The most memorable of Richard Zemlak's 300 career fights started in a corner inside the old Chicago Stadium in 1988. It began as a pushing match between the then-Minnesota North Stars right winger and 6-foot-2, 200-pound Blackhawks brute Dave Manson, who was appropriately named after a serial killer.
Manson was the first to throw down. Zemlak had little choice but to follow suit. As Zemlak struggled to maintain his balance, Manson landed a pair of unholy shots to his chops.
"He hit me pretty hard that I saw white lights and tweety birds," says Zemlak, who required seven stitches.
He amassed 307 penalty minutes in 54 games during the 1987-88 season with the beloved green and gold. "Who knows if I have any residual effects from those hockey fights. I'm 52 years old now. Do I forget things? Yeah. Do I have a hard time getting motivated when the sun's not shining? Yeah. But who's to say what the aftereffects are."
But while football has gotten all the attention for turning players' brains into scrambled eggs, the spotlight is beginning to turn to hockey.
Two former NHL enforcers, Scott Parker and Dan LaCouture, step out of the penalty box and into primetime tomorrow night when Showtime airs "60 Minutes Sports." It's a report on fighting's role in the culture of hockey and the aftermath of brain injuries marring the post-playing years of some of the sport's tough guys.
Zemlak had a 10-year pro career with four different NHL teams, including one season with the North Stars.
Back then, the sport was a different monster. There were brawls in warmups. Fans duked it out in the stands. Players went back out and skated when their brains were mush because "we didn't even know what a concussion was and if you're leg wasn't broken, you were expected to just go out there and play."
Fighting's role in today's game of bigger, stronger, faster players has been noticeably reduced, and appropriately so, according to Zemlak. Things were crazy 25 years ago.
Still, he believes enforcers serve an important role even when there are stories like Derek Boogaard's. The former Wild tough guy died of an accidental overdose of booze and pills at age 28 after suffering numerous head injuries.
After all, says Zemlak, hockey remains the only sport that self-sheriffs.
"If you take fighting out of the game, what's going to happen?" he says. "They're going to use their sticks. As long as you're going to have body contact, you're always going to have two guys squaring off. There's a time and a place and a purpose for it in hockey."
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