PHILADELPHIA - Jody Shelley had never been in a fight, not on the ice, not on the playground, not anywhere.
That changed with a job at stake.
His first step toward the NHL started with his first punch, when Shelley decided to take on the baddest brawler on the Halifax Mooseheads.
"I kind of thought, if I run into this guy, I'll give it a go," Shelley said. "I wanted to make an impression."
At 18, Shelley had already grown into his 6-foot-3 frame and was willing to try anything to stand out among a group of about 85 junior hockey prospects in camp. He tussled with the tough guy and threw down bully-to-bully. With a few fateful slugs, a future enforcer was born.
An assistant coach advised Shelley a few days later to keep fighting because that role could be his shot at the big time.
"So I just kept doing it," Shelley said. "I got beat up every single night."
But three deaths over the summer from the NHL's fraternity of enforcers have critics again loudly asking if fighting has a place in the league. For the players who throw punches and claim squatter's rights on the penalty box, fighting must remain part of the game. They crave the rush—even as evidence mounts that suffering repeated blows to the head could cause long-term brain damage, bring on depression, or worse.
Hard hits and hard nights are a way of life for one of the most unique collection of athletes in any sport.
Shelley tries not to think about fighting until it's time to drop the gloves.
"The more you think about it, you can make it a lot worse than it has to be," he said.
Shelley perfected his craft in the minor leagues, reaching the NHL six years later. In his debut with Columbus, he had 10 minutes in penalties.
He hasn't stopped scrapping over an 11-year career that has him now protecting the backs of his Philadelphia Flyers teammates. He's dished out punishing hits, absorbed his share of blows, and been slapped with suspensions: His latest came this week after he drove defenceless Toronto centre Darryl Boyce face-first into the boards. Shelley was suspended for the remainder of the preseason and the first five games of the regular season.
Shelley was confronted by Toronto's Jay Rosehill and they dropped the gloves and fought for about 70 punishing seconds. Shelley left a bloody mess as the Philly crowd roared and his teammates smacked their sticks against the boards in unison.
"I just instantly wanted to grab him," Rosehill said, "and away we went."
Defending a teammate is part of the unwritten code of justice that's helped define the NHL for decades. These men are known as enforcers. Goons. Some even label them guardians of the game.
The consequences are worries for another time.
"We're a breed of athlete that doesn't want to quit," said Vancouver's Todd Fedoruk. "We fight harder, that's what we do."
For many of the players, fighting is the only way they can make it or stay in the league. New York Islanders centre Zenon Konopka led the NHL last year with 307 PIM and scored only nine points in 82 games. Shelley, set to earn US$1.1 million this year, had 127 penalty minutes and four points last season in 58 games. It's hit—or hit the bench. Bang or bust for the most rugged men in the league.
All stories are different in their own way, certainly, but the pressure to fight can take a toll on the psyche. Faces are broken, games are missed, careers can be shortened. Kids grow up dreaming of scoring goals like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, not cashing checks as a well-paid thug.
Even so, there's more to fighting than meets the eye.
Coaches might ask a fighter to rally the team and shift momentum with a well-timed jab. Maybe it's retaliation for a previous fight. The enforcers are human shields for the stars—don't lay a finger on the captain—or it could be old-fashioned retribution. The Flyers' Broad Street Bullies glory days set the template for teams that wanted to mix toughness with titles—the franchise won consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975.
Dave "The Hammer" Schultz patrolled the ice for the Bullies as their enforcer, setting an NHL single-season record for penalty minutes. He sees a sizable difference between fighters from his era and the ones in today's NHL.
Schultz was six-foot-one and fought at 180 to 190 pounds, while the tale of the tape of today's feared fighters is around 6-5, 230-plus.
"It can be very hazardous to your health nowadays," Schultz said. "I'm glad I'm retired. These guys are huge. Now it's two big heavyweights putting on a show."
The violent show is part of the fun. Fans revel in two men pounding each other for sport. At least the combatants are ordered to the penalty box, not thrown to the lions.
"There's definitely an entertainment factor," Shelley said, "but that's the last valid point."
The entertainment factor was highlighted in "Slap Shot," where the bespectacled Hanson brothers immortalized goonery. Warren Zevon wrote one of the great sports songs, "Hit Somebody!" a tongue-in-cheek narrative that highlighted the wayward life of a goon. Hockeyfights.com has become a 24/7 bonanza of classic bouts, tonight's fights, records, stats and quotable quips about the best fights around not held in a boxing ring or octagon.
The fun stopped when three former enforcers were found dead this summer.
Derek Boogaard, once named in a Sports Illustrated players poll as the NHL's toughest fighter, died from an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone, officials said. Boston University scientists are studying his brain to determine whether he had a degenerative condition resulting from hits to the head. Wade Belak hanged himself and Rick Rypien was discovered at his home in Alberta after a call was answered for a "sudden and non-suspicious" death. Rypien had suffered from depression for a decade.
Tragic coincidence or the start of a sobering trend?
"It (ticks) me off that people take the opportunity to exploit a certain part of the game," said Boston's Shawn Thornton. "Those are very sad instances and I don't think exploiting a part of the game is the right way to go. I think we should remember the people as the men they were and not what they did for a living."
Said Shelley: "I'm not at the point where I worry about it. I'm at the point where I'm aware."
While the Flyers-Maple Leafs fight suggests otherwise, perhaps players will think twice before answering the bell for the next fight or aiming for the head on a blindside hit. Pittsburgh Penguins enforcer Matt Cooke has vowed to change his ways after dishing illegal hits that targeted the head.
"I was always trying to hit guys as hard as I could," Cooke said. "There's scenarios on the ice where even if I hit a guy 100 per cent clean, because of the situation, his momentum is going to put him in the boards. At this point and time in my career, I'm ready to let that go and play a different way."
Fighting is outlawed in the Olympics and rare in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The NHL created the "instigator" rule to punish the player that started the fight. Teammates are banned from leaving the bench for a brawl.
"I don't think it's something that's ever going to leave the game," Fedoruk said.
Shelley is married with two kids, and while he jokes his wife "loves it more and more every year," he knows fighting isn't the easiest path to the NHL. If his son, who just turned three, is going to club anything, he hopes it's a little white ball and not a bloodied hockey player.
"I'm trying to get him into golf."
AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen in Boston and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.