The Role of a Fighter: Aaron Downey

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I'd called him about something else — just a quick question, really — but he had a few things to say and I didn't mind listening in.

Aaron Downey's nothing if not a personable guy.

Mostly, he talked about fighting. After all, that's pretty much what he's done the last 18 years, beginning in Junior C in Ontario with the Grand Valley Harvesters and working his way up to Junior B, the OHL, through the Maritime Junior A League, the ECHL and finally in the AHL. Then, after two ECHL seasons with 300+ PIM and two AHL ones with 400+, he played his first NHL game at age 25 with the Boston Bruins in 1999-00.

Now, he's played in parts of nine NHL seasons, 243 games total, and has 18 points, 494 PIM and a Stanley Cup ring. He's never averaged more than 6:43 a game in ice time and, approaching 35, currently plays with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the minors.

He's a fighter.

And even though some say enforcers are going the way of the dodo given new rules likely coming in next season, Downey said he's not worried about his job security.

In fact, I had to tell him the crackdown on staged fights was coming.

"I always thought those were stupid anyways," he said. "You know, you can write that, I don't really care. I think premeditated fights are ridiculous, for one.

"The reason I made the NHL is I was aggressive, I was able to go in there and hammer guys on the fore-check, you know? Bring energy. In order to slow me down, they usually had to send somebody out there. And I would answer the bell."

According to hockeyfights.com, Downey's answered it exactly 46 times in his NHL career, including a marathon bout with Cam Janssen this season during a stint with the Red Wings.

Downey, like Don Cherry, argues fighting has to remain something that comes up during the heat of the moment.

"Why, right off the start of the game, do two heavyweights have to go right off the bat?" he asked. "Are they going to set the stage for the game? I personally don't think it does. But I tell you what, what sets the stage is when a guy goes out there, has a lot of energy on the fore-check, hammers one of your defencemen — now we're talking. Now it's game on, right?

"I'll use [Ian] White from Toronto for example, back when I played for Montreal, remember that night? — it was one of the best games of my life — Toronto came to town and they had to beat us, but we won, we put them out of the playoffs, that was the night Kovalev elbowed Tucker, do you remember?"

I say I do, but I'm unsure.

"What a game that was," Downey said. "Two fights that were in there, they were two good fights for a reason, they weren't premeditated. Two teams had good sport, good blood, good spirit.

"It was one of those games that was just awesome. It wasn't a blowout, and it was just two teams battling. I think that's when fighting is acceptable, but I can't accept something that's just right off the start of the game and has no bearing at all or not even a sweat broken."

And those are the ones they're attempting to get rid of, I offer.

"I can see them doing that," Downey said. "I'm a fighter and I'm saying that, too."

That said, he's not for eliminating his role altogether.

"I'm in the States right now, and you know one of the No. 1 things on TV, in prime hours when families [are watching], is ultimate fighting. You've got guys down on their backs and they haven't submitted yet and the guy's pounding him with left and right flurries, blood flying everywhere. Is that the message you want to send your kids?

"They've got people complaining about an ice hockey fight? Common!

"You don't need to change these rules. What we've got to do is just create awareness that this is a heckuva sport we're playing here. You know what, it's the only sport that's left that there's gladiator Roman times still in the sport and bare knuckle fighting and we should be proud of that for crying out loud. We're talking about real men here."

I've written about fighting for years, mostly as an "objective" observer, and even talked to a few enforcers in that time. They don't all have the same take on their role — or at least in what they reveal to guys like me. Some admit to loathing it, some cope with drugs or alcohol and some simply embrace it because it's all they've known.

Downey says they're gladiators, taking beatings in a ring to entertain the masses, and he's just fine with that. At the end of the night, he gets to leave the fight behind.

"You think, back in the time, when these guys went into the arenas and theatres, some of those guys didn't leave, they were dead. They used swords and shields and everything. Hmmph.

"At least we're in a sport now where it's a great sport, it's fast, exciting, there's play-making abilities, and its hard hitting, guys are skating up to 25 miles an hour, there's great goaltending. And you know what, in the same token, I don't care who you are, you can ask around, there's always guys, in the back of their mind, thinking they're going to have to fight, whether you're a No. 1 line guy or a fourth-line guy. That's what makes hockey beautiful."

Many don't agree with him, but then again many do, and most hockey fans stand and cheer the blood sport when they're on hand to see it in person. I've written plenty of pieces talking about the dangers of fighting and the need to protect players, but here's the words right from a man in the trenches, fighting for a living and loving it.

A "real" man. A gladiator.

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