Peter Soberlak watched hockey’s horrible summer from afar, all the time with a queasy feeling in his stomach.
He heard about and read about the deaths of Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Barry Potomski. And, like everyone else, Soberlak wondered about a connection between their premature deaths and their roles as hockey fighters.
Soberlak wondered, too, because there was a time when hockey people tried to push him down that road.
There was a time when Soberlak was the complete package.
As a teenager, he was 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds. He had soft hands. He had passion. He could skate. He could shoot. He could do it all.
Yes, he could fight. He had long arms, great balance on his skates and he could throw a punch. Oh, how he could fight!
There was, however, one teensy-weensy, itsy-bitsy little problem.
Soberlak hated fighting. Still does, in fact. It’s interesting, because he loves hockey. He loves its flow and speed and skill and emotion and passion. He loves it when it is played properly. But he absolutely hates the fighting and he does so with every ounce of his being.
In fact, you could make the case that he is what he is today because of that hatred.
As a 16-year-old with his hometown Kamloops Blazers, Soberlak fought five times, taking out Regina Pats defenceman Selmar Odelein with one punch in the third of those bouts.
Even then, Soberlak says, he was telling himself: “I hate this; I can’t do this every night.”
In his last fight with the Blazers, on Oct. 24, 1986, Soberlak laid out Spokane Chiefs forward Rocky Dundas with two punches.
In his only other scrap that season, after being dealt to the Swift Current Broncos, Soberlak took care of Saskatoon Blades toughie Kelly Chase, who would go on to acclaim as an NHL pugilistic specialist. The two met up again the following season. This time, Soberlak says, it took him two punches.
According to dropyourgloves.com, Soberlak only had two fights that season — he admits to having lost the other one when Gary Dickie of the Pats somehow got inside on him and dropped him with an uppercut.
One night in December 1988, Soberlak fought Curtis Folkett of the Brandon Wheat Kings. To this day, Soberlak is convinced that Folkett was “told to go out and fight me.”
“I literally crushed the side of his face,” Soberlak says. “That bothered me for a long time.”
All the while, Soberlak was getting eaten up inside. His coaches, here and in Swift Current, wanted more of the fisticuffs. He just wanted to play the game. He skated alongside Joe Sakic one season and ended up with 99 points, including 43 goals. Soberlak just didn’t equate fighting with toughness — still doesn’t, in fact — but by now, as he says, “It kept following me.”
One day he woke up to find that a poll in the Regina Leader-Post had him rated among the WHL’s top five fighters.
“All of a sudden, I’m a fighter?” Soberlak recalls. He remembers thinking: “What’s going on here?”
He was a first-round selection by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1987 NHL draft. And there came a day when the Oilers’ brass sent him down to the AHL’s Cape Breton Oilers to work on that part of his game. Soberlak says he told Glen Sather, John Muckler and Ted Green: “ ‘I am not doing this.’ . . . I went home.”
Later, no less an authority than Bob Clarke, then in the front office of the Philadelphia Flyers and a man who had an on-ice seat as the Broad Street Bullies wreaked havoc across the NHL, told Soberlak he was “soft.”
Soberlak thought about it and realized that Clarke meant he wasn’t fighting enough.
In the end, an ankle injury suffered in junior would finish Soberlak’s career. But, had he chosen to, he could have played with the wonky ankle and fought his way to a career.
“As a person, I couldn’t do that,” says Soberlak. “You are physically assaulting someone . . . it is a violent physical assault.
“Because of my upbringing, my values, my personality . . .”
As he tells his sociology class at TRU, he didn’t have three older brothers to beat the tar out of him as he was growing up. Instead, he was blessed with three older sisters who made him play with an Easy-Bake Oven and watch Little House on the Prairie.
Soberlak left hockey and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology at UBC. He then completed a master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology at Queen’s U in Kingston. He now is the chair of the physical education department at TRU. He works in sports psychology with TRU’s athletic teams and with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets.
During one stop in his career, Soberlak’s roomie was the team’s enforcer. That relationship gave Soberlak a front row seat to what these men go through.
“I watched him struggle with his job,” Soberlak says. “That role is the hardest thing in sports to deal with.”
Soberlak then goes one step further and likens it to the toughest jobs on Earth, like, say, the crab fishermen on the TV show Deadliest Catch.
“Except,” as Soberlak says, “nobody is trying to punch their faces in.”
(Gregg Drinnan is the sports editor of The Daily News. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)