Rob Ramage was found guilty on Wednesday of drunk driving in the incident that killed former Chicago Blackhawk Keith Magnuson. The response from his coterie of supporters is an odd sort of incredulity that he may actually have to pay for what he did. It's a glaring example of the long-standing claim by many that athletes are so accustomed to being treated as special that they never learn what it means to take responsibility. More than that though, it's a reminder that the booze-soaked hockey sub-culture is alive and well.
One of the saving graces of growing up in a frozen hole like Winnipeg is the number of outdoor hockey rinks that are dotted around the city. Every neighbourhood has a few community centres where, from the beginning of November until the end of February, anyone can go and lace on their skates. You can join in a pick up game or simply coast around on the one ice surface that is usually reserved for both such purposes. As a youngster I spent many hours at the local rinks. By the time I was old enough that a curfew no longer restricted my movements, I would on occasion head out at 11:00 or 12:00 at night when the clubhouse was closed and the floodlights were off.
A perfect windless night for a lone midnight skate with a six pack chilling behind the gate on one of the benches. The ice-cold booze numbs the back of my throat and adds to the surreal atmosphere. Float around in a kind of meditative trance heightened by the effects of the alcohol. Hammer a few shots on net, try to improve my backward skating, enjoy the fact that for once I'm the best player on the ice.
Sit in the box and slurp back a few more leisurely drinks amongst the detritus of the rink. A few splintered sticks, wads of used tape, even a broken puck or two. Laugh about how such an image would play with most people...alone on a frozen night at a deserted ice rink relaxing with a few beers and contemplating life. I take another slug...
The old Winnipeg Arena was located on Maroons Rd. and St. James St. and shared the same patch of real estate with the city's biggest shopping mall, Polo Park. Running along St. James St, which faced the large parking lot and the side of the arena, were a handful of mid-sized wholesale businesses with the requisite loading docks in the back. A rail-line ran behind them and then further on some side streets that were perfect for parking for Jets games and other events at the arena.
Before tail-gate parties there were impromptu pre-game booze sessions that took place on one of the loading docks of the rarely used or deserted businesses. With the arena visible a few hundred metres away and the buzz of the game gaining energy, we whipped ourselves into an alcohol induced frenzy.
The trickle of early arrivers turned into a steady flow of people and then a surging crowd as the opening faceoff approached. Raging towards the game we would stop traffic as we crossed the street and join the throng wedging themselves into the arena. The swilling would continue with cans smuggled in and topped up with the overpriced beer sold at the concession stands.
Playoff hockey provided one of the year's greatest reasons for going on a six week to two months long bender. The rush of the alcohol high together with the excitement of following your team creates an addictive and powerful rush. Not only is the experience incredible but the validation of all those around you who are getting similarly shitfaced adds to the feeling. Even simple things like the barrage of beer commercials rolled out around the playoffs especially to honour committed drinkers, makes it a great time to be alive and drunk. Knowing that the brotherhood of boozers includes many of those players you are cheering for every night adds to the collective insanity.
It’s at once odd but completely understandable that no NHL club has yet enforced a team-wide ban on drinking amongst its players. With the millions at stake and the fleeting window of opportunity for any collection of players to challenge for the Cup, something as simple as eliminating the short-term detrimental health effects of even occasional alcohol intake, would no doubt be positive. Impossible to implement, of course. Beyond any other rationale, booze is legal. Just like the failure to compete and win, a player who can’t handle a few drinks is the one at fault and is simply demonstrating weakness.
Drinking is part of the teenage hockey sub-culture as it is within every other group of adolescent boys. For the simple reason that it feels good and creates incredibly strong and powerful memories. Especially in the early going of a young piss-head’s life, when those feelings are so new and more likely to create lasting impressions.
There are always a percentage of people who, for a variety of reasons, are sucked into the nastiness that is alcoholism and are unable to moderate or control their urges like most others. The NHL has had more than a few examples of players over the years whose careers and/or lives were cut short because of the bottle.
Derek Sanderson was a star player for the Boston Bruins (and a handful of other teams) and one of the earliest celebrities in the game. Because of all the glamour, accolades and hangers-on that came with success, Sanderson’s off-ice routine became one long alcohol-soaked party. As a way to keep himself plugged into, or insulated from, the non-stop lunacy of the off-ice distractions, he kept on pounding back the drinks.
Sanderson eventually reached the proverbial bottom of the bottle. A down and out skid row vignette straight out of the pits of despair, Sanderson woke up on a park bench hung over, with waves of nausea and self-loathing coursing over him.
Though his playing was greatly affected by his alcoholism, at least he salvaged his life and went on to have a second career as a sportscaster and businessman.
For a player like Sanderson, who reached a high level in terms of playing ability, his off-ice downfall was similarly spectacular and can be compared to other sports legends and their tribulations. Spurred on by the voyeuristic energy of those witnessing such a tragedy, it’s almost like a performance of another kind.
Bryan Fogarty stepped into a tragic role fueled by a cocktail of his inner demons and a river of booze that never stopped flowing until the day he died. It was a trajectory that was instantly recognized by others around him. Yet they were helpless to intervene and save what could have been a very good professional hockey career or at least a life lived beyond the age of 32.
Fogarty could never handle the pressure of a big league career and drank as a way to deal with it all. Just like sports, alcohol is one of those many things humans use as an escape from reality. It allows a person to hide from their problems while providing a whiff of already known or hoped for glory. Of course, the longer you use booze as way to avoid facing your weaknesses, the more tragic their effect on your life will be in the long run.
John Kordic was a bruiser who played for a handful of NHL teams including the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. As with many hard-core drinkers, he seemed to gain solace not only from alcohol but from the seediness and accompanying sideshow that is part of the drinking lifestyle. Perhaps it brought reality down to a place that was similar to the internal dialogue and thoughts he had about himself. It’s tempting to offer up half-baked speculation like that in an attempt to bring some kind of semblance of understanding to tragedies such as Kordic’s, though no doubt it’s more nuanced than that.
Like Fogarty, Kordic died at a young age as a direct result of his drinking (and drug use.) The two had apparently formed a brief friendship based on the shared understanding that they both had a serious problem.
Brian "Spinner" Spencer was another tragic case whose problems with alcohol and drugs led to an early death. Spencer grew up in the tough northern B.C. town of Fort St. James and developed a taste for alcohol at a young age.
The effects of alcohol are different for everyone. For every functional boozer there's someone for whom the drink latches onto one of their fundamental flaws, takes hold and never lets go. For Spencer, it must have somehow seemed appropriate to lead a reckless life on and off the ice. Perhaps he felt cursed after his father was killed in a shoot-out with police.
He had been enraged when his son’s first big league game as a Toronto Maple Leaf played on a Saturday night, a match-up originally scheduled to be shown on the CBC in his area, was pre-empted. He stormed off with a gun to the closest CBC station and minutes after arriving he was dead.
Spencer’s personal life included the usual string of self-made problems that come with out of control substance abuse. He ended up leaving hockey earlier than he might have otherwise and was murdered during a drug deal in Florida in 1988.
Theoren Fleury played in the NHL for 17 seasons and will best be remembered for his years with the Calgary Flames. Fleury was tough as nails, especially considering his stature, and could score goals as well. Probably as close to a functioning alcoholic as the league has ever seen, the drink still ended up costing Fleury a handful of suspensions and must have at least reduced his potential to some degree. Which highlights what he did accomplish as all the more impressive.
Fleury did not hit rock-bottom in such a dramatic way as some other players and he benefited from an increasing awareness within the league and the advent of a substance abuse program in the NHL.
There is a litany of other second or third tier players who will be remembered as much for their off-ice imbibing and related antics as for anything they did on the ice. In many of those cases, the individuals engaged in a fearless and nasty style of play that fit in well with the hard-drinking desperado image. The likes of Steve Durbano, Link Gaetz and Billy Tibbets fit in this category.
With growing societal awareness and stricter enforcement of laws related to drunk driving, many of the most recent examples of NHL players and drinking problems have come to light only after the law got involved. See Mark Bell and Jay Bouwmeester for such unfortunate situations. Both however, seem to have a shot and leaving their problems behind them and continuing on with their hockey careers.
These are only a sampling of the players whose drinking problems destroyed their lives or affected their careers. Others have been social drinkers able to keep their lives relatively stable and unaffected by alcohol up until one tragic mistake that resulted in the death of themselves or innocents (for example, Steve Chiasson and Craig MacTavish.)
When a case involves a well-known player, it will of course have a higher profile. Add in the intrigue of public melodrama and death and the voyeuristic appeal ramps up even more. Do hockey players abuse alcohol more than the general population? Probably not, though I feel it’s at a higher rate than other professional sports played in North America.
What’s the reason? Perhaps it’s the Caucasian-centric nature of the NHL and the Anglo Saxon roots of the drinking subculture and the connections to preparing for battle. The game of football (soccer) as played in Britain seems to have the same boozing narrative and examples of tragic cases of players stoked by the surreal media glare and lapped up by a sympathetic audience.
Or maybe it’s because after being immersed in the ongoing drama that is a boozer’s life, there’s a realization that the trade-off isn’t all that bad. Reliving the moments of glory within the drunken haze of the endless celebration together with being feted as a true raconteur in exchange for the occasional dark night of the soul, potential ruin and early death. Throw in the sympathy, interest and energy of the fans who watch as your life becomes a real-life soap opera and the alternative, which is the drudgery of even temperament, obscurity and a safe, uneventful personal life, just isn’t enough for some.