A Season on the Rink

A tumultuous year inside the crucible that is the National Hockey League

Indeed. Consider the partial litany of injuries sustained by 15-year veteran Rick Tocchet: separated left shoulder, torn groin tendon, bruised heel, fractured jaw, back surgery, hyperextended knee, etc. Tocchet also has earned lots of money, starting in 1984 at about $80,000, and socking away $2.15 million this season.

"We're bred to play through injuries, with pain," says the 35-year-old Canadian, one of only two players in NHL history to collect 400 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes. "It's a cliche, but our efforts are what keep people coming back to the arena."

The NHL relies more on ticket sales than other major pro sports, primarily because of spiraling player salaries and the lack of a lucrative national television contract.

Industry reports indicate that players take 72 percent of team revenues. That's 15 percentage points above the sum National Basketball Association owners locked out their players over last year. The NHL labor agreement allows for no salary caps until at least 2004, which bodes ill for unstable franchises.

Though the Coyotes are considered financially sound, owner Richard Burke claims the team will lose at least $50 million by the time its five-year lease at America West Arena ends in 2001.

NHL seats cost an average of $42.79--the highest of all the major sports. (The Coyotes average $37.55 per seat. That's lower than the norm in part because they charge just $9.75 for the obstructed-view seats, from which spectators can see only one net--the one at the far end of the ice.)

Whatever the cost, hockey is a captivating spectator sport (especially when the whole rink is visible). The operative word is "spectator." No matter how television tries to juice up the game, the game's blinding speed and small puck don't translate well to the tube.

The Grunt
The (physical player) is, by analogy, the spear carrier, the foot soldier, the grunt, in the hockey-as-war scenario. . . . If grunts--the muckers, grinders, bangers and enforcers--can be characterized as sinners and perpetrators of physical aggression, then, in the NHL, the wages of sin are not death, but rather employment opportunities.

--"The Wages of Sin: Employment and Salary Effects of Violence in the NHL"
Louie DeBrusk is a grunt.
When he played for Edmonton early this decade, DeBrusk had a novel bonus provision in his contract. If he led the Oilers in any category, he'd earn an extra $5,000. If he led the NHL in any category, another five grand. DeBrusk knew the only category he'd conceivably lead was penalty minutes. He didn't play enough to collect, but notes, "I had to have the most penalty minutes per game played."

DeBrusk has had a frustrating season. He's a player on the edge, a 28-year-old left-winger of limited skills who has earned unwanted frequent-flier miles jumping back and forth from the Coyotes to the minor leagues.

DeBrusk has played for three farm teams this season--in Las Vegas, Long Beach, and Springfield, Massachusetts. In one stretch, he got shipped from Phoenix the day after Christmas, was recalled three days later, then was reassigned to Vegas on New Year's Day.

He got so frustrated that, after one home game, he practically begged GM Bobby Smith--in front of the media, no less--to trade him. Smith didn't hold the public display against DeBrusk, but he didn't trade him, either.

DeBrusk has gotten to play with the big team since his last recall of March 25, partly because Schoenfeld is resting his regulars as much as possible before the playoffs. He's played well, fought well and, as ever, has tried valiantly.

His admirers include several teammates who never played minor-league hockey, much less endured his psychological and financial strains.

"I'll always take a Louie DeBrusk or a Jim Cummins, guys who are key for a team to win," says Rick Tocchet, whose own play also is as blue-collar as it gets. "Everyone thought our [1991-92 Pittsburgh] Penguins' Stanley Cup team was just Mario [Lemieux] . . . but the 20th guy on that roster--any roster--is always very important, on and off the ice, the glue that keeps a team together.

"There are too many guys in this league who score their 16 points a year, and make their $1 million or whatever, but haven't maximized themselves. Schony really wants people around who maximize their potential, and so do I."

Adds radio broadcaster Curt Keilback, "Louie kind of epitomizes the dream. He hasn't had anything handed to him. That's what a winner is, no matter how many goals he scores."

DeBrusk has a "two-way" contract, which means he would have earned $500,000 if he had been with the Coyotes all year. But when DeBrusk is in the minors, he's paid at the rate of $100,000 a year.

He's a burly guy, 230 pounds, with the requisite facial scars and other such vestiges of his trade. His knuckles usually are swollen and bruised.

But the thuggish stereotype ends off the ice. DeBrusk is an articulate, gracious, even kindly man who grew up in Canada. His wife and two children currently live in Long Beach, California.

Even when he's toiling in the minors, he says he can't think about getting injured or forsaking his style of play. DeBrusk's style starts with, well, brusque, and gets uglier.

An example of that came in an International Hockey League game in Las Vegas last November, when his Thunder team was playing Kansas City.

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