Competition is at the core of sport. Whether against an opponent at an individual or a team level, or with oneself to be better than you were yesterday, competition is the engine that drives sport. Hockey is no exception in that sense, but it is in another, perhaps perverse sense. Hockey tolerates behavior that would otherwise, outside the arena of competition, be considered inappropriate at best and criminal at worst – fighting. Oh sure, the rules provide penalties, and there is even a “code” attached to it, but fighting is part of what seems to make hockey, “hockey,” in the minds of fans and the history of the sport.
For those who practice it, fighting in hockey is the hardest, most thankless, most unforgiving job in sports. Need an example? The New York Times published a story on Tuesday that chronicled the experience of Walter Peat and his son, Stephen, who played with the Washington Capitals for four seasons a decade ago. It is a difficult story to read.
For those who did not see Peat in action with the Capitals, he came to the club by way of a trade with the Anaheim Ducks in June 2000. After missing most of the next season with a groin injury, he debuted with the Caps in the 2001-2002 season and became a fan favorite in short order for his willingness to drop the gloves. In his first game with the Caps, on October 8, 2001, against the Boston Bruins, he was in two fights, the latter of them a harbinger of things to come. At the end of that contest, a 4-0 shutout for the Bruins, Peat and P.J. Stock went at it. It would not be their last meeting.
On January 5th of that same season, Peat and Stock went at it again. The fight was remarkable for its ferocity, but also for the commentary. As the ESPN feed put it at the time, “This is one of the best hockey fights we have seen in a long time…punch after punch. You’ve to be able to take one to give one, and they are…”
Peat certainly took them to give them. In 423 regular season and playoff games from 1996-1997 through 2006-2007, from junior hockey through the NHL, Peat was in 88 fights in 423 games (numbers from hockey-reference.com and hockeyfights.com). Whether Peat’s troubles since leaving the game are the product of this physical trauma or not, it is a painful, even cruel way to make one’s way in one’s profession, one that has potentially catastrophic consequences.
Stephen Peat is but the latest example of the toll that playing the role of enforcer takes on one’s life after the skates are hung up for good. Derek Boogaard, Bob Probert, and Steve Montador are some of the noteworthy examples of the price a player might pay. Ken Dryden has an excellent book on Montador (from which the title of this blog entry is taken) that is well worth the investment to read.
While fighting has diminished as a feature of NHL games over the years, the specific role of an “enforcer” becoming uncommon these days, it does remain a part of the sport with its cadre of fans and supporters. One looks at the practitioners of the art today (for instance, Tom Wilson, with 78 fights in 523 games from the same sources cited above) and wonder what waits in store for them. Here is hoping Stephen and Walter Peat find the help they need (fans can help here) and the peace they deserve, and that those players still skating today and their families never experience that same torment.