It'll come as no surprise that my favorite series at Grantland is the "Director's Cut" feature curated by Michael MacCambridge. He does a beautiful job and I'm always eager to see what gift he gives us next. Here's an especially good one—"The Making of a Goon," by Johnette Howard, which originally ran in The National Sports Daily (Feb, 1990):
HE WENT FROM nobody to notorious with a cudgel of a fist, and there was no rung of hockey to which it couldn't take him. Once he got to the NHL and stayed, the job became one of maintaining his niche — even after the bone showed through the sliced skin of his knuckles and he had to soak his punching hand in ice between periods, even after doctors nearly had to amputate his right arm.
Joe Kocur, the Detroit Red Wings enforcer, is sometimes referred to by the rabid cult of fight-video collectors around the league as "the Mike Tyson of the NHL." But earning that reputation was one thing; maintaining it led to a frightening night against Pittsburgh when Kocur's whistling right hand dropped Jim Kyte, a six foot five Penguin defenseman, to the ice unconscious; it led to a night against Quebec when he shattered Terry Karkner's jaw and the shaken Nordique team took a week to recover; it led to a game last February when Kocur flattened New York Islanders winger Brad Dalgarno with a single wallop, then watched Dalgarno teeter off the ice, only to learn later that he'd fractured Dalgarno's left eye orbit, his cheekbone, and — people now whisper — his resolve to go on.5
In the beginning, it wasn't Kocur's idea to fistfight his way to the NHL. His first fight? He was just fourteen, playing in his first exhibition game with a new team, and an older kid cornered him and dared him to go. He says he was just fifteen when his coach was Gerry James, a sort of Bo Jackson of Canada, who had dual careers with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. James pulled Kocur aside and told him that if he wanted to make hockey a paying career, he had better start fighting with his fists.
"So I did," Kocur recalls. "I had about ten penalty minutes in the first twenty games. In the last forty games, I had two hundred fifty."