can still be closed for business: a literary companion to joey kocur’s hands

Joey Kocur's hand

Offhanded: Joey Kocur at rest post-surgery in 1985. Called up from minor-league Adirondack by the Red Wings, he had to take a detour to Detroit’s Harper-Grace Hospital, after punching Jim Playfair’s teeth. (Photo: Schroeder, Free Press)

Let’s remember this, first: when Joey Kocur played in the NHL, he was a crossword king.

Teammate Darren McCarty said Kocur was the best he ever saw when it came to wordy puzzles. USA Today, New York Times, didn’t matter, he’d zip through them all. “He was amazing,” McCarty writes in My Last Fight, a 2014 memoir.

McCarty does acknowledge that as a hockey player, it wasn’t for wordplay that Kocur was so widely feared. One of McCarty’s first fights as a rookie for Detroit was with Kocur, then a Ranger, before they became teammates. “One of his punches cracked my helmet,” McCarty writes. “The momentum of his fist connecting with my head sent us both crashing to the ice. We were both tangled up, and we went down head first and we landed face-to-face.” Kocur asked if McCarty was okay. “Thanks for not killing me, Mr. Kocur,” McCarty said.

The late Bob Probert was another of Kocur’s belligerent teammates with Detroit. Look him up at the Hockey Hall of Fame’s online register of NHL players and the potted biography they have on file takes a fairly straightforward run at his legacy: one of the most feared enforcers in the NHL, it alleges, says he could have been another Mark Messier but for having been groomed to lean more toward fisticuffs than toward the development of his playing skills and so is most remembered for punching a wide swath across the NHL.

Kocur’s profile is, on the other hand, strangely muted. He was a hard-nosed right-winger who was a good checker and intimidating presence on the ice. Also: better at handling the puck than most people realized with a deceptively hard shot.

Nothing about the fighting. No testimonials of the kind that St. Louis Blues center Adam Oates once volunteered: “No one in our league punches harder. In that regard, Joe’s the absolute best at what he does.”

Kocur played 15 seasons in the NHL, retiring in 1999. He won three Stanley Cups as a player, another one as an assistant coach in Detroit. He was mostly a Red Wing, though he also skated for the New York Rangers and, briefly, the Vancouver Canucks. He scored some goals — 80 in 821 regular-season games, another 10 in his 118 playoff games — but that’s not, again, where he got his renown. Dropping the gloves was a thing he did well, freeing up his bare fists in order throw them at those heads, helmeted or otherwise, that needed punching. From the ruthless efficient and generally dispiriting tables at, I know that he did that — punching heads — in at least 218 altercations over the course of his career.

I’d assumed that the internet’s hockey-punching headquarters would be able to help with some other numbers I was interested in: how many concussions did Kocur sustain along his painful way, and how many did he administer to others? But for some reason, (powered by Violent Gentlemen) doesn’t track head trauma. When I typed “CTE” into the Keyword Search window, there was no delay in the answer I got: Not Found.

Newspaper archives don’t have a lot to report on what all those fights did to Kocur’s head, either. Maybe he was lucky, and was never concussed. I hope so.

But if there’s nothing much to read about Joey Kocur’s head, his hands — the right one in particular — are another story. Like Bobby Orr’s knees, Kocur’s hands have an extensive literature to commemorate — well, I was going to say their achievements, when really it’s the damage they’ve suffered. Over the years, Kocur’s much-mangled hands have fascinated writers, and Don Cherry, too. The power in them, yes, that’s proved of interest as a literary subject, but more than that it’s how all their punching has disfigured them. “You wouldn’t believe the hands on Joey Kocur,” he writes in Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories, Part 2 (2011). “It looks like he’s had a Ping Pong ball implanted under each knuckle.”

As for the writers, Johnette Howard took a long look in 1990 for The National Sports Daily at what was happening beyond Kocur’s cuffs. That’s a piece in which she quotes then-Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano as saying he’d like to secure Kocur a job with the team after he retires because “he’s given his hand for the organization.”

She describes the one with he punched in fairly plain terms:

Along the back side of Kocur’s always bloated right hand, a three-inch red scar carves a crooked path from the middle knuckle toward the wrist.

George Vecsey of The New York Times consults his atlas for his 1992 survey of the same hand:

Joey Kocur’s right hand resembles a map of his native Saskatchewan. That bump is his boyhood town of Kelvington. That knob is nearby Nut Mountain. That long gash could very well be the Qu’Appelle River meandering its way into Mountain Lake. Those scars might be the Quill Lakes, and those over there could be Old Wives Lake. And that large bruise could certainly be the urban sprawl of Saskatoon.

Next up, Alec Wilkinson from The New Yorker. His “Examining Joey Kocur’s Hand” appeared in the magazine’s Talk of the Town pages on April 24, 1995. Wilkinson attends to some biographical preliminaries first —

He is six feet tall and weighs two hundred and ten pounds. His face is small, he has high cheekbones, a strong jaw, a gap between his front teeth, and a boyish and malevolent expression. Kocur grew up in Saskatchewan, on the Western Canadian prairie. He is of a physical type occasionally described in hockey circles as a hay baler; that is, he has the broad-back, slope-shouldered build of a farmer. On the Rangers, he occupies the position of enforcer, which obliges him to deliver the team’s response when one of its stars has been handled rudely by the opposition.

— before getting down to business:

Eleven seasons of hockey fights have built up sufficient scar tissue between the wrist and the knuckles that the skin there is taut and shiny and smooth. It feels like linoleum. Because of how tightly the skin is stretched, it can no longer be gathered and stitched. Here and there on his fingers and around his knuckles are dozens of small white scars, like the marbling in a piece of meat. Between the first and second knuckles is a long, thin surgical scar that was left after a tendon that had split down the middle was repaired. A crude, winding trenchlike scar begins between the two other knuckles and runs nearly to the wrist, the result of emergency surgery to control a staph infection. Kocur had cut his hand on another’s player’s teeth, and the doctor had stitched the wound without cleansing it thoroughly. ‘A day later, I woke up with my arm swelled to nearly the size of my leg,’ Kocur says.

George Vecsey talked to Tie Domi. Like McCarty, he’d played against and fought Kocur and skated with him as a teammate. “Joey’s still got the big bomb,” he confided. “I don’t come from the South Pole, like Joey does.”

One punch, Wilkinson wrote, was all that Kocur hoped to land:

He grabs an opponent with his left hand and tries to pull him nearer at the same time that he launches his right from somewhere down by his hip or behind his back. It is unusual for a player to be injured in a hockey fight, but it is not unusual for a player to be injured fighting Kocur. It is sometimes said of him, “When Joey hits people, they stay hit.”

“The hand has never been broken,” Kocur told Vecsey; “just a couple of scrapes here and there.”

Johnette Howard was reporting back in 1990 that doctors were already telling Kocur to expect arthritis and calcium deposits in his punching fist. “Put it this way,” he said, “I’ll never play piano.”Howard also told the fuller tale of the damage done in 1985, when Kocur ended up in the hospital bed pictured above:

He split the hand open during a 1985 minor league game in Halifax, when he knocked out a six-three, two-hundred-pound Nova Scotia defenseman named Jim Playfair.

In the dressing room later, a doctor needed forty stitches to close the gash. But when the rest of the team came off the ice, Kocur got some good news, too: The Red Wings had called him up to the NHL.

The next morning, Kocur took the first plane out and flew all day. He checked into a hotel in Detroit, then spent an excruciating, sleepless night watching his right arm balloon to three times its normal size. When sunrise finally came, he got to the rink early for the Wings’ morning skate. But a trainer noticed the new kid was wearing only one glove. The team doctor was summoned, then a hand surgeon, too.

“This was about 2 p.m.,” Kocur says, “and the next thing I knew, they got me a hospital room, got me an IV. I was in major surgery by five P.M.”

Because doctors in Halifax didn’t realize Kocur had cut his hand on Playfair’s teeth, they sewed the wound shut, preventing it from draining and allowing infection to take hold. Just a day and a half later, the poisoned tendons and tissue between Kocur’s third and fourth knuckles had already begun to rot.

When he emerged from a morphine-induced cloud two weeks after surgery, doctors explained what had happened. “If I’d waited even one more day, they might have had to amputate my whole right arm,” Kocur says.

And how did that make him feel?

“Well,” Kocur says, “it made me realize how bad I want to play hockey.”

Following, a chronological survey of some of the rest of the literature of Joey Kocur’s piteous hands:

Rookie right winger Joe Kocur, just called up by the Detroit Red Wings, has undergone surgery to treat an injury to his right hand, the NHL club announced yesterday.

Dr. Richard Singer placed drains in Kocur’s right hand to rid his arm of infection called cellulitis that spread to his elbow. Kocur received a 20-stitch cut Sunday night in a fight with Nova Scotia’s Jim Playfair during a game with Detroit’s Adirondack AHL farm club. The 20-year-old was due to remain in hospital for three to five three to five days.

In 38 games for Adirondack this season, Kocur had eight goals, six assists and 161 minutes in penalties. He was called up because of injuries to several Detroit players but had seen no action because of his own injury. Edmonton Oilers called up goaltender Daryl Reaugh yesterday from Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League.

• The Globe and Mail, January 10, 1985

DETROIT (AP) – Detroit Red Wings have recalled right-winger Joe Kocur from their Adirondack farm club in Glens Falls, N.Y., the National Hockey League team said yesterday.

Kocur, 20, was the NHL team’s sixth-round draft choice in 1983 and was recalled Jan. 7, but underwent surgery for an infected hand on Jan. 8 and was sent back to the American Hockey League club on Jan. 20.

In 46 games with the farm team this season, he scored 12 goals, added six assists and collected 171 penalty minutes.

• The Gazette, February 19, 1985

If you didn’t already know it, a quick glance at Kocur’s hands would show that he’s more of a fighter than a scorer. The knuckles are covered with scrapes from being bounced off heads and helmets, the most recent abrasion being acquired on Saturday night when Kocur kayoed the Quebec Nordiques’ Randy Moller.

• Al Strachan, The Globe and Mail, January 6, 1986

It’s almost not who’s injured with the Wings, it’s who is not. One is Adam Graves just back from Moscow with gold in his eyes and he’s been hauled back up from the Spits to the Wings on an emergency basis . . . Having five, maybe six, right wingers not available borders on the catastrophic. They include Dave Barr, Tim Higgins, Brent Fedyk and Mark Kumpel (injured), Joe Kocur (sore hands) and Bob Probert (suspended) . . . Also among walking wounded are Adam Oates, Steve Chiasson, Doug Halward and goalie Greg Stefan, although Oates and Chiasson are close to returning.

• Jim McKay, The Windsor Star, January 8, 1988

Kocur received a match penalty from referee Terry Gregson after earning a verdict in a spirited scrap with Boston’s tough guy Jay Miller.

It seems Miller came out of it with some damage and Gregson alluded to the protection worn on one hand by Kocur as the cause, a violation of the rules.

“It’s not tape, but it’s a protection for his badly-bashed right hand,” [Detroit coach Jacques] Demers said. “They should look at the tape. Joey damaged him with his left, not his right.”

At any rate, Detroit’s protectors are two-for-two in recent fights but 0-for-two in the committee room.

The NHL’s Brian O’Neill will rule today regarding any further punishment for Kocur.

O’Neill is also expected to decide whether Bob Probert’s three-game suspension from a game misconduct in Chicago Sunday will be lessened.

• Jim McKay, Windsor Star, March 9, 1988

CHICAGO — Chicago goaltender Alain Chevrier was placed on a liquid diet Wednesday because of a sore jaw, courtesy of a left jab from Detroit Red Wings’ enforcer Joe Kocur for which Blackhawks’ coach Mike Keenan threatened retaliation.

Keenan accused the Red Wings of deliberately trying to injure Chevrier in their Stanley Cup series, which resumes tonight with Game 6 here. Keenan cited incidents in Game 2, when Kris King bumped Chevrier as the goalie was trying to play the puck, and in Tuesday’s Game 5, when Kocur reached out with his right hand as he was being checked by Steve Thomas and knocked Chevrier to the ice.

Chevrier sat on the ice for several minutes as trainer Mike Gapski administered aid, and Kocur and teammates fought off several Hawk aggressors who went after Kocur behind the net. Kocur was given a two-minute penalty for high-sticking.

Chevrier finished the game and Wednesday his jaw was X- rayed. Films indicated nothing was broken, but he had trouble chewing, so doctors put him on a liquid diet.

• Calgary Herald, April 13, 1989

The question around the league is whether last year’s spectacular slugfest with Detroit thumper Joey Kocur will deter him. Kocur hit Kyte with a punch so hard that it broke Kyte’s helmet — and knocked him out.

But Kyte seems unaffected.

“You know, I’d been successful as far as altercations go until last year,” he said, smiling. “I had done quite well, and I always wondered when I was really going to get walloped. It played on my mind. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.”

• Tom McMillan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 7, 1989

Say hello, politely, to Joe Kocur, whose primary talent is punching people.

To some rinkside observers, Kocur (rhymes with no, sir) is the best goon in hockey. Not the best scorer. Not the best skater. Not the best checker. No, the best goon, meaning the best enforcer, the best tough guy, the best attack dog. Don’t dare mess with his Ranger teammates or Coach Roger Neilson will take Pal Joey off the leash.

Ever since Tuesday’s trade, the Rangers have attempted to portray Kocur as a right wing who can score goals. With the Red Wings last season he had 16, but he was often skating on a line with Steve Yzerman, one of the N.H.L.’s sharpshooters. During his four previous seasons with the Red Wings, he was on a treadmill as a scorer, producing only 9, 9, 7, and 9 goals.

Kocur opened this season with five goals in his first 23 games. But through his brief Ranger debut Thursday, he had not scored in 30 games.

Like most goons, Kocur is known for his rap sheet instead of his scoresheet. Among hockey fighters, he is arguably the most lethal puncher, especially with his right hand. He has registered a hockey knockout. He has smashed other players’ cheekbones and noses. He has been suspended for stick-related incidents. He has been in the penalty box for more than 28 hours.

Without someone like Gillies, the Rangers believed they needed someone like Kocur, whose 26-year-old hands are already battered from his brawling. With most athletes, the legs go first. But with hockey goons, the hands go first.

In their wild-swinging brawls, their hands smash into the other player’s helmet or sometimes into the glass atop the boards.

When Kocur stared at his chest X-rays Thursday night in Quebec City after he had difficulty breathing in his Ranger debut, he was baffled.

“But if these were X-rays of my hands,” he told Barry Watkins, the Rangers’ director of communications, “I could tell if anything was wrong.”

According to Dr. Howard Chester, a Ranger physician, Kocur had a slight muscle tear in his chest wall after coughing frequently in recent weeks because of a bronchial ailment. Apparently nothing serious. But when Kocur departed during the second period Thursday night, Ranger historians shuddered.

Three seasons ago, the Rangers acquired an anticipated enforcer in Chris Nilan, but in his third game the husky defenseman suffered a damaged knee. Nearly two decades ago, they acquired another enforcer, Jim Dorey, who separated a shoulder in his first game and never played for the Rangers again.

Now, with the Stanley Cup up for grabs among several teams this year, the Rangers rented the goon they think they need. But maybe Joe Kocur isn’t as tough as the Rangers think. Just coughing, he tore a chest muscle. Wait until the other goons around the N.H.L. hear that.

• Dave Anderson, New York Times, March 10, 1991

Kocur is a fearless winger with thunderous hands who once knocked out Jim Kyte in a fight. He also sent Brad Dalgarno of the New York Islanders into a one-year retirement after breaking his orbital bone with a punch.

• Tom McMillan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 12, 1991

The hand is an open wound, scarred and oozing around the knuckles, but Joe Kocur said his right fist can still be closed for business.

“All that stuff you hear or read about my hands; it’s not true,” Kocur said earlier this week after a Ranger practice session at Rye, N.Y. “I hope somebody starts a fight. I’d love it. It’s the best way to get into a game.”

So Kocur will continue to play a sport with a very different agenda, one that other teams dread more than soft ice or Brett Hull slap shots. He will be called a thug, and a goon, but opponents will yield some extra skating room to him and his teammates. His mother, Rita Kocur, will be watching on satellite cable from Kelvington, Saskatchewan. She will close her eyes sometimes, because Rita Kocur can never bear to watch her son fight. She always has something else in mind.

At least he once did. Nobody is sure anymore if he still can, with that hand. Back in Kelvington, Rita Kocur bristled at the word “goon,” and said she hoped her son would never fight again. She used to go to some games in Detroit, where she sat down during the fights while everyone around her stood and shouted for blood.

“I don’t like that kind of game,” she said. “I never did. Tell Joey to call me.”

Kocur’s loyalty to employers has earned him two big fans in New York. He was coveted by the Rangers’ general manager, Neil Smith, former director of scouting for the Red Wings, and by the Rangers’ assistant coach, Colin Campbell, a former assistant with Detroit. Both men knew that Kocur’s hands were a mess and that he was taking some bad penalties recently with his stick. Both still wanted him.

“Joey’s a strong individual,” Campbell said. “Not in appearance, but he’s hard and he can knock people. We want him to aggressively hit Washington’s mobile defensemen, guys like Rod Langway and Kevin Hatcher. Yeah, you could say we traded for his credit card. If his hands are hurting, they’re hurting as a result of what he does best. He hits harder than anybody in the history of the game.”

• Filip Bondy, The New York Times, April 3, 1991

You think repeatedly beating rival hockey players about the head and face without so much as a glove to protect your knuckles doesn’t take its toll on a man’s fist? Just ask JOE KOCUR, the notorious enforcer the Rangers acquired from the Detroit Red Wings late last season. Yesterday the Rangers said Kocur had undergone surgery to repair damage to the knuckle below the middle finger of his right hand, the very one Kocur has used to knock out rivals throughout his career.

• The New York Times, May 11, 1991

Kocur is one of hockey’s most vicious fighters, with a right-hand punch that has maimed foes and knocked some unconscious.

• Joe Lapointe, New York Times, October 14, 1993

Kocur injured his right shoulder last January and played in a weakened condition until the team won the Stanley Cup in June. When a summer of therapy failed to heal the shoulder, he and the team’s medical staff decided this week that he would undergo arthroscopic surgery on Friday to remove bone spurs around the rotator cuff.

“Something’s got to be done,” Kocur said. “There is inflammation from rubbing. The bone drops a little and rubs on the tendons. The pain makes it weak. I lose strength to hold my stick and to handle the puck. Coming out of the corners, people were walking right around my right side.”

Kocur, 29, has played three full seasons with the Rangers and part of one before that. He broke in with Detroit in 1984-85. Although he has scored only 68 goals in 592 regular-season games, he has also accumulated 2,131 penalty minutes, many of them for fighting.

Fighting is technically illegal in hockey and is usually punished with a five-minute major penalty, but it is tacitly allowed by officials and often implicitly encouraged by teams, who employ one or two players on their rosters primarily for this purpose.

Kocur, whose hands have been damaged and surgically repaired because of frequent punching injuries, is among hockey’s best at his task, having knocked several foes unconscious. Last winter in Detroit, he fought and defeated Bob Probert of the Red Wings, unofficially considered the league’s fighting champion. Kocur’s current injury was sustained not in a fight, but while checking in a game against Montreal.

• Joe Lapointe, New York Times, September 21, 1994

The Crash Line has been one of the good things for the Devils in these days of distress, but Coach Jacques Lemaire broke up the line of Bobby Holik centering for Mike Peluso on the left and Randy McKay on the right for last night’s meeting with the Rangers. The move backfired.

Lemaire scratched Peluso, the team’s best pugilist, in favor of Reid Simpson, who is a fighter like Peluso and McKay, but has yet to prove himself with his fists. Simpson’s career as a battler took a turn for the worse last night. The Rangers’ Joe Kocur, a longtime tough guy, decked him just 5 minutes 5 seconds into the game and Simpson missed the balance of the 1-1 deadlock at Madison Square Garden.

Lemaire said after the game that Simpson hurt his right shoulder as he fell to the ice. The extent of the injury was not immediately known.

• Alex Yannis, New York Times, November, 1995

Red Wings trainer John Wharton, on Joey Kocur’s fight-battered right fist before surgery: “It was unrecognizable as a hand.”

• St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 15, 1997

Stanley’s first night with the Detroit champs was a giddy love-in started when team captain Steve Yzerman carried the cup to his silver Porsche outside Joe Louis Arena and roared up the Lodge to Big Daddy’s Parthenon on Orchard Lake Road for the official team blowout. …

Sergei Fedorov looked dashing in a European-style outfit. Kris Draper wore his shin pads, socks, pants and sweat-soaked undershirt. Scotty Bowman, who had just won his seventh Stanley Cup, sported a T-shirt that demanded ‘Show Me The Cup.’

Bowman, widely considered as cold as he is brilliant, was animated as he chatted with players and other guests and was one of the last to leave.

Joey Kocur, who has built a reputation as one of the NHL’s toughest customers and has scarred fists to prove it, held hands with his mother as he escorted her to a car.

• Bill McGraw, Detroit Free Press, June 9, 1997