“He’s the finest athlete in sports now,” he told his friend, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, “I worship him.”
The worship services, or rather, game one of the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals between the Colorado Avalanche and the New Jersey Devils would soon commence. Zevon and the good Doctor settled in to watch Patrick Roy at work. It turned out to be one of Roy’s best days on the job. No pucks got past him as Colorado beat New Jersey 5-0. Thompson described the mood as beyond excitable, with Zevon claiming Roy “could have beaten New Jersey all by himself. He made midgets of us all. I will never forget this game.”
Afterwards, Zevon and Thompson, enlivened by Roy, the game and the sheer fun of it, fashioned their unique perspectives to create a song. Conjuring life in the Kingdom of Fear, Zevon and Thompson delivered their post-game highlight with the bluesy “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.” Zevon croons curtly that “Dangerous creeps are everywhere” and his dark appraisal takes hold. In other kingdoms of fear, Zevon has reported on athletes, junkies, sociopaths, mercenaries and werewolves, conveying their stories with vibrant melodies. Yes, Warren Zevon quite understood the nature of “dangerous creeps.” He also had a certain empathy for “goons.”
Unlike a Patrick Roy, goons are not among the finest athletes in the arenas, but on the ice, they make critical encounters and are valued by their teammates. More respectfully called “enforcers,” there is generally not more than one goon per National Hockey League team. Goons play at forward and on defense, but not all that skillfully. The goon’s main contributions stem from his aggressiveness. He has size and force to disrupt the opposition. He also carries an ample fist when it’s time to hit somebody. And that’s the sort of player Zevon, along with journalist Mitch Albom, wrote about in “Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song).” Not a Patrick Roy, Bobby Orr, Stan Mikita or Wayne Gretzky, but a goon, a player that John Branch of The New York Times described as what “may be hockey’s favorite archetype,” those “seen as working-class superheroes –understated types with an alter ego willing to do the most dangerous work to protect others.” Branch calls them “underdogs, men who otherwise might have no business in the game.” What splendid subject matter for Warren Zevon.
Zevon tells the story of Buddy, “born in Big Beaver by the borderline.” Buddy dreamed of making it to the N.H.L., hoping one day he’d charge up and down the ice like Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Not graced with speed or dexterity, Buddy had to settle for another role: the goon. He would intimidate, punch and prevail as the ice turned red with blood. Zevon spins Buddy’s childhood story as one adjusting to his limitations: “Through pee-wees, juniors, midgets and mites… He must have racked up more than six hundred fights.” As the scout from the Calgary Flames tells it in the song, “Son, we’ve always got room for a goon.”
Buddy wanted to score goals, yet the coach reminded him that was the work of the fast guys.
The fast guys get paid, they shoot, they score
Protect them, Buddy, that’s what you’re here for
The dream of scoring at least one goal stayed with Buddy, and finally, in his last game, he got his shot. Think of “Rudy” at Notre Dame and then take in Buddy’s grand moment. After 20 years of being the enforcer, Buddy put the biscuit in the basket. The red light flashed. Dreams come true, at least in a world conjured by Warren Zevon.
Buddy’s dream was realized after a lifetime of sweat, dashed hopes and physical abuse. Zevon’s Buddy is unlike the most famous fictional character in rock and roll, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” With Johnny, the talent was there, he just needed to keep playing that guitar, knowing people would hear him, and that soon they’d pay to hear him. Johnny’s mother knew his name would be in lights. He’d be the star, not an act way down the bill. Chuck Berry, whose own guitar work has given birth to scores of rock and roll songs, gave Johnny his happy ending, but it took a lot of persistence to make it happen. It’s reminiscent, in a way, of the teen-aged Bill Clinton. The 16 year-old from Arkansas thought of one day running for office; getting to shake hands with President Kennedy may have sealed his determination. His dream was born and through lots of grit, hard work and setbacks, Clinton also got his name in lights. But the lives of Johnny B. Goode and Bill Clinton are the exceptions that prove the rule, real world or not.
I’m A Desperate Man . . . . Back in the real world, sometimes as interesting as Zevon’s, the N.H.L. is back at play. The second lockout this century has finally ended and a truncated season is on. That inspires celebration for fans and players of the game, which over the last two years, has gained unwelcome attention for its cursed labor-management issues and tragedies associated with its enforcers. Three players, each who had served as goons, none older than 35, died between May 13 and August, 31, 2011. The most sensational of the three deaths was Derek Boogaard’s. The New York Times, later that year published a three-part series by John Branch on Boogaard’s struggles. It’s a heartbreaking story. While with the Minnesota Wild for 5 seasons through 2010, Boogaard suffered severe back pain, undergoing two surgeries and developing a serious addiction to painkillers. He was a big man, so it took more pills than normal for the pain to ease. It was reported he’d go through 30 pills in a couple of days. His brother Aaron told Branch it would take “8 to 10 at a time” for Boogaard to feel okay. Branch wrote that “Boogaard’s fist was the most feared weapon in the N.H.L.,” but that was no help during those private painful moments.
As the 2010-11 N.H.L. season commenced, Derek Boogaard took the ice with the New York Rangers. Times seemed good in the field of N.H.L. enforcement. Boogaard had a new multi-year contract, a big one for a goon. He craved being on center stage in the city that doesn’t sleep. But in his 22nd game, Boogaard’s season ended with a serious concussion. Suffering from post-concussion syndrome, his dependency on painkillers increased. He’d drive out to the Long Island suburb of Huntington to buy thousands of dollars of prescription drugs, illicitly, from a dealer. The body that slammed its way through hockey arenas across North America could only take so much. Early on the morning of May 13, 2011, Derek Boogaard died from an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone.
Boogaard died 41 days shy of his 29th birthday. Much of life set him up for an early death. He had it tough as a kid. Growing up, Boogaard was the biggest kid in his class and though not a natural bully, he was thought to be a troublemaker. One grade school teacher, according to John Branch’s series, often relegated Boogaard to a closet. For a kid, that was an extra cruel version of the penalty box. So what does an out-of-place prairie boy do? He learns to skate with a hockey stick and he learns to box. The combination of those skills, particularly given the ferocity of his punches, helped him realize his dreams. In the 2001 N.H.L. draft, Boogaard was picked by Minnesota. Three seasons later, he would make the big team and stay there for 5 years. Then on to a season in New York, a season that ended a month and two days after Boogaard’s death.
The N.H.L. wishes the fighting on the ice that mars a brilliantly beautiful game would just go away. That’s easier said than done. The fighting is popular with lots of paying customers. Even some players, including those punched out numerous times, respect the need for goons. Todd Federeuk, now retired after 9 years as an enforcer, believes the role is still vital. In an online chat with New York Times readers, Federuk stated, “There are certain players who have no respect for the opponent. A fighter enforces that respect amongst players.” He told one fan “the enforcer’s role is the best way to keep the players safe,” and to “keep in mind the game is entertainment, and hockey is not as exciting without physical play.” Federuk reminded another fan that his kids could see more violence on the 6 p. m. news in one minute than they would at 10 hockey games.” Despite his career-altering injury in a fight with Boogaard in 2006, and that he, like Boogaard, also battled the demons that are painkillers, Federuk isn’t a cheerleader for change in North American hockey. He also says he wouldn’t change a thing. Federuk now works as an assistant coach for the Trenton Titans of the East Coast Hockey League, two levels below the N.H.L..
Atlanta sports reporter and photographer Jeff Slate, who has worked over 1000 N.H.L. games and has interviewed over 5,000 hockey players, takes the Federuk comments in stride, but is optimistic about the game’s future. He acknowledges fighing in the N.H.L. has greatly diminished in the last 10 to 20 years. Slate says, “A goon can be a tremendous liability if he has no skills other than fighting … and since the league has really toughened up against goons, the goon can cost his team many games. A 4-minute power play can wipe out any advantage an even-strength team has over its opponent. Fighting will always be a part of the sport, but I, and I believe many others, find so much of the fighting ridiculous. It adds nothing to the game. In fact, I find it boring. Hockey can be a beautiful game of great skill in skating, passing and shooting. Fighting many times just slows up the game. It becomes an intrusion. Most of the fights are quite boring and pathetic.”
Todd Federuk’s statements come as no surprise to Slate. “It’s the game he grew up with and loved and probably doesn’t know how to play it any other way,” Slate says, then pointing out that “some goons think otherwise; for example, Dave ‘The Hammer’ Schultz, the holder of the most penalty minutes in a season, a record that will probably never be broken. Schultz wasn’t brought up to be an enforcer, but once in the league, he knew it was the only way to stay in it. Though not addicted to painkillers, he now regrets many of his actions.”
Dangerous Creeps Are Everywhere . . . . Warren Zevon gave Buddy a Horatio Alger story of sorts, happy ending intact. Buddy got his goal, but it would’ve been more thrilling to listeners of the song if the performance by Zevon and band hadn’t lumbered so. David Letterman’s guest slot on the chorus, when he shouts, “Hit somebody!” fails to make the desired impact because the music, a familiar Zevon melody, isn’t played with the dash that enlivens “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” or “Trouble Waiting to Happen.” Still Zevon leaves a strong impression with his creation. Buddy is so real that we can speculate about his life after he put away the skates that last time. Maybe the Calgary Flames hired him as a scout: a nice job with a contract and expenses. Many former athletes, even great ones, with their charms and P.R. skills, don’t have it so good. They’ve blown all their money. Some are working at used car lots. Others are dealing with the law over distribution of drugs and financial fraud. The worse among them slap their wives around. One famously stabbed his wife to death. Life goes on, sometimes very badly, after the cheering stops. You can run through linemen and you can run through airports, but you sure can’t hide.
(Author’s Postscript: Readers are advised to check out the columns Hunter S. Thompson wrote for the ESPN website, including “Champions Roy and Zevon,” which provided some inspiration as I prepared this piece. Thanks to Jeff Slate for his thoughts on pro hockey as well as a big Thank-You to Tracey Paul for providing the photo of her with Warren Zevon, taken at the Clearwater Peaches Records and Tapes in 1980.)