Ask Rocky Thompson what kind of hockey player he was and he gives you an honest answer.
“I was mean,” said the Oklahoma City Barons' assistant coach.
Thompson, 34, played 10 full seasons of professional hockey, mostly in the American Hockey League. He appeared in 25 National Hockey League games, 15 with the Calgary Flames and 10 with the Florida Panthers.
In those 10 years, he amassed more than 2,000 penalty minutes. In his 25 NHL games alone, he logged 117 penalty minutes.
In his first four NHL games, Thompson was involved in six fights. Many of his hockey fights are still frequently viewed on YouTube today.
Thompson is the guy with long hair flying with every punch. He's missing most of his front teeth. At times, Thompson appeared to be a wild man on ice.
“I wanted people to think I was crazy,” Thompson said. “The only way to make them think you're crazy is to do crazy things sometimes. It was all calculated.”
Born to Brawl
Perhaps Thompson was destined to be a fighter.
Born in 1977, the year after the first Rocky movie was released, his father named him after his favorite boxer, Rocky Marciano.
As a kid in Canada named Rocky, Thompson often was given the opportunity to prove he was a tough guy.
“With a name like Rocky, you kind of have to live up to it a little bit growing up,” Thompson said.
As a young and aggressive player, Thompson literally fought himself into the Western Hockey League, a major junior hockey league for ages 16 to 20 in western Canada and the northwestern United States.
“I wanted to play hockey bad enough at that level that I was willing to do things that others wouldn't do,” he said. “I knew that was what would get me to the NHL.”
Thompson played four years in the WHL before being drafted in 1995 by the Calgary Flames where he made his professional debut for the Flames' AHL affiliate, the Saint John Flames.
Over the next 10 years with seven different AHL teams and two NHL clubs, Thompson inflicted his physical and punishing brand of “Rocky Hockey” on opponents.
“When I played defense, you had to pay a price if you wanted to be in front of the net,” he said. “If I didn't do those type of things, I wouldn't be doing my job very well.”
Thompson played hard and loved to win.
“I did whatever it took to win,” Thompson said. “I grew up wrestling. I grew up boxing. So when I was able to get on the ice, (fighting) was something I could do.
“I was an aggressive player, so that happened quite often. I wasn't the most gifted player growing up at all. I didn't have great hands. I was never a great skater. But what I am proud about most was that I was able to learn the positions on the ice. I played both defense and forward and developed myself as a hockey player and became a true pro.”
However, being the enforcer for his teams was Thompson's primary role.
In his career as a pro and a junior player, Thompson estimates he was involved in as many as 300 hockey fights.
“Hockey can be a sport of intimidation,” he said. “That's something I was very good at. To go out and intimidate another team's good players is really what a good enforcer will do, ultimately scaring good players on the other team where you take away their strengths.”
A Golden Gloves champion boxer, Thompson used his wrestling and boxing experience to his advantage on the ice. Those YouTube videos prove that Rocky could give and take a punch against some of the toughest players in the game.
“A couple of times a year I would grab a real good player, wrestle him down and because of my wrestling background, I would choke him. I would choke him just for a little while until they would get scared and panic and then I would let them go.
“Then I would always say afterward that if you do anything again, I will do it again. And it would scare them a lot and they wouldn't play so good.”
Thompson claims he rarely let his emotions get the better of him, even during fights, but admits there were instances where he almost crossed the line, like the time he tried to step on a player's hand with his skate.
“I made a mistake, that is for sure,” Thompson said. “Thank goodness he moved his hand because I probably would have cut his fingers off.”
The debate about fighting
As reported in Sunday's New York Times, two NHL executives both spoke out about fighting in the game last week and represented opposite viewpoints.
“I would abolish fighting, like today,” Detroit Red Wings' vice-president Jimmy Devellano said on a podcast for the New York cable network SNY. “I would eliminate it immediately. I can do without it. I don't need it.
“I don't think the game needs it. I think the game is beautiful when you see the skill that's displayed by our better players.”
Brian Burke, president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, takes the opposite view.
Burke thinks hockey is more dangerous with the absence of designated tough guys to exact retribution against players who deliver cheap shots.
Without “guys looking out for each other,” Burke told reporters, “the rats will take over this game.”
As a former enforcer, Thompson agrees with Burke. He thinks players should be allowed to police themselves.
“The instigator rule is one that handcuffs guys like myself,” said Thompson of the professional hockey league rule where players can be fined and suspended if they are deemed to have instigated fights on multiple occasions.
“What they are saying is I can't protect my teammates,” Thompson said. “They are saying let us protect them, but they haven't done it yet.”
Rocky Hockey today
Thompson's hair is cut short now. A complete upper rack of teeth offers a nice smile. After years of hammering helmets and heads, Thompson's knuckles are as healed as they'll get.
Thompson coaches the Barons to be aggressive but doesn't teach fighting, although young players sometimes ask him for tips on how to protect themselves.
He is a devoted husband and father of four children who helps coach his son's and daughters' hockey teams. His children and their hockey teammates have watched his hockey fights on YouTube and tease him about them.
“They laugh and chuckle about it,” he said. “They don't understand it. They just think it's funny.”
Back home in Canada, Thompson teaches the fundamentals of hockey to students at his “Rocky Hockey” school and speaks at local churches about his Christian faith.
Thompson became a Christian in 2004 while still playing professionally, and while that spiritual conversion changed his life, it didn't change the way he played the game.
“It didn't cause me to lose my aggressiveness or my will to win,” he said.
Thompson said he never fought on the ice just for the sake of fighting. Always, there was a purpose behind it and honor in it, he said.
“That's what hockey has always been about,” he said. “I am not embarrassed by it. It was my job and I did it well.”