COVER

KNOCKED OUT

JAMES DEACON November 9 1998
COVER

KNOCKED OUT

JAMES DEACON November 9 1998

KNOCKED OUT

COVER

Nick Kypreos never saw the punch that turned out the lights on his National Hockey League career. The rugged Toronto Maple Leafs winger had his head down, as hockey fighters are taught to do, and was battling the New York Rangers’ Ryan Vandenbussche in a meaningless pre-season game in New York in September, 1997. It was a common training-camp sight—a veteran and a minor-league hopeful just trying to fight their way on to their respective teams. But Kypreos lost his balance for a split second, his head came up just enough and Vandenbussche’s fist smashed sickeningly into the right side of his face. Unconscious,

Kypreos fell like an oak, his head bouncing off the ice before settling into a gory halo of blood. Even the notoriously bloodthirsty fight fans in the higher reaches of Madison Square Garden fell silent. “You hate to see something like that,” says his then-teammate and fellow tough guy Tie Domi. “It was scary.”

The next thing he knew, Kypreos was in the training room where team doctors assured him he’d soon be fine. Woozy and sore but upright, he flew home that night with the team, £ and the next day, a Leaf spokes§ man told reporters the injury I looked worse than it actually was.

The headaches, however, did not go away—Kypreos was suffering from post-concussion syndrome, and for six months, he was lethargic and felt dizzy whenever he tried to exercise or read the newspaper. But he recovered in time for his September wedding, and now, the only visible evidence of his life as a fighter is the scars on his knuckles from punches that landed on opponents’ helmets, and a nose that has been smashed too many times to hold its shape.

Over lunch at a north Toronto health club recently, Kypreos told Maclean ’s he was raring to go. But doctors told him he risked permanent injury if he returned to the game and suffered another concussion. So Kypreos retired, not with a game-winning goal as he might have hoped, but not regretting anything either. He played for nine years in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994. “I knew going in what I was doing,” says the 32-year-old. “It made me a lot of money and gave me a lot of opportunities. I would be very selfish if I left the game bitter about it.” Stand-up guy, that Nick Kypreos. Retired

like he played—honest, responsible, accountable. At six feet and 205 lb., he was a lightheavyweight with more courage than punching power who took on all comers even though he was not among the elite of NHL bad boys, bruisers like Chicago’s Bob Probert, St. Louis’s Tony Twist or Washington’s Chris Simon. With Washington, Hartford, the Rangers and the Leafs, he could be counted on to defend his team’s honor in a lopsided game. ‘You’re losing badly and the

coach looks down the bench and asks, When is someone going to show me something?’ ” he says. “The only thing you can do is make sure the other team remembers you the next time, and the easiest way to do that is to drop your gloves and beat somebody up.”

Like so many hockey enforcers, Kypreos in person seems the antithesis of his playing character. (Twist, who throws punches that break helmets, is a committed fund-raiser and volunteer for service organizations around St. Louis, and San Jose’s Todd Ewen has written a children’s book.) Articulate and insightful, Kypreos had the luxury of a job offer from the new all-sports cable channel CTV Sportsnet when he decided to retire, and now works as an on-air hockey analyst. He didn’t aspire to be a tough guy—he was a scoring star for his junior team, the North Bay Centennials, in the mid-1980s, but found he couldn’t make the jump to the NHL purely on skill. “So I made a

conscious choice,” he says. “The goal-scoring door was closed, but I was big enough and strong enough to knock guys down and get noticed. I made that adjustment when some guys who had been big stars in junior didn’t even get a cup of coffee in the NHL.”

It was not the easiest life. The three serious injuries he sustained in his pro career—torn knee ligaments, a broken leg and the concussion—all came from fights. And some enforcers simply grow to hate what they do for a living. “A lot of guys have problems, anxiety attacks, or they can’t sleep,” he says. “This was a game they loved to play as kids, but now, they have to go into Chicago thinking, ‘God, I’ve got to fight Bobby Probert because if I don’t, everyone’s going to think I’m ducking him or I’m scared of him.’ It’s a really tough feeling. You’re not thinking about winning or playing a good game. You’re thinking about who you have to fight.” To succeed,

“you have to like it, you have to want to be a fighter,” Kypreos adds. ‘When I was younger, I had that burn in my stomach, but as I got older, I lost that edge. My passion for closing my fist and hitting someone subsided.”

The rewards, however, outweigh the drawbacks, Kypreos says. “I don’t think guys’d be making $700,000 or $800,000 a year if they’d picked another line of work,” he says, adding: “How many 32-year-old guys are set for life and can pick and choose what they are going to do? I got paid well, I won a Stanley Cup and I got to play for my home-town team, the Leafs. I could not have written a better script.” But it is not a profession he would recommend to a loved one. “If I have a son and he grows up wanting to play hockey but needs to play that role,” Kypreos says quietly, “I would have a very difficult time with it.”

JAMES DEACON