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A new brawl game

Recent deaths of three former tough guys put the changing role of the NHL enforcer under scrutiny

By John Powers
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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John Wensink remembers sitting in the dressing room with a befogged head one night in Chicago when he wasn’t sure whether he’d just come off the ice or was about to go back on.

“I didn’t say anything,’’ the former Bruins tough guy recalls. “Back then, you went out after the game to have a few beers with your teammates and if you had a headache the next morning, you weren’t sure if it was from a concussion or from the extra beer you had.’’

Such was the hard-nosed culture in the National Hockey League of the 1970s and ’80s, when games were regarded as incomplete if there wasn’t at least one toe-to-toe scrap involving the team’s designated head-knockers.

Now, in the wake of the deaths this year of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard, and increased concern about brain injuries, the role of the bare-fisted enforcer has come under increased scrutiny.

“The Last Gladiators,’’ a documentary being shown at the Toronto International Film Festival that features former Boston and Montreal hitman Chris “Knuckles’’ Nilan, is a sobering tale about the pugnacious players who traditionally have been labeled everything from policemen to goons.

“There aren’t any easy roles in the game,’’ says Mike Milbury, who was a physically imposing sentinel during his 11 seasons with the Bruins. “If you aren’t the enforcer, you might be the guy getting the crap kicked out of him by the enforcer.’’

Belak, Rypien, and Boogaard all were rough-and-tumblers with limited ability, compiling a combined 2,078 penalty minutes but only 20 goals in their 945 games in the league. How much the nature of their work contributed to their deaths - two of which were apparent suicides - may be unknowable.

“I think we’re making huge assumptions and we have to be very careful,’’ says Milbury. “These seem to be unique situations.’’

What is beyond doubt is that today’s enforcers play a different game under different rules than did their predecessors three decades ago. When the Big Bad Bruins and Philadelphia’s Broad Street Bullies wrangled and wrassled during what Flyers hardman Dave Schultz once called “the Dark Ages of hockey,’’ bench-clearing brawls were routine around the league.

Group intimidation was the byword.

“Every town we went to, the team would bring in two or three guys the night before we got there,’’ former Bruins center Peter McNab once recalled. “And they weren’t bringing in Dorothy Hamill.’’

Memories of mayhem The donnybrooks were legendary. In the second game of the 1980 playoff series between the Bruins and Islanders, Milbury, Stan Jonathan, Wayne Cashman, and Al Secord were engaged in simultaneous punch-ups at the end of a first period in which 248 penalty minutes were whistled.

The Bruins and North Stars tallied 406 penalty minutes and a dozen game misconducts in a 1981 Garden party.

“This team has been laughing at us and sneering at us for long enough,’’ declared Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor, whose club never had won a game on Causeway Street.

In a 1987 home date with Quebec, half a dozen Bruins and three Nordiques were ejected amid a tussle that produced 167 penalty minutes and had every man in uniform paired up for jabs and uppercuts.

In the classic Yuletide free-for-all at Madison Square Garden in 1979, the spectators got involved after an end-of-game shoving match between the Bruins and Rangers when Milbury, Terry O’Reilly, and McNab led a parade of teammates into the stands to mete out retribution and ended up with suspensions and fines.

The most famous group encounter, though, might have been one in 1977 that didn’t happen, when Wensink invited the entire Minnesota bench to take him on - and had no takers.

“I don’t think anyone would do that now,’’ he says. “They’d probably get 30 games and lose a nice chunk of money.’’

The day of the donnybrook is long past, thanks not only to the third-man-in ban but also to the instigator and aggressor rules that bring multiple penalties. And while the enforcer’s role remains, there are fewer of them than there once were.

“There aren’t many teams now that have more than one,’’ observes Milbury.

While the Bruins of earlier times might have had several, most of them had more than pugilistic skills. O’Reilly logged a club-record 2,095 penalty minutes, prompting the Garden owners to give him the box when they tore down the original building. “Squatter’s rights,’’ O’Reilly joked at the time. But he also ranks eighth in career points (606) and led the club in scoring in 1977-78. And Wensink scored 57 goals in his three-plus seasons in Boston, 28 of them in 1978-79.

Both men, though, primarily are remembered for their pitbull qualities, as is Nevin Markwart, the 1983 first-round pick who was drafted as both a scorer and slugger.

“You’re always looking for that role where you’re the best in the league,’’ says Markwart. “That’s how you get to keep playing.’’

A more concussive game Especially in the Lunchpail AC days, toughness was prized by the spoked-B brotherhood, with the Jonathans and Wensinks regarded as blue-collar heroes and shots to the head were shrugged off as occupational hazards in a day when helmets were not yet mandatory.

“We were all concerned with knees and shoulders,’’ says Milbury.

When the tough guys had their heads examined, it usually was because of a blow they’d absorbed during normal play. After O’Reilly was taken to a hospital after being slammed into a stanchion during a game with Quebec, he watched the slow-motion replay during a highlights show.

“I turned to the nurse,’’ he said, “and I told her, ‘This guy is going to get smoked.’ ’’

Markwart, who is now the president and chief executive of a Calgary financial firm, once had a CT scan after being knocked cold from banging headfirst into the boards.

“They told me that it showed purple dots on my brain, places where the brain had died,’’ he says. “I never showed that brain scan when I applied to get my MBA because I thought they might not let me in.’’

For the most part, Markwart and his fellow Bruins bangers emerged unscathed.

“I haven’t noticed any effects yet,’’ says O’Reilly, who played 891 games in Black and Gold, more than Bobby Orr.

And Wensink, who tallied 840 penalty minutes in his seven full years in the NHL, reports no lingering fog.

“My kids have asked me, ‘Dad, do you ever have headaches?’ ’’ he says. “But I never have. I don’t know if I was lucky. Or maybe I didn’t get hit that hard.’’

Other NHL enforcers weren’t so fortunate. Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming both were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy after their deaths by Boston University neuropathologists, who also are examining Boogaard’s brain.

Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak played a markedly different game than Wensink and O’Reilly and Milbury did.

“It’s evolution,’’ says O’Reilly, who doubts that he could play in the NHL now. “Ever visit the USS Constitution and see the size of the bunks? Players are bigger, stronger, more maneuverable now.’’

They also leave themselves open to getting hammered more than their predecessors.

“I do think the players of today do not know how to protect themselves,’’ muses Markwart. “They go into the boards at a different angle. If we went in face-first, we were going to get slammed and the ref wasn’t going to call it.’’

The increased size and speed of the participants and the armor-like hardness of their equipment have made the game decidedly more concussive.

“It’s not that the game is getting more vicious, it’s just faster,’’ reckons O’Reilly. “You take a crash-test dummy hitting a wall. The higher the speed, the greater the damage.’’

For enforcers and everyone else, it’s still a hard-knock life in the NHL. And while the league has cracked down on group grappling and outlawed hits targeting the head, there’s nowhere to run out of bounds.

“The bottom line is if you don’t want to get hurt, don’t play,’’ says Milbury. “The deaths have everybody on edge, but I don’t think they’re ever going to make the game baby-proof.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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