I don’t normally respond to the comments posted after my online columns, but after I wrote my opinions on the Brandon Sugden situation this past week, there was one I could not ignore.
It came from Travis Sugden, Brandon’s father. It talked about how my portrayal of his son as a goon brought him to tears. “I don’t know how to start telling you how wrong you are about my son,” was one of his comments. “Brandon Sugden is as good a human being as there ever has been,” was another. “He is my hero,” was another.
It was heartfelt, it was touching and it was emotional. And as a father myself, I found it inspiring to see someone come to such a public and vociferous defense of his son. But what impressed me most about it was that it was rational and respectful, unlike so many fighting apologists who respond to anti-fighting opinions by questioning the writer’s sexuality and/or telling him to cover women’s tennis.
I returned Travis Sugden’s email and suggested we talk further. I called his home and between labored breaths - Travis is battling cancer - he told me more about his son. We talked about fighting and its place in hockey and we agreed to disagree. He told me he has good days and bad days in his fight with cancer and that today was a good day.
He passionately spoke about Brandon, who began training camp with the New York Islanders Friday after receiving a tryout this summer. Four teams originally protested the tryout on the basis Sugden had filed retirement papers two years ago, but continued to play professional hockey in the Ligue Nord Americaine de Hockey in Quebec.
Travis spoke about his son’s battle with the personal demons of addiction and how he was a star defenseman with the Toronto Red Wings minor hockey team. He was a non-fighter until he was drafted 38th overall by the London Knights and went to play for the Ontario League team in 1995. It was then Sugden was turned into a fighter and began drinking. As Sugden’s reputation as a fighter grew, his life continued to go off the rails.
And I don’t think that’s a pure coincidence. The pressures of dealing with playing that role and the turmoil it can impose on a player are often unbearable.
“Most of the time he was drunk,” Travis said of Brandon’s professional hockey career. “Even when he played.”
Sugden was suspended for life from the ECHL in 2001 after throwing his stick at a fan, but the suspension was later rescinded.
Brandon turned his life around and according to his father, has been clean and sober for the past seven years. He used his experience for good and brought his message to others. When he played for the Syracuse Crunch of the American League, he was one of the most popular players on the team and random acts of kindness were commonplace.
“He did things in the community he would never want people to know about,” Travis said.
Travis also talked about the two years Brandon spent with the St-Jean Chiefs of the LNAH, the most notorious goon league in the world. Sugden would not practice with the team and only showed up on weekends for the games.
“They paid him $500 a game,” Travis said. “He’d drive there on Friday and he’d play Friday night. He’d get into his three fights and go back to the hotel without even knowing who won the game. The next night he would do the same thing and collect his money. Then he’d get into his truck and drive home to be back in the office Monday morning.”
I don’t doubt for a moment Brandon Sugden is a wonderful person. The truth is, most players who are notorious fighters on the ice are the most docile and giving people off the ice. But nothing Travis Sugden said made me change my opinion of his son as a player.
I still think there’s no place for players like Sugden in the game and I believe it’s a blight on the game that they’re allowed to exist and encouraged to assume a role almost all of them are forced into playing.
“It would be a miracle if Brandon made the NHL,” Travis acknowledged. “But it was a miracle for him to play in the AHL after sitting out for more than two years.”
As we finished the conversation, Travis said perhaps one day we would cross paths and we could get together over a glass of milk because, like his son, he doesn’t drink alcohol either.
That’s one meeting I’m hoping to have someday down the road.
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