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Kevin Koczwara | May 14, 2014

Twilight of an enforcer

A hockey player fights to stay in the game he loves

TWILIGHT OF AN ENFORCER

A hockey player fights to stay in the game he loves

by Kevin Koczwara

The First Fight

"Reduced to its simplest truth, fighting is one of the mechanisms that regulates the level of violence in our game. Players who break the rules are held accountable by other players."
- Brian Burke, Calgary Flames President of Hockey Operations

Jimmy Bonneau was 17 years old when he threw his first punch. It was his first fight and it was with a teammate on the ice. It was the biggest beating he's ever handed out. It wouldn't be his last.

"It was all me. He didn't land a punch," says the 6' 3, 225-lb. French-Canadian. "I was nervous. I was shaking." The words sound soft coming out of his mouth, his English still a bit awkward and spoken with a distinctly Quebecois accent. "I wasn't overly thinking. I knew what I had to do."

Bonneau wasn't a fighter by nature, but on that day in 2002, he knew if he wanted to make the Montreal Rockets' roster he would need to show the coaches he was someone they couldn't ignore. A 10th-round pick in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (the "Q"), Bonneau, a forward, had to prove he was worthy. Just before the draft, he told coaches he wanted to be more than just a tough guy, more than just a big body on skates and his stock dropped. They looked at Bonneau and saw not his skills, but his size. They saw a potential fighter, an enforcer, someone who would know his role and not think twice about taking a punch to the face or pummeling an opponent.

They saw an enforcer, someone who would not think twice about pummeling an opponent.

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Bonneau realized that to be more than just an average player, he had to fight.

Baie-Comeau, Quebec, is a blue-collar town of around 22,000 people, 260 miles northeast of Quebec City, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, built around a large paper factory and a hydroelectric facility. Although the city had its own team in the Q, the Drakkar, or Viking Ships, in Canada junior league hockey players are subjected to a draft similar to that in professional hockey. In order to advance his career, Bonneau had to earn a place on the Rockets.

Before leaving for Montreal, Bonneau told his parents he would be fighting someone, sometime, during tryouts. They were nervous for him. He'd never fought anyone before.

Bonneau knew he needed help. He wanted to be ready when the time came to prove himself. Only 17, he went to a local bar where a former Rockets enforcer worked as a bouncer. At first, the bouncer thought he was trying to sneak in for a drink. Bonneau told him he wasn't there for a beer. He wanted to learn how to fight.

They met at a rink and wrestled on the ice so Bonneau could feel how grappling with another player on skates would feel. He discovered there isn't much to fighting in hockey; it's not a boxing match, it's a brawl on ice, spinning and twisting and turning, a flurry of punches and then grappling while trying to stay upright. Most hockey fights appear like a couple of drunks trying to hold each other up on the dance floor at a local bar.

"He said, ‘If you take a punch on the nose and you turn around and want to cry to your mom you're not made for it,'" says Bonneau. "‘If you drop the gloves and start beating the guy up, you might be made for it. There is not a guarantee. I'm not giving you a winning recipe.'"

Bonneau and his father drove to Montreal. The tryouts were at the Maurice Richard Arena, right next to the Olympic Stadium and the Biodome. Instead of bunking with other rookies, Bonneau and his dad stayed with his godfather outside the city.

The team's first practice was short, but it helped Bonneau make a decision. He saw the other players he was going up against and made one final, quick calculation. He wasn't one of the worst players on the ice, but he wasn't one of the best, either. Compared to the players from Montreal and Quebec City, he was raw, a talent in need of some sculpting to become a real player.

To make the team, he realized he had to come out and show the coaches right away that he would do anything for a spot on the team  if he waited, he might get cut before getting a chance.

Later, the team returned to the rink for an intrasquad game, split into two teams of 20 or so players. Between 300 and 400 people were in the stands to watch  fans, friends, family, even the coaches.

The referees and linesmen were there just to guide the game along. There would be no penalties.

Bonneau turned to a veteran on the team, one of the 20-year-olds, and asked who was the tough guy on the other side. He pointed out a player just like Bonneau, taken in the same draft, someone else the team was interested in who had the potential to be an enforcer.

Bonneau spotted him. On his second shift, the two players ran into each other after a shot. Bonneau gave him a shove and asked if he wanted to go. The other tough guy said yes. They dropped their gloves and squared off.

Bonneau ended the other kid's career by pounding him with his fists.

Then he picked up his gloves and skated back to the bench. Everyone was shocked. The fight wasn't even close. Bonneau's face was untouched. He knew it wouldn't be his last fight.

"I guess, I just had it in me because it is definitely not coming from both sides of my family and I, personally, had never fought before," says Bonneau. "I just wanted to keep playing hockey and I saw an opportunity. I was a bigger guy and I took it and it worked out for me and got me a career."

Twelve years later, he's still skating and playing the game he loves. A step away from the NHL, by his count Bonneau, now 29, has fought more than 300 times since that first fight. Many are on YouTube, with plenty of back and forth and cheering in the comments between hockey fight enthusiasts: Yes, this is hockey. Don't like it? Go suck an egg!

He's bounced around a bit since being drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the eighth round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, but he hasn't looked back. Playing for teams in Prince Edward Island, Long Beach, Calif., Portland, Maine, Cincinnati, Hamilton, Ontario, Rochester, and, most recently, Worcester, Mass., he's carved out a solid minor league hockey career, even if it's not quite the one he envisioned when he first laced up his skates. Although he is not without some skills, his fists have come to define him more than his skating or stick-handling ability.

Fighting could soon disappear from the NHL altogether.

Players like Bonneau, traditional tough guys known for policing the game on the ice and for lining up toe-to-toe with one another to throw haymakers at each other with bare knuckles, are becoming less and less common in hockey. Over the last few decades hockey has become a faster game, a more competitive game, and, in some ways, even a more violent game than it once was. The players are bigger and stronger and the hits more vicious, but at the same time true fighters are being pushed from the sport. Two men dancing near center ice and trading punches is now frowned upon in the NHL. While there's still a role for Bonneau in the minor leagues, where the chance of a good brawl still helps fill the stands, the NHL seems embarrassed by fighting. There's too much money at stake, too much concern over concussions. Fighting could soon disappear from the NHL altogether.

Bonneau admits there is a risk to what he does. He knows other players have suffered from the effects of fighting, but he's not worried right now. He can't recall a concussion he's suffered or any lingering damage from a fight that has made him rethink what he's doing.

"I am willing to do it. If I had been consistently running into trouble and injury trouble I probably would reconsider earlier than later, but what I am doing, I am happy doing it," he says. "It's not something that keeps me from sleeping at night."

Earlier this year, nine players filed a lawsuit against the NHL, saying it "intentionally created, fostered and promoted a culture of extreme violence." The lawsuit joins a 2013 lawsuit by 10 other players, a complaint similar to the one former football players filed against the NFL regarding concussions.

While there are teams like the Boston Bruins, who finished the regular season with the best record in the NHL and near the top in fighting penalties, that pride themselves on being tough, they aren't just known for dropping their gloves. The Stanley Cup isn't going to be won again by a team like the Philadelphia Flyers' brawling "Broad Street Bullies," who punched their way into the finals three straight seasons, winning the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975. Today, most players are required to chip in every shift and add an offensive threat to their line, even if it means leaving some physical play behind.

This puts Bonneau in a strange position. He still dreams of making it to the NHL, but he knows the game is changing. What once made him stand out and brought him to the doorstep of the NHL has now become something of a taboo in the sport he loves. His fists brought him this far, but they may not bring him any farther.

There remains some hope. After years of fighting in the AHL and ECHL wilderness, this season the New York Islanders gave another veteran enforcer, 32-year-old Justin Johnson, his first shot in the NHL.

Perhaps there is still time for Bonneau.

***

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Compared to many other minor league hockey rinks, the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, N.H., feels like the home of a professional hockey team. Tonight there are 6,000 people in the 10,000-seat arena to see the Manchester Monarchs host Bonneau and the Worcester Sharks, the AHL affiliate of the San Jose Sharks. Like most minor league towns, Manchester isn't a big city, but minor league hockey is important here. A trip to see the Bruins play in Boston is too expensive, a once-a-year, maybe once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Before the game, the area around the arena is bursting with activity. Traffic and people coming from all directions block the streets. Many fans are wearing the Monarchs colors, purple and black. Inside, there is even a pro shop and banners on either side of the facility refer to it as "The Jungle."

Still, the air inside the arena is stale, like a college dorm, smelling of popcorn and beer-soaked concrete. This is not the NHL.

The Worcester radio broadcaster calls out Bonneau's name every time he steps on the ice. His excitement for the game and for Bonneau specifically  causes him to shout loud enough to be heard several rows away. Bonneau is easily one of the team's most popular players.

His first shift on the ice this night doesn't go well. The Monarchs, the Atlantic Division's first-place team, come out of the locker room flying. The Sharks are pinned back and look slow. They can't clear the zone and get a good breakout. Eventually, the puck is rotated to the point. Bonneau is supposed to cover, but he gives up too much time and space and can't close out the Monarchs' defender.

The defenseman rips a shot on net. The puck deflects off another player and beats the Sharks goalkeeper. Manchester 1, Sharks 0, with 18:40 left in the first period.

There's plenty of time to turn things around, but Worcester plays a sloppy first period and can't seem to find its way out of the Jungle. Players bump into each other during line changes. They look like they're skating on slush and can barely scrape a shot on goal. Manchester is faster up and down the ice, quicker to loose pucks, and more determined in the corners. Bonneau's second shift is no better than the first. He tries to rush a Manchester defender and attempts a body check in the Monarchs end, but misses. He just can't catch up to the tempo.

Bonneau isn't the most elegant skater. He's not particularly quick and he certainly isn't fast, but his stick-handling is solid and usually his positional play is good. He knows when to pinch in the corner, when to help out a defender, when to get in front of the net with his big body and he's in the right spots for breakouts. If given the opportunity, he's capable of scoring, but that is not his job. Like the rest of his team, he's slow tonight and Manchester pounces.

Despite Manchester's dominance on the ice, the home crowd is quiet. The sounds of the players' skates scraping the ice and the puck smacking against sticks is clear and loud up in the upper balcony. The fans roar when the Monarchs score, but after a rousing 30 seconds, everyone returns to their seats. The loudest cheers of the night will be between periods when ushers launch free T-shirts into the stands.

On his third shift, Bonneau crashes the net after a shot, trying to get the Sharks started, and is called for high sticking. They're down 3-0 at this point and life isn't getting any easier. Manchester is on top of them, smothering every play the Sharks try to make. Nothing works. The first period ends. The Sharks trail, 4-0.

***

There is almost a genetic connection to hockey for Canadians, perhaps even more so in Quebec.

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There is almost a genetic connection to hockey for Canadians, perhaps even more so in Quebec. While neither of Bonneau's parents were huge hockey fans  he says his father never played  the gene somehow latched on to his DNA and never let go. His father is an artist who paints musicians  Bonneau has large portraits of Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison in his apartment  and his mother is a social worker. Hockey is big in Baie-Comeau, but in the entire history of the NHL, only three Baie-Comeau natives have made it to the NHL, and none for more than a season. The highest level of youth hockey when he was growing up in the city was Class C, two below the A level played in Quebec City and Montreal.

None of that mattered to Bonneau. He can't describe the pull the game has on him. Instead, he talks about the son of a friend he lives with in Prince Edward Island during the summers.

"He is only 2 [years old], but the words he says are hockey [related]," Bonneau says. "He sees hockey on the TV and starts talking about it and goes and grabs his stick and puts on helmets and stuff like this. I think it's natural."

Bonneau started skating at 3. He learned like most kids do: by pushing a chair on the ice. It wasn't pretty and the old home movies are cringe inducing for him to watch, but he says you can tell from his face in the videos that he was happy on the ice. Even now, there is a smile and a laugh that comes when he speaks about the way he felt putting on a pair of skates when he was a kid.

At age 4, Bonneau was given a stick and he started playing hockey.

As he grew up his parents carted him around in the winter to early morning practices and games. His dad built a hockey rink in their backyard and during the offseason covered it with a tarp so he could play street hockey. They signed him up for hockey camps in the summer so he could play between family camping trips.

The only thing they expected in return from their son was commitment. There was to be no fooling around. Hockey is supposed to be fun, but it also cost his parents plenty of money, so Bonneau had to give the game everything.

"Basically their only rule was, if you're going to do something then you're going to it and if you're going to get to the most competitive team, you have to give 100 percent," says Bonneau. "If you want to play, but not give 100 percent, we'll let you play, but you'll play with the home team in the house league and stuff like this. That was the only rule.

"If we wanted to do camp and stuff like this, my parents were like, fine, but you're not going there to be fighting in the lines and stuff like this. I'm not saying I never did it. We all fool around when we're kids."

Bonneau had no trouble fulfilling his parents' requirements. He loved playing and took it seriously. Some day he wanted to play in the Q.



The Second Fight

"It's hard to let that dream go at any level. It's a game. It's fun to play. You want to hold onto it as long as you can."
-Tony Amonte, retired 16-year NHL veteran

Bonneau made an impression on the coaches of the Montreal Rockets with his first fight, but they wanted to make sure he had more than one fight in him. Beating up on another recruit isn't the same as standing up to an experienced player with a reputation. They took him along for the first exhibition game to give him a chance to show them he wasn't just lucky the first time around.

Fighting is a major part of the Q. It's part of the league's culture, both a way to winnow out the kids that aren't tough enough and committed to the game and a way to draw a crowd. The league isn't some Sunday morning recreation league; it's for the best players between the ages of 16 and 20 in the Province of Quebec, and for a few years, hockey is their life. The best are drafted by the NHL, or go to college. The others end up talking about injuries, missed chances, bad luck, and after age 20 try to find a new career.

This is the first time they are allowed to drop the gloves, throw a few punches and stand up for themselves.

There is plenty of stick-handling and skating on display, but what makes The Q so memorable is the fighting, which is banned at lower levels. There is an element of the unknown and excitement for kids when they make a Q team. They must become men. Every team has tough guys who hold everyone to the unwritten rules of the game and there is no more running or hiding if someone tries a cheap shot. This is the first time they are allowed to drop the gloves, throw a few punches and stand up for themselves and their teammates on the ice.

When the Rockets showed up to their exhibition game, Bonneau was one of four or five players on each team there to fight. Everyone in the rink knew this. Everyone knew what to expect.

Before the game, Bonneau listened as the older fighters divvied up the fighters on the other team, each player picking out an opponent to impress the coaches. Bonneau decided he'd find someone out there in the same situation as him: an unknown looking to make a statement. When the game started, nothing happened. Nobody fought. Players acted like boys afraid to ask a girl to dance. Then the coaches got involved.

"My coaches, the actual coaches, came to me and said, ‘We're putting you on the ice and we're asking you to ask their main tough guy to go.' So I was kind of like, ‘Oh, I don't mind.' but I was like ‘This guy said he wanted him so that is why I didn't ask him earlier,'" says Bonneau. "Then they said, ‘We'd rather you take him. We want to see more of you.'"

Bonneau hopped over the boards, onto the ice, approached the other team's tough guy at a face-off, and asked him to fight. He was turned down. The other guy didn't know who Bonneau was and didn't care to fight him then. Bonneau skated back to the bench after his shift and told the coaches what happened. Their dance would have to wait. When the other tough guy got off the bench again Bonneau's coaches sent him out once more with the same instructions. Bonneau listened and once again asked the other player if he wanted to go. This time he did.

Bonneau answered with his fist. He was nervous, but he didn't panic. He turned the nerves into determination and aggressiveness and won the fight. It was closer than his first fight  he almost got hit this time  but he won and made his coaches take notice for real. Not only could he fight and punch, but he could dominate someone with experience through his size and sheer force. From that point on, Bonneau was on the team. He had proven himself as a tough guy with potential, a player the team could mold and shape into an enforcer.

***

In the second period, the Sharks came out of their daze and finally challenged the Monarchs. Bonneau, who looked off balance and asleep in the first period, bumping into teammates and falling into the boards, came to life and got the first chance for the Sharks in the second period when he tried to put back a rebound in front of the net. His shot was stopped, but it was a start. The two teams played hard, back and forth hockey, Manchester's speed and elegance versus Worcester's lumbering, but physical, dump-and-chase game. They start to work the corners better, but nothing comes from all the hard work. With less and five minutes left in the period Manchester is still up, 4-0.

Bonneau tries to start something on a face-off. He pushes a Monarchs player, poking at his shin guards with his stick. But nothing happens. No one will fight him. No one on the Monarchs wants to give him a chance to spark the Sharks to life and give them hope.

There are rules to fighting in hockey. You can't just jump a guy and start pummeling him for no reason.

"Sometimes, if your team is sleeping, like we were, you try to spark something  a kind of a ‘Wake the fuck up,' type of deal," says Bonneau about trying to get into a fight. It didn't work. He asked and Manchester's players said no. So he gave up on trying to get something going.

There are rules to fighting in hockey. You can't just jump a guy and start pummeling him for no reason. He either has to say yes to the fight or deserve a punch in the nose for something that happened on the ice, in which case he knows it's coming anyway.

"You can say no," says Bonneau, explaining how a fight unfolds. "If you've done something, it's coming at you. I'll be yelling 'Let's go!' You don't want to clearly jump him because then you'll put your team on the PK [penalty kill] or something."

Sometimes players even let the referees know they're going to fight, giving them time to get out of the way. If it's near a face-off and the linesman would be right in the middle of everything after dropping the puck, the players will let him know and give him time to get skate away from danger. If the refs know a fight is about to happen, they can blow the whistle straight away, focus on the fight and ignore play on the ice.

There are exceptions. If there is a dirty hit on a goalie or a teammate, then no one waits for someone to say OK. Bonneau says he will go and shove an opponent and if they shove him back, he'll drop the gloves and get face to face with them, trying to start the fight, instigating it.

There is a time and a place for everything, he says. There are times when fighting is a good idea and others when it's more about remembering a player for the next game. There are times when taking a penalty is OK, but there are other times when an enforcer needs to keep his temper in check and know his role. He needs to know when to wait it out and remember there will probably be a better time to send a message.

"My type of rule is if I'm going to take a stupid penalty or a blatant penalty then make it worth it," says Bonneau. "Don't take it because the guy doesn't want to fight and you slash him in the shin pad because you're rattled. Either go in and do it and take it and if he doesn't want to pursue it then you got a couple punches in for two minutes. It sounds violent, but that's when this guy has it coming. This guy has done something  you got a guy laying on the ice from a shoulder to the chin."

There will be no fight tonight for Bonneau, no fight to entertain the fans still sitting on their hands. The Sharks come out in the third period and look alive. Their playoff hopes are in the balance  they're still a longshot at this point, but a loss like this can be soul crushing. Worcester pulls a goal closer in the third, but Manchester quickly answers. There will be no comeback. The game ends 5-1.

It will be a long ride back home to Worcester for the Sharks. Fortunately, they get a chance to climb back on their bus again tomorrow for a game in Albany, New York. It's not an easy life, three games in three days on the weekends, long distance bus trips and rarely an overnight stay in a city, but this is the life Bonneau lives for. This is the life he fights for.

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The Third Fight

"I believe fighting is an integral part of hockey. It's part of the game. It's part of keeping players in check and keeping players honest out there and not taking liberties and running around. I think fighting definitely has a place in hockey, but the role of the fighter itself has become a whole different role. You got to be able to play."
-Tony Amonte

"This one, I was nervous. There were more people. It was getting closer to the big games against a rival. I knew this one they wanted to see it," Bonneau says. "They wanted to see it early and they were saying ‘If he does well, we have the real deal.'"

Bonneau knew who he was supposed to fight. He was another youngster like himself, but someone who'd already played a year in the Q. He was known as not only a tough guy, but also a goal scorer, the whole package, with a reputation similar to that of Bonneau's favorite player, former Bruin Cam Neely, someone who could fight and knock people down with a hard check, but who also had the skills to score.

No one on the Rockets had ever stood up to him and held their own. The coaches wanted to see if Bonneau could.

They squared off early in the game, another exhibition. Bonneau challenged him and he said yes. His opponent had done the dance before. He was cocky, switching hands like a trained boxer, something Bonneau hadn't seen yet. But Bonneau got a good shot in early, flipped the other guy's helmet into the air with a punch and then tagged him in the face. His opponent pulled Bonneau in close so he couldn't get leverage to punch anymore, apparently giving up. The refs ended the fight.

Bonneau was so happy that he had stood toe-to-toe with someone renowned for kicking ass that as the refs tried to separate the two fighters, he relaxed and didn't see the cheap shot coming  he didn't know better. The sucker punch landed square on Bonneau's forehead. He didn't care. His teammates did, though. They told him to remember that, because the two would be squaring off again soon.

Bonneau's coaches now knew they had someone special, more than an average tough guy. They knew they had a real fighter, someone they could call upon at any time to send a message. They just had to teach him and monitor his progress. During games the trainers and assistant coaches would give him tips, helping him understand when a fight would be good for the team, provide a boost or send a message. Then he would go.

Soon after the third fight, the Rockets signed Bonneau and gave him a spot in the main dressing room. His father returned to Baie-Comeau and his son moved into a house with a host family. He was a hockey player.

Bonneau didn't play much at first. He was still raw and needed work on the other aspects of the sport, like positioning, and the mental part of the game, knowing how and when to step up into the zone, and when taking a penalty is OK. "They didn't want to just feed me to the wolves," Bonneau says. But he wasn't the worst player in the Q. There were plenty of other enforcers who didn't even belong on the ice. Bonneau just needed time to expand his game, and he did, his reputation and skills growing with each passing game and fight.

In January, he learned he was on the NHL draft scouting reports. Teams started watching him closely and interviewing him. He had to get an agent to negotiate visits and interviews. He finished the season with one goal, five assists and 261 penalty minutes, numbers that made him a professional prospect.

***

Bonneau's face doesn't look like it's been through what amounts to a bare-knuckle boxing career. From a distance, the scars are barely visible. He says they're there, but it is difficult to spot them. He even has a full smile, which goes against the hockey stereotype of a goon with no front teeth. The only sign that he is an enforcer is his nose and eyebrows, which are thick and puffy, and his hands, which are covered with scabs and scars from punching helmets, visors and faces.

He fights so he can play hockey, not because he enjoys throwing punches.

"If they're [knuckles] really swollen then I'll put ice on it or get stitches, but if not, I'll just let it be," Bonneau says.

Away from the rink, it's hard to see a fighter inside him. He's smart and easy going. There doesn't appear to be an ounce of anger in him. He fights so he can play hockey, not because he enjoys throwing punches. He fights because it's his job. He doesn't battle in bars or even join the mosh pits at most of the heavy metal concerts he attends. Bonneau loves heavy metal, but he won't play what he calls the "heavy stuff" over his stereo system at his apartment because he doesn't want to bother his neighbors.

Bonneau doesn't have a permanent home. Everything he has can fit in his big truck and a U-Haul trailer. He can't own more than he can carry. He goes wherever hockey takes him.

At the end of each season, he leaves his apartment behind for a friend's place in Prince Edward Island, where he played two seasons when the Rockets relocated there. Bonneau played for Worcester this past season, but next year he could be in a different city hundreds of miles away playing for another team. There is always the possibility of a trade midway through the season. He knows there is no guarantee that he'll have a job next season.

"Really, it could be over next year," says Bonneau. "The phone has to ring to offer you a job. The body has to be able to follow and you have to still be good enough and you still need to be needed."

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***

The Sharks are struggling. They come into their home game against the Portland Pirates on March 8 losers of seven of their last eight games, and struggling to score goals. Bonneau said a few days earlier that he might be a healthy scratch because the coaching staff is looking for something, anything, to jump-start the team and turn the losing streak around. But he didn't expect to be a healthy scratch two nights in a row, especially because the team lost, again, the previous night without him. But here he is, sitting in a corner of the stands with two of his teammates, in a tailored gray suit, dressed like someone who reads plenty of men's magazines.

He's not happy about sitting out again. He's usually mellow and takes each game one at a time. He understands that because of his role, as the tough guy, known for dropping his gloves rather than scoring goals, a third- or fourth-line player, he's one of the easiest to pull from the lineup for a healthy scratch. That doesn't make it easier.

The Sharks have the game in hand. Their defense is steady, as usual, but they're scoring goals and finishing their chances. Tonight, however, the PA announcer only calls out Bonneau's name once. He's the answer to the trivia question, "Which Sharks player has played for these three teams?" A girl answers with Bonneau's name. She's right and the announcer quips, "I mean, what team hasn't Jimmy Bonneau played for?"

But he still has a presence in the arena. Before the game, and every time the Sharks do something positive, a video of him pummeling an opponent plays on the JumboTron above center ice. He's one of the more recognizable players on the team because, whether the NHL wants to admit it or not, fighters are admired for their spirit and most hockey fans simply love to see a good fight.

Bonneau sits quietly and talks about the game. When he's asked to make an appearance in one of the corporate boxes in between the first and second period, he obliges. When fans notice he's sitting in the corner of the stands in a suit, they come up and ask for autographs and he signs the picture, card or T-shirt with a smile. He loves doing this and repeatedly says that without the fans, he couldn't be living his dream, so it's his job to give back. He believes what he says.

While Bonneau is off working for the team as an ambassador, three men move from seats closer to ice because it's not as crowded or as warm farther up, and sit in the row in front of Bonneau. When Bonneau returns and sits down, they ask him a few questions. They know he and his teammates are players, but they don't know who they are. Then they ask him who the fighter on the team is, and that they expected to see a fight tonight. Bonneau says, "I am," and smiles.

While hockey may be pushing players like Bonneau out of the game, he knows there is still a place for him here, at least for now. He has a job. He may not be living the dream the way he wanted  he dreamed, like every young kid, of skating, scoring and glory but it gives him a chance to get up and go to the rink every day and make a living doing what he loves.

Before the game is over, Bonneau heads to the locker room and watches the end with the coach's son in his office. In the final minutes, Portland fights back. The game, which seemed out of reach a few minutes ago, tightens up. The Sharks are letting this one slip away. With a minute left, they lead by only a goal. Bonneau gets antsy. He fidgets and his face turns tight as the Sharks scramble to kill off the game.

It's easy to imagine this office being Bonneau's someday. He said a few days before that if you play to 35, you've had a good career. He's inching closer to that. He loves the game so much it seems impossible that he'd ever leave it. He’s already the assistant captain, and in his suit, he even looks like a coach, the kind no one would challenge off the ice. Who better to coach the next generation of superstars than someone who lives and loves this game so much he's literally willing to fight to play it every day?

Even though he didn't play, or even suit up, Bonneau stays to the end, and then lingers in the locker room. The Sharks hold on to win.

Outside the arena, fans stream through the doors and head toward the parking garage. It's cold and people are bundled up, pushing past each other, in a rush to go.

As they leave, a group a young men talk about the game. They're disappointed there wasn't a single fight tonight.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler
Special Thanks: Josh Laincz | Photos courtesy of the Worcester Sharks

About the Author

Kevin Koczwara is a journalist from Central Massachusetts. He has written for numerous publications including The Boston Globe, The Globe Magazine, The Classical, Sports on Earth, and Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He tweets on Twitter at @kkoczwara.

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