On a snowy Sunday afternoon in Trois-Rivières, Québec, lions clash to contest supremacy. Two minutes into the second period of a game that's turning increasingly hostile, Joel "The Animal" Theriault of Assurancia Thetford Mines and Francis Lessard of Blizzard Trois-Rivières agree to impose their own form of regulation. No theatrics herald their fight, only a visceral intensity that prompts heavy pounding in the heart: these are the Ligue nord-américaine de hockey's apex heavyweights. Blunt knuckled violence haunts the rote faceoff.
After the puck is dropped, the two circle each other and meet at the dot to the left of the Blizzard goaltender, where Lessard—a former NHL enforcer who once earned a favourable result against Zdeno Chara—grabs Theriault, who is still trying to remove his helmet. They grapple momentarily before "The Animal" frees his left hand and lands a series of brisk, pitiless punches on Lessard's face. The beaten man's legs buckle and he falls to the ice where Theriault lands on top of him.
The linesmen intervene, but Theriault—incensed at not having had the opportunity to remove his own helmet, and the breach of fighting code this represents—tussles with his captor from within an entanglement of limbs. He skates toward the Trois-Rivières bench, his finger outstretched angrily, and takes a swipe at the Blizzard's Chris Cloutier before falling over, which draws jeers from the crowd. His rage eventually subsides and the incident is finished.
Despite its relative mildness, the fight's aftermath was seized upon in the media as another example of the buffoonery that has long been the LNAH's domain. It's a problem the players are conscious of. "Every time they talk about our league it's always about a fight or something happening," says Marco Charpentier, an eight-year veteran who finished second in league scoring this season. "They never show a nice goal or a nice play, it's always the bad stuff."
The cartoonish spectacle of the LNAH's past, when it was unquestionably the toughest circuit in existence, has been replaced by an attractive blend of skill and physicality. But while this may seem like progress, many of those who've witnessed its evolution say the league is less popular now than during the period in which it was most violent. It's an issue that can't be understood without discussing the cultural mores that support the LNAH's existence, and the place of fighting in the lives of those needful of its narcotic.
The Ligue nord-américaine de hockey is the third iteration of a Québec semi-pro venture that began in 1996. It was initially called the Ligue de hockey semi-professionnelle du Québec (LHSPQ), and was created by fusing two existing senior leagues. According to its written history, the LHSPQ was formed to give Québécois players an opportunity to play at home and provide fans with a style of hockey "as it existed in the sport's golden age," a nostalgic ethos that infuses the LNAH's soul today.
The amount of fighting increased each year, to where, by 2006-07, the league averaged 4.45 fights per game, according to Drop Your Gloves. Players were amassing astonishing yearly fight totals, and what began as a Québécois alternative for playing minor professional hockey at home had metastasized into something alarmingly robust.
It was an era of self-exultant showmanship. Kevin Bolduc, a veteran enforcer who played for a variety of teams and leagues during this time, says, "I was never closer to being a circus animal. It was fun, but it was more like a circus."
The fighting was a self-conscious spectacle and, in many ways, operated in isolation of hockey's primary objective. Bryan Richardson, a forward who played for Laval, remembers the shock he received during his first game. "There were seven fights in the first minute and a half," he says, before acknowledging the financial logic to the fisticuffs. "It's what brought the fans in, to be honest with you."
Staging a compelling show has always been central to the league's identity. Richardson remembers a radio advertisement in Verdun, Québec, which lured fans with this enticing promise: "Puck drops at 8 o'clock. Gloves drop at 8:05." Explicit advertisements of this sort are artifacts of another era, when the product was unapologetically brawny and fans packed the rinks to witness exhibitions that may become unhinged at any moment. Whenever this period is discussed, the word gongshow inevitably surfaces.
Cloutier, who plays for Trois-Rivières and broke into the LNAH in 2004 with the Laval Chiefs, explains the distinction. "Back in the day you just go out... gongshow, you know what I mean? You do get the odd game now but back then you used to have one a weekend. You had to throw down four times a weekend. Now, if I throw down twice, one on the road and one at home, I'm happy. But back in the day, you had four fights a weekend. You had to go. You had no choice."
It was a world in which frontier justice prevailed, and away from the ice a mythology had taken root. Rumours of organized crime involvement, with gangsters laundering cash through the league, helped foster the LNAH's outlaw mystique, particularly among English hockey fans. None of the research for this story turned up any evidence—or even whispers—of illicit money being moved. Rather, the point is that a perception of the LNAH as a citadel of brigand culture was created during its early period, and in some ways continues to cloak it.
Reputations usually aren't forged only through rumour, however, and there have been several notable incidents in which LNAH players have been alleged perpetrators and victims of criminality. Some current players have served jail time or have cases pending, in some instances for serious crimes. For these men, the LNAH has given them a second chance, where they can ply their trade and rebuild their lives in relative anonymity. In this sense, the league sometimes functions as a refuge for the hockey outcast.
Today, the LNAH is an eight-team league that stretches from Cornwall, in Eastern Ontario, to Rivière-du-Loup and Jonquière, in Eastern Québec. Most teams play in arenas with seating capacities that don't exceed a few thousand, and which look and smell like traditional hockey rinks, where popcorn, hot dogs and poutine waft through the air, and groups of men cluster together to drink beer and socialize on the concourse. Laval and Thetford Mines play in wonderful, well-maintained older rinks, while in Jonquière attractive women in referee jerseys sell alcohol from rolling carts.
The LNAH boasts some excellent players, like Bruno St. Jacques, a brilliant defenceman for Laval who played 67 games in the NHL. Anthony Stewart, a well-known ex-NHLer who signed with Jonquière this January, says the league's quality exceeded his expectations. "It's a really good pace and it's faster than I thought. You hear stories being from Toronto but it's great hockey. The guys take it seriously."
Pierre-Olivier Beaulieu, a defenceman for Trois-Rivières, contrasts the LNAH lifestyle with that of the East Coast Hockey League, where he played for Fresno. "In level of talent, this league resembles the ECHL. The big difference is the shape people are in," he says. "In the East Coast we skated every day, went to the gym, and ate well. [In the LNAH] we get to the game Friday night after having worked 8-5 all week, we eat a sandwich at Tim Hortons and then come to play the game."
The way the league is set up is counterproductive to icing the best product, but in the absence of large budgets—which can provide players with the accommodations they require to practice and train throughout the week, and lead a lifestyle completely focused on hockey—its current format is the only one that's workable. This makes the pace and organization of play even more remarkable; for the most part, it's a tight, highly fluid style of hockey that features crisp passing and quick feet.
Skilled though it is, the LNAH markets itself as a visceral experience. Its motto is "hockey that fuels emotion"—a tagline that hints at hostility. LNAH fights occur eight times more frequently than in the NHL, a rate that nonetheless falls short of the era in which they were comedically high. While the league acknowledges it has lost fans who came strictly for the brawling, it believes that for many, fighting is merely an accessory to a physical brand of hockey.
Cindy Simard, who is part owner of 2015-16 champion Rivière-du-Loup, says her fan base isn't preoccupied with violence, and the team is pushing a fast, robust style. "There will always be certain fans who like fights who want more fighting," she says. "But the majority of our fans don't want that. The league has evolved a lot and we're really no longer in that era." Interestingly, her team finished second in fighting majors this season.
The league says it has cut down on staged fighting, but it still occurs in most games and has an important economic impact.
"Here, a lot of the fights are pre-planned," an LNAH linesman says. "People who want the fights, the violence, have the fights—two to three per game to get those fans in—and the guys who want to see hockey... get their hockey."
Curtis Tidball, a 12-year LNAH veteran, says that as fighting has declined, so too has attendance, a suggestion agreed with by mostly every person interviewed. "[The fans] want a show," Cloutier says. "If they want to watch Olympic hockey, they'll watch Olympic hockey. Most fans come here for the rough play."
Could the LNAH survive without fighting? In its absence, would the league become simply a lesser brand of hockey than the NHL, whose novelty is its language and geography? The majority of players are adamant that it needs to stay. Christophe Losier, a forward with Thetford Mines, believes it's essential to the league's health, even as he acknowledges its changing nature. "For us here it's more of a show," he says. "There's less fights every year. But it's still a part of the league and it needs to stay there. If it's gone, then the league is gone."
There is an aspect of Québécois culture that revels in showy, alpha-male masculinity, and the LNAH is both a response to and purveyor of this spirit. It manifests as an unapologetic and self-exultant form of machismo, servile to nothing.
"Every single one of the French guys on my team will fight you. They wouldn't even think twice, they'd drop their gloves and go right at you," says Ryan Hand, a defenseman for Thetford Mines who provides dependable play and genuine toughness. "I've played with English guys, I've played with Americans, I've played with Europeans, but that [aggressive] mentality does not go that broad across."
Cultural basis notwithstanding, what is its utility? "If you take [away] the fighting it's going to be so bad, cheap shots and stuff," Losier says, repeating one of the eternal maxims of the fighting enthusiast.
Empirical observation does lend credence to his point. One of the interesting things about the LNAH is that, despite its deservedly tough reputation, there isn't much dirty play. This is presumably because players are aware of what follows should they cross the line.
"There's a code between the guys. If somebody either injures a star player or does something stupid from a game before, they'll remember," says a league linesman. "There will be payback the next game, but other than that the fighting kind of keeps everybody in check."
Though fighting is often undertaken only for its sensory thrill, having a heavyweight can change the complexion of a game. Joel Theriault—a 6'4", 250-pound, 39-year-old spastic ball of ferocity—is the most feared player in the league, and every time he steps onto the ice it feels like a grizzly bear has invaded the campsite. "We played the beginning of the year without Joel and they were playing tough against us," says Theriault's teammate Matthew Medley. "But when Joel was in the lineup they were all really quiet on the ice."
Hand sees the inherent value in fighting and intimidation. "I think the toughest team wins. Especially in the playoffs. I've seen it firsthand. We beat up their tough guys, [it] brings their whole team down."
Kevin Cormier, a heavyweight who fought 36 times this year for St. Georges, sees himself as a cog in a larger machine. "It's a role," he says. "A hockey team is like a puzzle, and every puzzle needs a piece. You need pieces. The goalie, the sniper, the grinder, the fighters, and I'm just happy to be a part of that."
How do the LNAH's tough guys feel about what they're doing? In literature, fighters are often portrayed as darkly romantic figures, set apart from their teammates and shrouded by metaphysical sadness, but the reality is hardly ever cinematic. Some look upon it practically, as a way of establishing a role for themselves, while others have more elemental reasons. Theriault says it provides him with an existential thrill he likens to a narcotic. "It's a drug... because time stops. It's just you and the other guy, and it's beyond strength and conditioning. It's up to, where am I ready to push my limits?"
What about the anxiety that precedes engaging in a bare knuckle fistfight? Some say that tension diminishes with experience or that it's obscured by adrenaline, but Tidball and Sean McMorrow, who have fought more than anyone, say they still feel nerves before a fight. "If you don't get anxious, there's something wrong with you," Tidball says.
The anxiety is fear of the unknown, of what terrible things may happen, like getting knocked unconscious and having to relive one's humiliation for eternity on YouTube.
How is this fear overcome? "There's a lot of times when you're very uncomfortable," McMorrow says, "but I'm not looking at it like I'm just fighting another guy. I'm looking at it like I'm representing my team, trying to either get momentum, send a message, or stick up for somebody."
Theriault, whose fierceness may have no equal in hockey, says that he can play so intensely because prior to every game he accepts the possibility that he might end up in the hospital. This understanding, in which the gravest consequences have already been acknowledged, is what allows him to hit and fight with ultimate aggression.
If fighting is a narcotic, it is one not without serious consequences. Contemporary discussions of fighting must consider the medical evidence warning against it. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that develops through repeated blows to the head—causing tau protein to accumulate on neurons and eventually destroy them, leading to cognitive impairment, depression and other irrational behaviour—is the black cloud hanging over all contact sport athletes.
While most enforcers acknowledge the risks, they focus more on mitigating short-term effects, like abstaining if they have a headache, rather than potential long-term consequences. The most thoughtful consideration came from Theriault, the oldest of those interviewed, who knows men currently struggling with head issues. "[I] know guys that are five, six years, eight years older than me that are having some troubles, concentration problems, sleeping problems, anxiety problems," he says. "Yes, there's a bad side to that. I'm sure there is. I hope my kid is not going to go through that. There's a price to pay."
There is unquestionably a price to pay, but with head trauma, the degree to which it manifests—and when—is unknowable until it happens. Martin Lariviere, Theriault's teammate, is adamant that should he experience issues later in life, no one should feel sorry for him.
"I know it's not really good for my brain but I'm doing that because, as Joel told you, it's a drug. I need that," he says. "Even though if I know I'm going to have headaches or something for the rest of my life, honestly I don't care. I don't care, because I did what I loved the most."
Bob Probert, the legendary Red Wings enforcer who Theriault cites as one of his heroes, died at 45 and was found to have suffered from CTE. He had 355 fights across his junior and professional careers, an extremely high number but one smaller than that held by many LNAH enforcers, who are fighting for far less money and with no hope of reaching higher professional levels. Beyond their love for the game and the seductiveness of small-town celebrity, what is their motivation?
Bolduc says it's partly about being true to himself. "I've got more than 300 fights. I've got a few in the ring. I've got a few in the octagon. I'm a fighter, OK? I've had hits that could kill people. I don't have any concussions. I don't have any problem with my head. Yes, after a fight I might have a slight headache... but when you really love it, when you do it for the right reason, it doesn't matter. Fighting is a way of mind. So, yes, I'm a fighter, I will never regret it and I will totally assume it. All the time."
For Theriault, who boxes and has tried mixed martial arts, fighting is an affirmation of his being. He knows the rare vitality it provides, and its addictiveness drives him to continually take risks.
"Yes, the money is there," says Theriault, an electrician by trade, "but there's more to it than that. It's a way of living. It's just like these guys who do UFC, make a couple grand a fight, and people say 'I don't understand, he's got a good job.' It's passed that. It's a way of living. It's a drug. It's a drug. It is a drug."
"In this league they want more emotion. They want the hard checks. They want us to call less of the little hooks behind the play, they want to let the play go," the linesman says.
'Hockey that fuels emotion' is not so much a nod to the league's past as it is an ethos the LNAH has institutionalized. It's a culture that provides men like Theriault with a theatre in which to stage grand dramas.
What does the contemporary product offer fans? The LNAH experience is one that allows people to bask in traditional ideals of strength and courage free of political correctness. In Laval, which has some of the most notorious fans in the league, one especially vocal man, who had been yelling incomprehensible French insults the entire game, became so perturbed when a player turned down a fight that he switched to English for the first time and broke a major contemporary social taboo by screaming loudly and without fear of disapproval: "You're a fucking faggot."
It provides a decidedly less politically correct version of hockey, one that hasn't undergone the same stultifying corporatization that mars the NHL. One of the LNAH's great charms is the frequent interactions fans have with players. In Trois-Rivières, Theriault earned a Bronx cheer after he stickhandled around an opponent in the neutral zone and dumped the puck in. As he skated off, "The Animal" removed his glove and let his middle finger hang. He was immediately ejected.
And in spite of this, the LNAH provides an atmosphere suitable for families. There's an abundance of children at every game, and the coarser aspects of fandom aren't thrown in one's face, merely available for those interested. As inflammatory as the interactions between fans and players may get, they can be equally gentle; players like McMorrow engage collegially with spectators, and most are eager to accommodate fan requests. The players are accessible, and grateful for attention that's not exclusively focused on the cruder aspects that have marred the league's reputation.
It is a league whose style of play and fan expectations reinforce one another, a blue-collar mode of hockey for the working class that's inflected by Québécois flash, where macho showmanship is an ideal and the amount of applause a player gets is relative to the size of his behaviour. This is "the show," which extends from antics in the warmup, to pre and post-fight rituals, to fan engagement in the game, and it all contributes to what's conspicuously lacking from so many NHL games: fun.
What is the LNAH's future? However singular it may be, the league is still subject to hockey's larger evolution. Junior leagues aren't graduating enforcers at the same rate anymore, meaning men like Joel Theriault will become increasingly rare and fighting will be done by players who take regular shifts.
The issue of fighting in hockey briefly resurfaced when former NHL enforcer Brian McGrattan was knocked unconscious in an AHL game this past January. Seeing McGrattan face-down and removed from his consciousness reinforced how fine the line is between excitement and horror. Of course, the LNAH hasn't been exempt from its own doses of cold reality. On Feb. 5, a fight between Maxime Vachon of Cornwall and Sebastien Courcelles of Thetford Mines left Courcelles unconscious. He had to be carried off by his teammates, his knees shaking woozily.
Naturally, this incident caused nary a stir in the media, coming, as it did, during a game that wasn't televised, and in a league where fighting is the expectation. So long as players continue to fight there will be injuries like the one sustained by Courcelles, in addition to whatever unseen traumas occur in their brains. But no one wants it to stop, not even those for whom fighting is incidental to a skilled game. If it does, league attendance might decline further and the LNAH will face an identity crisis. It remains a variable that must be controlled, one that can be an economic boon or bring the wrong kind of attention. This is a tenuous balance, which league ownership is keen to preserve.
Perhaps remaining slightly under the radar is in the LNAH's best interest. With more attention comes greater scrutiny, and the inevitable grandstanding of outsiders desperate to make moral judgments on whether fighting in hockey is still palatable in light of contemporary medical research. But for those for whom living on the precipice is the only way, what is life without risk? Human society continues to evolve but human nature remains the same. Spectacles like the LNAH affirm truths easily understood: that physicality creates a clear hierarchy between men. If the league continues to propagate this fantasy, it will sustain its fan base.
And if sports are about escapism and vicarious empowerment, few institutions provide these like the LNAH. One of the unique pleasures of the league is the delicious sense of wildness it provides. Fans know that at any moment things might unravel, and this is tantalizing for the majority of people who live staid, conventional lives, where there is no proximity to anything elemental and life is governed by institutions adverse to intemperate behaviour. Once fighting is excised, this type of escape will be impossible.
The league announced this week plans to add two teams within the next four years, and Denis Boisvert, its vice president of communications, says the LNAH regularly receives applications for new franchises. The challenge for those running the LNAH is re-orienting the fans' perception of what exactly its product is. This will require a more assertive marketing push, one that should ideally present it as an alchemy of old-time values, where fans can watch skilled hockey that still indulges their basic instincts. And while this is the essence of the league's current message, it needs more proselytizing.
Like any entity for which a stormy transformation precedes equilibrium, it seems the LNAH's opposing forces have finally balanced. Today's game is still suitably rowdy to appease the fighting enthusiast, but fans can enjoy the product without feeling as if hockey has been sacrificed to theatricality. Whether it's sated by artistry or impulse, there's a dose for your addiction.