There had been plenty of previous scrapes, but this one was different. This one made Aaron Downey take a step back. He breathed deeply thereafter, thankful that he was able to breathe at all.
He was with the Blackhawks, sometime last year. They were playing Nashville, which perhaps meant less to Downey than the subtext. When you're an enforcer--or a tough guy, or goon, or whatever it is the hockey bad-asses like to be called these days--the game is at times a guise, a pretense easily shed in favor of a quick, savage fistfight.
This night he squared against Reid Simpson, an able brawler but no more fearsome than the countless others Downey had dropped his gloves against. They fought like animals and beat each other stupid. This time, though, Downey was left with marks that ran deeper than his cuts.
"I crossed my chest a few times after that one," Downey, now a right wing for the Stars, admits. "I just, I wasn't scared of Reid--Reid is a tough guy, don't get me wrong--I just went to the rink that day with an unstable feeling. It just didn't feel right before the game--an insecurity maybe, I dunno. But I came out of that fight and I thought, 'Thank God it's over; thank God that weight is off me.'"
You'd think the fear there would have caused Downey to re-evaluate his chosen profession. You'd think it would launch him into serious introspection, or that he'd talk about his concerns with his girlfriend, Jennifer, the results of which would lead him into another, safer field--Iraqi CIA operative, maybe. You'd think...and you'd be wrong.
Because this is his lot in life. He knows it. He accepts it. There's even a certain pride in it because his kind have dwindled in hockey over the years. The tough guys have been phased out in favor of faster, more offensive-minded players. He is the vestige of a forgotten era, a time when fighting was hockey rather than a periodic disruption.
"Look at a good movie," Downey says. "Not everyone can play the same part. Not everyone can be the star. To make a great movie beautiful, everyone has to have a role. My role is to go out there and, a) provide energy and, b) hold people accountable. I have to go out there and let them know that I'm going to be there and police things if they start messing with the wrong guy.
"To me, it's great. It's like gladiators. You know what? Here's the thing: It's just as tough as it looks. It's barbaric--two guys trying to take each other's head off. Bare knuckles. If you fight with bare knuckles on the street, you go to jail. Someone should make a documentary on it because it is like the gladiators. It's the purest form of competition, and yet there's an art to it."
Downey, too, is a work of art, something akin to cubism--his nose is contorted, and it curves at odd angles. His jaw is square, and his face is lumpy with bruises. At 6 feet, 200-something pounds, he isn't a big guy; he looks ill-suited for his racket. Yet there is no pause, no talk of getting into something saner. That would mean quitting, and what would Mom say about all that?
He grew up on a farm north of Toronto. He'd wake up before sunrise, head out into the cold and help tend to the family cattle. When he wasn't playing hockey, he was working the land--sometimes 10 or 12 hours a day. It was thankless work, but it needed to be done.
"There are days when you doubt yourself, or you don't feel like doing something," Downey says. "But my mom always said, 'Don't quit.' She never let me give up. I always remembered that."
He's 28 now, but he spent seven long seasons in various minor leagues, living in remote outposts like Manitoba and Cole Harbour, all the while wondering when his break might come. If ever. It might have been easier if he were the flashy type, the kind of player whose stick and skate skills leave your mouth agape. But he wasn't.
That's where things have changed during the past few years. Where each team used to have at least one mercenary on the bench to protect its stars, now that duty often falls to a burly defenseman or a willing forward. The old-school fighters like Tie Domi and Bob Probert, the guys who made their names by throwing down, have been mostly pushed aside in favor of the skilled. Offense is at a premium now. More scoring means more fans, or so the theory goes.
"The rules were brought in to have a little more offense, a little more puck handling," Jason Arnott explains. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he would have made the perfect thug. "They're trying to keep the game as fast as possible right now. That means the tough guys are playing now. They have to. They're out there on regular shifts now and scoring goals. It's made an impact on the game. The tough guys are on lines now. Teams have four real lines instead of two or three lines. Your tough guys are out there playing; they can play, because they've had to adapt and become multitalented. Either that, or they won't be around."
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Downey understands. He was a healthy scratch in 20 of the Stars' first 31 games and sat out as many as seven straight. It forced him to work on his game. Since then, he's seen more playing time, dressing in 13 of the past 17 contests. Downey even managed to score a goal recently against the Blackhawks (his first as a Star and the second of his career).
No, he's never going to get a whole lot of ice time, and the odds on him developing into a major threat with the puck are long. Again, he's fine with all that. Downey is talented enough to be on a roster, which is more than a lot of his former contemporaries can say. Besides, the way he figures things, it's good to have a job, even if that means a large part of it requires you to bash and be bashed on the regular.
"I consider myself a fighter, but a smart one," Downey offers with requisite bravado. He says he has tapes on every tough guy in the league and studies one before each game to devise a specialized plan of attack. "I got a reputation for being smart in the American Hockey League, and that's stuck with me. I'm not a big guy, but I can fight anyone, big, small, doesn't matter. I study all of them. I'm always going to be prepared. That's what I learned from fighting Reid [Simpson]. You have to be prepared; if you're not prepared, you'll get hurt. So I prepare myself for different fights. I visualize myself bobbing and weaving or tying up or sticking a punch, whatever I need to do. I can adjust to any kind of fight. That's the mentality I have--that you can't beat me, that I'm never going to give up.
"It's like this, it's all mental. When I go out there, I let the guy know he's in for a long run. I tell him he'd better pack a lunch, and I'll pack a lunch, and then I'll take him to dessert. He'll know by the end that it's not over until I'm ready."