It’s often said that simplicity is prerequisite for reliability.
Jamie Huscroft’s formula as a hockey player was simple – and reliable. Play laboriously. Lead by example. Answer the bell. That recipe secured him a spot on the rosters of seven teams, guided him through three hundred and fifty two regular season National Hockey League games, and steered him to more than 1,000 penalty minutes.
Following seven seasons in the World Hockey League and American Hockey League, the Creston, British Columbia native was drafted in the ninth round of the 1985 draft by the New Jersey Devils.
In 15 games with the Devils in 1988-89, he displayed a willingness to battle that would pervade until 2000, when he retired after ending up with the Portland Pirates of the AHL. In his first fight in November 1988, he got the best of a tilt with Perry Berezan of the Calgary Flames.
“I am friends with Perry now and we laugh at this fight,” says Huscroft. “I told him it is his claim to fame. I did feel good after the fight, but Tim Hunter welcomed me to the league when I got out of the box, so it was bittersweet and short lived.”
The fear of losing a scrap in front of 15,000 people was something Huscroft tried to get a handle on early in his career. “At first, yes (the fear was there),” laughs Huscroft. “After a few years, it did not bother me as much getting beat up in front of the large crowds.”
Huscroft’s tongue is often firmly planted in his cheek when he references his career as a pugilist. But, if truth be told, he planted more than a few punches on the cheeks of opposing players, and, well, had a fair share of fists planted on his own. Joey Kocur. Gino Odjick. Ken Baumgartner. Marty McSorley. Huscroft had donnybrooks with nearly all of the toughest guys from his era, many of which are now immortalized on YouTube.
Detroit Red Wing’s enforcer Joltin’ Joey Kocur had a sturdy reputation as one of the league’s heaviest punchers, and, in one of his earliest N.H.L. fights, Huscroft discovered that that reputation was well-deserved.
“I just got called up from the minors,” says Huscroft, “and knew he would be coming after me. Low and behold, during my first shift he did. He hit me so hard that I couldn’t hear out of my left ear for a few weeks and the left side of my mouth was all torn up.”
As the game of hockey has evolved, rugged role players such as Huscroft have become rare items.
“It’s definitely harder today,” says Huscroft. “When I broke in each team had four to five tough role players. Now you’re lucky to have one and that one has to be able to play. There is a little more fighting than I want my name attached to, but the kids seem to like it. I wish they had all my goals on YouTube. But four goals in a career doesn’t make up much of a highlight video.”
Huscroft always stuck his neck out on the line, and he proved that toughness resides in the soul and spirit, not just the muscles. Concentration and mental toughness were also necessary for his survival. Many players who fight regularly harbor a deep resentment for the role in which they have found themselves cast; for others, it’s more perfunctory.
“Some people can leave work at home more easily than others,” says Huscroft. “I had a hard time with the anticipation of fighting. You would spend days thinking and stressing about something that lasted a few seconds or if it even happened at all.”
There were damaged knuckles, stitches, humbling defeats, black eyes, and the expected assortment of fistic hazards. One of Huscroft’s most memorable fights, however, involved an injury which no one anticipated. On December 12, 1989, linesman Leon Stickle slipped and badly twisted his knee while separating Huscroft and New York Islanders’ henchman Mick Vukota.
“I remember that fight,” says Huscroft. “Still to this day, I feel sick thinking about what happened to Leon. He went down hard and was out for quite some time because of it.”
Playing the type of game Huscroft excelled at required that he sacrifice his heart and his head. Concussions forced him to come up with an exit strategy.
“I had to retire because of multiple concussions, so it does concern me somewhat, but there is little I can do about damage that’s already been done. I have little to no side effect any more from all my concussions, so I feel somewhat lucky to be able to leave the game mentally and physically healthy.”
There is a special attachment that tough players such as Huscroft maintain for one another, one that transcends the boundaries of team and competition, and lasts far beyond one’s playing days.
“I have all the respect in the world for these types of players,” says Huscroft. “Most people have no concept how hard of a job this can be and what an emotional toll it places on one’s body.”
Huscroft’s career began in New Jersey and ended in Washington; he unpacked and repacked his bags with several other teams along the way. He considers he stay as a Boston Bruin as his most special memory in the N.H.L.
“Loved the city and players,” says Huscroft. “My dad was always a Bruins fan also, so when I was finally able to put on the B’s jersey it was a special moment for him.”
Huscroft, 46, is director of facilities at a Seattle-based hockey program called Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association. His daily routine involves training young hockey players and instilling life skills through sport. This line of work is placid and serene.
“I currently love going to work every day knowing that I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see a Bob Probert or Stu Grimson coming after me.”
Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana. His book Blood on Ice, detailing the rink life of Bob Probert and the evolution of the NHL tough guy, is due out in 2014.