith Primeau, who balanced offense (284 goals) with physicality (81 fights). Nine games into the 2005 season, Primeau suffered his fourth documented concussion, and the resulting symptoms ended his career. All told, he estimates his total number of concussions at “well north of 10.” Some days, he feels like himself; on others, the ghosts of those old injuries return—head pressure, fatigue, an inability to concentrate. Primeau says that much like the NFL a few years ago, the NHL has yet to come to terms with the real dangers in its game: “There’s still denial. I don’t think there’s concern on the part of the players. They think it’s a shame what happened to those players [like Boogaard], but they think there’s not enough evidence. I’m not as naive as to think there’s not a correlation. I’ve damaged my brain.”
If the league is headed where science seems to be pointing, hockey will eventually face a crisis like the one the NFL is confronting now. Scores of crippled former players from the bigger, faster, stronger ’90s and beyond will exhibit signs of head trauma while they’re still alive, and test positive for CTE after death. Given that, it’s increasingly hard to justify why forearming a guy in the face or ramming his head into the glass isn’t allowed in hockey, but jackhammer punches to the skull are not only condoned but applauded.
In Philadelphia, the stakes of this debate are high: A fighting ban would legislate the Flyers’ very identity out of the game. It’s tempting to say the change might help this city repair its sports image—that perhaps a segment of the fan base, like the animals who beat a Rangers fan at Geno’s Steaks in January, would stop acting like thugs. In reality, though, our passions as fans will always be rooted in the grittiest aspects of our sports. We want our defenses mean, as in the days when Reggie White and Jerome Brown made opposing quarterbacks lose sleep. We loved Allen Iverson not just for his athletic gifts, but for his willingness to bang bodies with guys twice his size. We love hustle ballplayers like Chase Utley, or Aaron Rowand, who earned a spot in Phillies lore simply by running face-first into a wall.
So would Flyers fans walk away if fighting were eliminated? Maybe some, but the truth is, even without the brawling, hockey will never be a ballet on blades. And at least as long as Ed Snider is around, the Flyers will play as physically as the sport allows.
Moments after my conversation with Fedoruk, Flyers forward Max Talbot drops to the ice after a blindside elbow to the head from an Islander player. On the radio, Therien calls it a “ridiculous, filthy, dumb play.” The fan in me is hungry for retaliation from Talbot or a teammate, something to send the old Ed Snider message—the Flyers won’t be pushed around. I’ll still stand up and cheer for a fight. But I won’t boo when the gloves stay on for good someday.