Bob Hodges remembers the night, probably about 15 years ago, when he got this silly notion that maybe it would be easier to break up a fight before any punches had been thrown.
“These two guys were shadow boxing and circling one another,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, here’s my chance to jump in there before they get going.’ Just as I did, one of them letc go with a left hook and catches me right between the eyes.”
The last thing Hodges remembers is hanging onto the guy’s sweater to keep from falling down.
“That’s probably the hardest I’ve ever been hit,” he said.
Hodges is neither biker, bouncer, boxer nor bodyguard.
Three or four times a night, though, he steps into a fight.
It’s part of his job as a linesman in the National Hockey League.
And with major fighting penalties up about 10% from this time a year ago, NHL linesmen have been as busy as ever separating players this season. It’s such an integral part of the job that the art of breaking up fights is part of the curriculum at officiating camps.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Ryan Bozak, a 16-year veteran. “They keep talking about cleaning up the league, but I think it’s worse than ever this year. Just about every night, there are at least two or three good fights.”
And so, there are at least that many times when Bozak and his colleagues have to jump in and play bouncer.
Some do so more eagerly than others, of course, because the hazards are many--cuts, bruises, black eyes, broken bones.
While breaking up a fight several years ago, Bozak wrapped up a player and pulled him away from his opponent, only to lose his balance. The result was a dislocated shoulder for Bozak, knocking him out of the playoffs and costing him about $6,000 in lost income.
Hodges cut the back of his hand several years ago when he reached up to shield his face from a skate blade, only to have the blade slice so deeply that tendons were severed. Doctors needed 40 stitches to close the wound, and Hodges was hospitalized for three days.
Understandly, Hodges’ enthusiasm for breaking up fights was tempered somewhat.
“I didn’t start the fight in the first place,” Hodges said. “I know it’s part of my job to break up the altercations, but it’s also part of my job to keep myself healthy, and that comes first.”
The NHL has no written policy as to the procedure for breaking up fights. And John McCauley, a former referee and director of officiating for the NHL, said the league offers no training in that seemingly essential phase of the job.
“The only thing they do, basically, is build up their upper bodies a little bit,” McCauley said of his 33-man officiating crew. “Some of those players are pretty strong.
“There’s a little bit of technique--grabbing the suspenders and things like that to hold them back. The key is to be strong enough to be able to grab the fellow’s arms so he can’t get free. You want to tie him up to the degree that he can’t throw any more punches.”
Most officials say that, rather than follow any formal guidelines, they mainly use common sense.
For instance, “If it’s a mismatch between a big guy and a little guy, we try to stop it as quickly as possible because those kinds of mismatches usually precipitate a larger-scale fight,” linesman Randy Mitton said.
However, if the players are evenly matched, said John D’Amico, “We allow fighting, and sometimes a good fight in a very heated game will actually cool down the game a little bit.”
Sometimes, Hodges said, the best action to take is no action at all, at least in terms of preserving the lineman’s well-being.
When a brawl broke out last season before a playoff game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers, Hodges and the two other officials assigned to the game, Andy van Hellemond and Wayne Bonney, sat calmly in their dressing room.
“We heard a roar at about 7 o’clock,” Hodges said. “A guy came running in and said, ‘They’re going at it.’ What were we going to do? We’re sitting there in our underwear. We’re not going to run out there like that, so we took our time and got dressed.
“Every once in a while, we heard a big roar and then it would calm down again. Finally, at about 20 minutes after, we had our skates on and we went out to see what was happening. That’s all they were really waiting for. By that time, they were pretty tired and they were just yapping at each other.”
When they do go in to break up a fight, linesmen say, it’s a general rule that they do so together, so as not to give one player the advantage over another.
“If my guy gets tagged because I’ve tied him up and the other guy has a free hand, that’s my fault,” Bozak said. “That’s one thing you want to avoid.”
Hodges uses psychology to bring fights to a quicker end.
“The first thing you try to do is tie up their hands and get between them,” he said. “And you try to talk to them. . . . Sometimes, you can tell one guy that he beat up the other guy and he’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah? Really?’ All the while, he’d actually gotten the short end of the stick.”
One usually hard-and-fast rule is that the referee should not get involved. He is supposed to stand back and assess penalties.
There have been times, though, when they couldn’t resist.
One night, Bozak said, he and D’Amico were working a game between the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The referee was McCauley.
A fight broke out, but Bozak and D’Amico quickly restored order, pinning the arms of the combatants.
Just then, though, Garry Howatt of the Islanders and Darryl Sitler of the Maple Leafs got into it.
“They’re just going like howitzers,” Bozak said. “They’re both connecting. We’re watching over our shoulders, and it’s like a barroom scene from an old Western. They’re on their knees, and it looks like they’re both about to go down.
“McCauley suddenly thinks he’s a linesman. He goes in to break them up and just then, Howatt lets one more go and hits McCauley right in the face--broke his nose, too. That’s what happens when a referee tries to handle a linesman’s job. He can’t handle it.”
It’s not an easy job.
D’Amico describes it as a dangerous job.
But Bozak said: “Once you start thinking about it, you’re in trouble. It’s like a boxer. If he thinks too much about getting hurt, he probably will get hurt. He’s got to be aggressive.”
And besides, Mitton remembers when it was worse.
“At least there’s not as much hair-pulling and eye-gouging as there used to be,” he said.