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Brad Dalgarno, the Joey Kocur Fight, and Timeless Hockey Themes

This is how time and memory and diversion stumble together through life in uncoordinated yet serendipitous collaboration: Last week in a power rankings post on this site -- a site that is part-info aggregator, part fellowship of hockey fans -- the comments turned to speedy former Islander Claude LaPointe, which turned to Marty McInnis, which turned to McInnis' "Kid Line" mate Brad Dalgarno. (Travis Future "Gutless Puke" Green was the third Kid.)

Dalgarno was a bigger player but was thought not to use his size with the appropriate ferocity '80s hockey demanded. Why was that? Some remembered injuries, and some remembered an infamous fight with Joey Kocur and a particularly devastating injury that ended his career ... until he started anew. I remembered Dalgarno talking about that in a podcast a few years ago, which I'll get to in a moment.

The third leg of this happenstance triangle, and why in 2011 I bring up a 1985 Islanders draft pick who last played in 1996, is an article just posted at Grantland, which itself is about an article from 1990 ... which was not about Dalgarno at all but rather about the fierce Kocur and the curious existence of NHL enforcers.

Putting these three legs together is a fun look back across the decades into themes that are ingrained in hockey of any era: The insane yet somehow relevant existence of fighting, the primal ambiguous trait of "toughness," the entertainment (including both of those traits) that draws us to this game, and the perseverance through injuries that, frankly, would cause most of us to call in sick for work.

The Beginning

Brad Dalgarno was a first-round pick, sixth overall. This was a big deal, though not as sure a thing as it is in today's hyper-scouted day and age. Still, before the mid-'80s, a New York Islanders first-round pick usually meant fantastic things. But longtime fans will tell you Dalgarno was part of a string of firsts that, at minimum, did not measure up (often worsened by injury) and certainly did not prevent the fabled Islanders dynasty's decline: Names like the late Duncan MacPherson, Dean Chynoweth, Kevin Cheveldayoff, Dave Chyzowski, Scott Scissons. Tom Fitzgerald is in that run and played 1,097 NHL games, but still: Not a game-breaker.

Dalgarno might have been different. A 6'3", 200-lb. winger with some scoring punch. (Islanders winger Derek King, incidentally, was selected seven picks behind Dalgarno in 1985 and scored 261 NHL goals.)

After a couple of seasons of call-ups, Dalgarno made the team for good -- or not, it turned out -- in 1988-89, putting up 11 goals in 55 games at age 21.

Then he fought Joey Kocur.

The Kocur-Dalgarno Fight

It's actually nowhere near as bad as legend says, as memory tries to tell you, as a devastating injury history would make you think. In fact, Dalgarno landed several early punches against the fearsome Kocur. The problem, it seems, was the one punch Kocur landed. Kocur's punches were legend.

From the Grantland piece (which again, is mostly from a Johnette Howard piece in The National in February 1990):

Kocur flattened New York Islanders winger Brad Dalgarno with a single wallop, then watched Dalgarno teeter off the ice, only to learn later that he'd fractured Dalgarno's left eye orbit, his cheekbone, and — people now whisper — his resolve to go on.

h/t to LHH reader NHL Fan for calling this article to my attention.

You might think from that clip, or you might remember from those hazy days, that Dalgarno simply bought off more than he could chew. But here is his 1990 self describing what happened [same article]:

Dalgarno has heard the explanations of why Kocur stalked him for two shifts during that game last February: that the Red Wings thought the six foot three, 215-pound Dalgarno had earlier put too aggressive a cross-check on Gilbert Delorme, that the penalty Dalgarno received wasn't enough.

"In the first place, I thought the penalty was a rather questionable call," Dalgarno says. "But sure enough, two shifts later, Kocur was out on the ice every time I came out. I was kind of, well, nervous. I knew he was tough, and the guys on my team kept skating by and telling me, 'Be careful, be careful Brad. He's out to get you. He's a dangerous guy.' And sure enough, after two shifts, we were fighting."

This opens up a can-of-worms topic that plagued us in those days and plagues us now in the era of the instigator: Take a liberty with an opponent, and his enforcer might stalk you. But what if the liberty wasn't quite the severe liberty some thought? Or even granting it was -- note at the time of the fight, in the play-by-play you hear Jiggs McDonald saying Delorme had not returned, but he definitely played the next game -- does it warrant a crushing blow to the temple?

The Grantland (National) article -- I'm not going to excerpt every relevant part here, and I encourage you to read it yourself -- goes on to say how Dalgarno always battled the coaches and peer pressure that tried to turn him into some kind of fighter just because of his size.

It seems there was even more than that dilemma going on, and I bet it's a dilemma many fans with a love-hate view of hockey and its awkward embrace of violence also face. While recuperating at home, someone sent Dalgarno an article from Detroit where Delorme and others basically said Dalgarno deserved what he got:

"I remember I just thought, 'Wait a minute. Who deserved what?' Where's the justice, the value, in that?"

"The doctors had to drill a hole in the side of my head [during surgery]. I could've lost my left eye, or my eye could've sunk into my orbital bone and I would've lost my vision. The nerves in the left side of my face might never have rematerialized. Fortunately they have, or I'd look like I had a stroke. I thought, 'Deserves it, deserves it? Who deserves that?' "

There's more in that article, and it's worth a read for the overall picture as well. Suffice to say, for once Dalgarno -- who felt "trapped" in the game like many players who'd grown up with it and knew nothing else -- felt fine with quitting the game. So he did, rather than accept a demotion and carry on in this state.

Here's what he told The Hockey News at the time:

"I'm going on sabbatical," Dalgarno told The Hockey News' Sherry Ross. "I don't want to play anywhere else. My wife, Lesley, has two degrees and is a capable teacher, and I have a lot of energy that I can put into other fields." At the time, Dalgarno was considering a career in marketing and was prepared to resume his education. He said hockey "by far was not my life" and that he had lost his early love for the game.

But that's not where it ends.

A Second Career

This is where that podcast that bounced around my memory comes in. Turns out it was from 2007, shortly before Al Arbour's one-game comeback to reach 1,500 games, when Rob Kowal had Dalgarno on his New York Hockey Talk podcast. [It's the Nov. 4, 2007 episode in that link, beginning around 24 minutes in. He tells some good Darius Kasparaitis tales, too.]:

"That year [1988-89] was a write-off after that. The left side of my face, he hit me once on the temple -- didn't cut me or anything but busted the orbital bone and cheek bones and, my gosh, it took the rest of that year to recover physically.

"But the next year I certainly hadn't recovered mentally in terms of my approach, in terms of my role and what I needed to do. So that next training camp, things just didn't go well, I didn't feel right at all. Very unsure of myself in a lot of ways."

Remember, that Grantland (really, The National) article was published in 1990. It's a voice from two decades ago. In that version, that's where the story ends: "Dalgarno, age twenty-two, a former number one draft pick, a potential twenty-five-goals-a-year scorer — officially retired."

Indeed, Dalgarno retired. Went back to school. You could say Kocur ended it for him. You could say he was never tough enough to hack it anyway. You could say he was just an NHL version of Ned Braden, the character in Slapshot who finds the goon-it-up show such a mockery that it makes it tough to carry on in the sport, with this cognitive dissonance constantly on the mind.

But that's not how it ended for Dalgarno. That year off -- as a student, a retired NHLer -- Dalgarno took in a Leafs game at the end of that year and bumped into Isles GM Bill Torrey. In that 2007 podcast Dalgarno explained what happened next:

"Next morning I got a call from my agent. ... Things had changed for me personally in terms of my approach. I made the effort to come back, and the first day of training camp I lost six teeth with a broken jaw. ... But I stuck it out and had a great 'second career' as I call it."

And it was a second career. From "bust" to flame-out to "big guy who wouldn't play big," Dalgarno comes back to be a regular. He tops out at 15 goals in a single season, but he's also part of that beloved 1993 team that stopped the Penguins' dynasty hunt and -- yikes -- is still the last Islanders squad to win a playoff series.

In that second career, he became "something of a banger" who "battles in the corners and kills penalties." Yet at age 27 young wingers like Brett Lindros and Ziggy Palffy were on their way, and Dalgarno's second career was nearing its end.

That is where that final theme comes in: Dalgarno only played 226 regular season games after his comeback, spread across six NHL seasons. For a guy who quit after an injury, he sure played through a lot of them.

His bio sheet's "awards and miscellaneous" reads like a patient's record, with a broken wrist, shoulder surgery, recurring shoulder injuries, hernia surgery and, finally, another wrist surgery that put an end to his NHL career.

A guy who once lost his love for the game, whose ethos was questioned, took a year off and salvaged several more years of fun in the league. Nothing flashy, not 6th-overall stardom, but something worthwhile and a "second career" one gathers he wouldn't trade for anything. Rather than going down in a heap and never putting on skates again, he still does charity games and related expressions of the game. He still enjoys the game.

The After-School Special Coda

It was fun digging up this background and putting it together and setting my memory straight. The whole saga reminds me of when kids get burned out by sports thanks to oppressive parents, misguided coaches or the sheer repetition of it all. I only play rec hockey and watch the NHL as a fan, but even I've been there with this beloved sport: on a bad team, or with a soul-sucking coach, or when injuries pile up and make it a pain or -- as a fan -- when the league shuts down for an entire damn year.

You can get burned out on anything in life, whether out of loss of interest or from external or societal issues that taint what you once enjoyed. But it seems in those low moments if you step back, take a breath and give yourself the space to see it in a new light, you might be able to return and enjoy it in a whole new way. It sounds like Brad Dalgarno did. It sounds like that's a tale worth remembering for a rainy day.