As a fighter in hockey, you live in fear

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Sean Fitz-Gerald
National Post
May 5, 2011 – 9:30 AM ET | Last Updated: May 4, 2011 9:57 PM ET

Former NHL player Jim Thomson is calling for a blanket ban on fighting in hockey after seeing the long-term effects on fellow athletes, including his friend Bob Probert, left.

Sean Fitz-Gerald May 5, 2011 – 9:30 AM ET | Last Updated: May 4, 2011 9:57 PM ET

TORONTO — If it was Chicago, it might be two bottles of wine. They always seemed to have tough guys in Chicago, scary guys who would keep Jim Thomson awake the night before a game, and the extra wine at dinner helped to fortify him for what lay ahead.

Sometimes the anxiety led to more self-medication, pills that helped him get over the fear of being knocked unconscious in front of 20,000 fans. He was a fighter.

“As a fighter in hockey, you live in fear,” Thomson said.

He lived on the margins of the roster, protecting Wayne Gretzky one year, playing for the Phoenix Roadrunners the next. Thomson logged dozens of fights over a 115-game career, and when it ended, he suffered.

“I went through periods of depression,” he said. “I’m a recovering alcoholic. I believe a lot of my demons, if you will, came from hockey ending and the head blows and certain things that I wasn’t aware of.”

Now 45, Thomson said he “easily” suffered five or six concussions. During one stretch in the American Hockey League, he was punched so hard in a fight on Friday that he cannot remember what he did on the ice during Saturday or Sunday’s games.

On Wednesday, Thomson was among a collection of current and former athletes gathered at the Hockey Hall of Fame to promote a website ( designed to help educate athletes on the cause, effects and consequences of concussion. Retired NHL star Keith Primeau was the keynote speaker, but Thomson delivered perhaps the most radical solution to reducing the risk on the ice.

The former fighter would like a blanket ban on fighting in hockey.

“Get it out,” he said. “I mean, come on, why do we need it?”

He referred to it, more than once, as “bare-knuckle fighting.”

“I am tired of sitting with my kids and two guys drop the gloves, and I’m waiting for a guy to be shaking on the ice in a seizure or knocked out,” he said. “It’s an ugly scene.”

According to, the online authority on such matters, Thomson fought 31 times in the NHL. He had 12 in one season with the Los Angeles Kings, including two on the same night, when he fought Mike Peluso and Stu Grimson in Chicago.

Thomson said someone sent him a tape not that long ago, featuring 82 of his fights. In the old days, he might have called his friends over to watch. Instead, he watched with a sense of alarm, wondering about the long-lasting damage he might have incurred.

“I was on death row for a while,” he said. “This was after hockey — I was so depressed, everything came to an end, and I went bankrupt. All of these things just end. I look back on it, and it’s all a big mess. It’s all a big foggy mess.”

There is no question in his mind that depression led to his drinking problem. Leaving the game and the lifestyle behind contributed to his depression, but the stories rushing across the sporting landscape about the troubles facing oft-concussed former athletes make him wonder what role his own repeated head trauma might have played.

“I believe it’s all in one,” he said. “The brain just keeps getting hit, hit and hit.”

Former National Football League safety Andre Waters was one of the first retired athletes to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease associated with repeated brain trauma. Waters killed himself, at age 44, with signs of early-stage Alzheimer’s and the brain tissue consistent of a man almost twice his age.

That was four years ago. More have since been diagnosed — all post-mortem, because the testing requires brain tissue — including former NHLers Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert, whom Thomson counted as a friend.

“As this gets more out there, my kids are asking me, ‘Dad, do you think this will affect you?’ ” he said. “Bob Probert was very close to me and my kids. We did that movie Love Guru together. Bob lived with me for five months, and my kids got really attached to him.”

Thomson has five children. He said he has been sober for three years and now works as a motivational speaker.

After dozens of fights — “I remember a lot of them, and I remember getting rocked” — there is one speech he still cannot deliver. He does not know what to say when his children ask if their father will end up like Probert, or like the stories of other troubled former athletes they have started to watch on the news.

“I can’t answer it,” Thomson said. “Who knows?”

Does that prospect scare him?

“Damn right it scares me,” he said. “We used to smoke everywhere in the country. Smoked in movies, smoked in airplanes. And finally we realized it’s going to kill you. And this is kind of the same situation.”