Thanks to movies like Goon and Slapshot, even the non-hockey-watching portion of America is well aware of the existence of “enforcers,” those hockey players whose sole job it is to fight other enforcers, on ice, and hand out hockey justice to protect their teammates.
Doing a job like this as an adult is extreme enough, but enforcers don’t come out of nowhere. First, they’ve got to work their way up through the ranks of junior hockey, a system they can start in as young as 15 years old. In other words, for a select group of teenagers, their weekend job entails traveling around Canada and northern USA and fighting a bunch of other massive teenagers in front of thousands of screaming fans. On skates. Over and over and over again—in the ‘90s and 2000s, designated hockey fighters were expected to tussle dozens of times per season.
That was how Myles Stoesz spent his formative years–as a junior hockey enforcer.
Myles Stoesz, former WHL, ECHL, and AHL enforcer, who also attended multiple NHL training camps.
In his four-season WHL career, Myles fought more than 80 times, according to hockeyfights.com.
It’s The Kind Of Life One Just Falls Into
Most junior hockey enforcers had to be superstars in minor hockey just to get a shot at making a team. However, once they’re in training camp, players quickly carve out roles for themselves—and a select few find themselves in the role of the “designated fighter.” Few grow up hoping to become an enforcer.
Says Stoesz, “So fighting, going into your first junior hockey camp, everyone talks about fighting. ‘It’s gonna happen, be careful, watch out for the 20-year-olds.’…My first camp. I was 15 years old and I fought a 17-year-old…can’t remember his name…I just played hard and somehow we got into a fight in front of the bench and I did really well, I beat him up. And I remember, after fighting, I tried leaning on the bench and standing, and I was shaking so much from the adrenaline.
“I could describe it, I guess, as the high drug addicts get from crack or something like that. I’ve been chasing that high ever since. I’m still chasing that high. The closest I’ve got is going sky-diving.”
There’s rarely a moment where a player chooses the path; they’re often just responding to the positive reactions they get from coaches and teammates for fighting.
As Stoesz explains, “I went to Spokane camp after, and I just played hard. I hit guys in every practice every shift. Every game was a tryout for the next one. I practiced like I played. Some guys in training camp, they took exception to it, and I wouldn’t back down. So I ended up fighting a lot, and I did pretty well.”
Stoesz continues, “[I] Came back at 16 …there was a 15-year-old, Mike Reich, he got ran by one of their 20-year-old guys. He had a cage on and I came flying in and started a line brawl. I found out a few years later that I was actually supposed to go home after this tournament…and because of that, because I stuck up for a teammate who was a 15-year-old against a 20-year-old as a 16-year-old, they kept me.”
It Can Be Hard To Make Friends When Your Job Is To Prove How Tough You Are
Myles expressed having a tough time making friends with his teammates early on in his career, as his continued employment as a WHL enforcer relied on him continually proving his own toughness.
“[At first] I wasn’t really well-liked on my team. I had a few close friends. I was a young rookie who didn’t take crap from anybody. I fought 13 times in my first year in practice alone. So I essentially worked my way from the 17-year-olds to the toughest 20-year-old, and did well against em all, and then once I did that, I kinda got the respect of my teammates. By that point I probably already had ten fights in my regular season, sticking up for teammates, so they started to be like, ‘Alright, this guy’s not here to be a dick. He works hard, he sticks up for us.’
“… But I just practiced my ass off, and I hit just as hard, if not harder, in practice than I did in a game. And guys hated that. Coaches loved it. So that was a big learning curve for me.”
Being An Enforcer Makes For A Uniquely High-Pressure High-School Situation, With Fear And Pain An Everyday Part Of Life
High school can be tough for most kids. High school students deal with an inordinate amount of fear and anxiety—and most of those students don’t have to regularly fight other teenagers on skates!
Stoesz, on facing fear, says, “You get more used to it. As a 16, 17-year old you still get the nerves before the games. You know who the tough guys are on the other team coming at you, whether they’re the same age as you or 20-years-old. The big thing as a 16 or 17-year-old is you think age. Oh, they’re 20, they’re gonna be tough, they’re gonna annihilate you. So the nerves before the game—because, really, you think you’re tough, but you don’t really know, you haven’t been tested.
“…but then you get to 18 or 19 and you got a lot of fights under your belt, then you start to feel confident. Then you just play the game and if it happens it happens.”
Aside from fear and anxiety, pain is an everyday factor for a teenage hockey enforcer. A designated fighter can expect to fight dozens of times per season. Myles Stoesz averaged 20 fights per year during his WHL career:
On dealing with the pain, Stoesz says, “It’s interesting. I tried not to think about it too too much. The hardest part is actually the day after you fight. If you get into a scrap and get punched in the head, you might have a black eye or feel a little wonky. Then you’re trying to focus. Nowadays you’d probably classify that as a mild concussion; back then it was just a little bit of a ‘bell rung.’”
Junior hockey players don’t get much to help them manage the pain, either.
“Basically just Advil and ice. In high school and junior they’re pretty strict with handing out any prescription pills, pain pills, and all that stuff, so you’d take an Advil and you’d go ice it. And hope for the best. There were days, you know, my hand looked like there was a softball on the end of it. Usually around the 20th fight of the year, almost every fight after that your hand swells up like a balloon, depending on what you hit, and it sucks. But you just keep going.”
All of that fear, anxiety, and pressure is combined with a busy hockey schedule…and then junior hockey players are on top if it all also expected to attend high school classes.
According to Stoesz, that can take a toll. “That was tough, the day after, you could be in Tri-City or Portland on a Wednesday, and then fight, and then be in class on Thursday morning after being up until 3 in the morning. So that’s tough. I don’t know how I did it, you’re essentially just running on adrenaline.”
On focus, said Stoesz, “Me personally, I was more…’high school is high school,’ I tried not to think too much about it. Unless I was trying to pick up girls or your typical high school boy kind of thing. Then when I went to the hockey rink it was a hockey focus. So I didn’t worry too much about it until later when I’m driving to the rink and I’m like, ‘Ah, shit, I’ve got to fight [Aaron] Boogaard.’”
It Makes For A Strange Dynamic With Coaches, Who Must Encourage You To Fight Other Teenagers Without Directly Telling You To Do It (For The Most Part)
Most teenagers can rely on some sort of adult authority figure to guide them through life, and for junior hockey players that adult is their coach. However, for junior hockey enforcers, this can make for an interesting dynamic—their authority figure needs to encourage them to engage in a dangerous activity regularly. Most coaches avoid directly instructing teenagers to fight, and find other ways to encourage the behavior that they’re looking for.
As Myles explains, “I just fell into it. My first year, nobody really told me how… You kind of knew, I guess, without them telling you. You’re good at this, so this is why you’re here.”
Stoesz continues, “My first year, nobody really told me to fight. My coach was Al Conroy and Jamie Huscroft, my first year, and Al was really good, he would never tell me to fight. Jamie would kind of give me ‘the look,’ like ‘hey, you’re up.’ And he’d give ya a little wink, like now was a good time.
“Essentially, they don’t want to see a guy laying on the ice with seizures or anything like that, but if you can make a guy’s nose bleed, or whatever, I’m sure they’re pretty happy inside about that.”
Not every coach avoids instructing teens to fight, however, as Stoesz notes, “My…third year, [name redacted by request] was my coach and…me and him didn’t see eye to eye. It was, whatever, I don’t think he ever liked me for whatever reason. He was the only coach who actually told me I had to fight. I remember one time, he asked me why I didn’t fight Frazer McLaren. And Frazer McLaren… So I grew up playing against Frazer and training with him in the summers. We were buddies. At the time, there was just something about fighting friends, I just couldn’t do it. And I remember, I actually got benched in a game against Kootenay, and [the coach] pretty much told me, ‘Hey, you gotta learn to fight your friends, otherwise you’re not going anywhere.’
“At the time, it was a shock. I was just like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And it was good, looking back…you eventually are gonna have to fight your friends. And you’ve just gotta get used to it. It was a good realization. But he was one of the only ones who tapped me on the shoulder to say ‘Go fight this guy,’ or whatever. I felt more like his pawn, I guess. He would use me just as a fighter, essentially, and it sucked.”
There’s No Instruction Manual To Becoming A Good Hockey Enforcer, Just A List Of Responsibilities (It’s Not As Simple As ‘Goon’ Made It Look)
The role of a hockey enforcer is ever-evolving, and there’s no convenient instruction manual for would-be fighters to follow. It is up to them to figure out when to fight, when not to fight, and how to handle the pressure of the job.
Stoesz elaborates that, “They definitely never communicated it, but it was just, I wasn’t going home and I was staying there, and I was doing what I was doing…Nobody ever told me ‘You’re going to be the designated fighter,’ but once you’re a teammate of mine or a friend of mine kind-of-thing, I will take a bullet for you. Especially on the ice.”
Many enforcers, including Stoesz, detest the term “Goon,” despite it being the name of a hit film about hockey fighting, because it belies the respect most enforcers have for the game and its “code.”
“I would say enforcer is fine. I hate the ‘goon’ thing. I guess there are some goons out there, but I always tried to be respectful and not take cheapshots on goalscorers. For the most part I went with players who wanted to fight me. I wouldn’t go after their number one player or star…unless he wanted to, and then I wouldn’t say no.
“It’s trial and error, right? So yeah, nobody really told me, like, this is who you are. There’s no right and wrong answer, you could fight when you’re up 3-0 and totally destroy the guy, and it’s the nail in the coffin for their team. Flip-side, if you lose, the other team has the momentum back and could potentially come back and win the game, or score a couple goals.”
In Many Ways, Hockey Fighting Is An Excellent Outlet For A Teenage Boy To Have
Many teenagers have issues with anger and frustration, and Stoesz admits that hockey enforcing actually provided him with an excellent outlet for these issues, saying, “I describe it to my co-workers now as if it’s the best job in the world because, in your office life, if you disagree with somebody, you can’t beat them up and then go spend five minutes in a penalty box and get back to work. You’re gonna get fired or assault charges and all that, so. If you just disagreed with someone, you’d just go fight them. It’s quite simple.”
Hockey Fighters Aren’t Super Well-Informed Of The Risks
Public knowledge about the dangers of head injuries has come leaps and bounds in recent years, but athletes aren’t always informed of the risks. Myles Stoesz was no different.
Asked if he received adequate warning of the risks, Stoesz replies, “No, not at all. Not at all. I wouldn’t go change anything I did, again, but I, knowing now what I know, I would think twice about getting my kids into something like that. That kinda role, right? I wouldn’t necessarily want them doing that.
“So my test, when I was playing in my career, was if I could tell you what day it was, what the score was, who we were playing, what city we were in, all that stuff, then I wasn’t too bad. Just had my ‘bell rung.’ ‘Just a bell rung.’ That was my excuse.
“So I think I was maybe diagnosed with three, maybe four, concussions tops, but I guarantee you I had upwards of a dozen or more if you were actually using today’s standards.”
Upon Leaving Junior Hockey, Enforcers Must Quickly Decide Between Academic Pursuits Or Slowly Climbing The Ranks Of Professional Hockey Fighters, As Their Scholarship Opportunities Disappear Fast
The WHL touts its education packages for players, but there are some stipulations that force players to make life-altering decisions before they are ready to give up their dream of pro hockey.
As Stoesz explains, “I feel like everybody’s pushed to go pro…everybody talks about going pro, and thinking about going to the Coast [ECHL] or the American League….
“I wish there was something after to give the guys, after like three years. Like let them play out their first NHL contract and to try and make it if they want to make it, and then have that education option. I would have taken it then, if it had been available.
“… You have a year to play professionally, and then it’s gone. So that’s something that the WHL preaches so much, that there’s an education package for every player. What they don’t mention is that it’s gone after playing a little professionally. And every kid’s dream is to play pro, though not many make it.”
Once The Career Is Over, Adjusting Can Be A Struggle
As much as hockey fighting can provide an excellent outlet for teens, the adjustment to regular life once their careers are over can be difficult, as Stoesz explains, “At the time, I don’t think I really knew what it was, but yeah, looking back, I think I did. Even now, I’m so high-strung…you’re running on an…adrenaline rush all the time. Even now, ya know, it’s tough. I look back and, little things will just make me snap now and I just wanna punch something…and that was my outlet, back then. Little things like that, I could go fight somebody if I wanted to release some aggression. Whereas now, I struggle some days to keep it together. And I think it definitely relates to fighting.
“Because you’re so wound tight, all the time for ten years essentially, I was wound tight, and now I try to keep up with my actions. It’s like, ‘okay…’ And that’s why now, a lot of the fighters, you see the stories about how they’re struggling…you’re so wound up and you don’t have that outlet anymore. I just recently started training for a triathlon, and it’s been helping a lot. Just going out and running or biking or whatever, just some kind of outlet and a goal to be training toward.”
He’s referring to a recent spate of ex-hockey enforcers dying unexpectedly due to consequences from their career of getting punched in the head, including Wade Belak and beloved former Canuck Rick Rypien.
Myles is luckier than most, as he retired from hockey without any debilitating injuries, and with a healthy perspective on it all, but as he says, “I don’t miss the…I dunno, it’s hard, I guess I do. Parts of me miss the fighting stuff. Like I said, I’m still trying to chase that adrenaline rush, and there’s no rush like fighting in front of ten thousand fans, where they’re screaming for the other guy to rip your head off or screaming for you to rip the other guy’s head off. That is, absolutely, as cool as it comes. So part of me does miss that, but I also wouldn’t necessarily want to do that over, or do it again.
“I have two girls now, three and almost five, and a boy on the way in August. I’ll definitely talk about it. I’m proud of what I did. I don’t regret it, like I said. I’m not afraid to talk about it and show them. I’ve already shown them most of my fights a few times…they’re scrappy little girls, too.”
Whatever one thinks about the role of fighting in hockey, one can certainly respect how dedicated a player like Myles Stoesz was to defending his teammates and honoring the traditions of the game. He took on a difficult job at a very young age, and he came out of it with a unique perspective and a career full of memories. Whether or not one thinks fighting needs to be removed from hockey, most would have to agree that the sport needs more people like Myles in it, not less.
Some of his fights:
In an NHL jersey: