NHL Enforcers Have a Tough Job

Hockey rough-em-up guys lead brutal lives

As football is slowly facing up to the reality that repeated shots to the head can have a horrific—sometimes deadly—effect over time, hockey is now being confronted with that problem as well. Although in an intriguing way: We’re starting to understand how the guys who deliver the punishment suffer. That means, in hockey, the designated tough guys, the bullies, the goons who pick fights. It isn’t easy for them, either.

In May, Derek Boogaard—6-foot-8, 270 pounds—accidentally killed himself with an overdose of alcohol and painkillers. He was 28. Then, last month: 27-year-old Rick Rypien killed himself in his home in Alberta, and a couple of weeks later, Wade Belak, 35 years old, hung himself in a Toronto hotel room.

They were all NHL enforcers, their team’s tough guy. They got into hundreds of fights. Sometimes, they pounded each other.

Every team has a bully. In Philly, it’s Jody Shelley. In fact, he’s currently serving a suspension for shoving an opposing player face-first into the wall boarding a rink. It wasn’t too bad—Toronto’s Darryl Boyce only got a broken nose. He came back to play in the same game. Shelley, though, got a 10-game ban. It wasn’t his first.

Shelley’s been in the NHL for a decade, and he’s been suspended five times, twice last year, once when he ran over a guy from behind, then for sucker punching a Vancouver player. But that’s his job. He’s 6-3, 225. He’s on the team to intimidate, and to serve retribution. A few years ago, he got into 30 fights in one season.

But here’s the rub: It’s easy to paint this part of hockey as neanderthal, and enforcers as blockheads. But what’s emerging in the wake of the deaths of three enforcers is just how hard that job is. Recently, one of the league’s top tough guys, Georges Laraque, now retired, told the New York Times that he couldn’t sleep the night before he knew he would have to pound an opposing player.

“The guys that have played the role have never denied how it makes them feel and what it does to them emotionally,” Brantt Myhres, a former enforcer who got repeated treatment for alcohol and drug addictions told the Times. Myhres is now a substance-abuse counselor. “It’s one of the hardest jobs in sports. All people see is 20,000 people standing and cheering you on. They don’t see the dark times. They don’t see you curled up in a ball in a hotel room, scared to death for the next fight.”

Jody Shelley is the son of a miner, and once played for the Halifax Mooseheads in the hockey boondocks. He holds that team’s record for penalty minutes. He was also named the number-one Moosehead player of all time.

Now, his suspension means that another enforcer has to step in, and maybe take his job: Perhaps Tom Sestito, who is 6-5, 228. Or, much smaller but feisty enough, Zac Rinaldo, merely 5-11, 180. Shelley will have to come back swinging.

But, as player agent Scott Norton told the Times: “The common thread is that [enforcers] go to war every day. What have they done in their lives to prepare themselves for that?”