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Ex-enforcer wants to rid hockey of fighting

Maple Leafs forward Colton Orr fights with Derek Boogaard at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto,...

Maple Leafs forward Colton Orr fights with Derek Boogaard at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Oct. 21, 2010. (VERONICA HENRI/QMI Agency)

BERND FRANKE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:02 PM ET

WELLAND, ONT. - Jim Thomson made a living playing professional hockey, but it didn't turn out to be much of a life.

Reaching the NHL gave him memories that he never wants to forget, such as getting a big-league paycheque for a game he loved and playing on the Los Angeles Kings with Wayne Gretzky.

Those would be dreams come true for any Canadian boy raised in the Prairies, let alone the youngest in a family of 10 in which the father was away months at a time working in the Alberta oil patch.

However, the beating that on-ice enforcers had to endure night after night to remain at the game's top level, and to keep those big-league paycheques coming, also left Thomson with pain he doesn't want to remember and, in his darkest hours, went out of his way to numb with alcohol and drugs.

GIFTED SCORER

"We were all living the dream of being one step away from the NHL -- and one step away from dying," recalled Thomson, who saw action with six teams over parts of seven seasons in the NHL.

Though a gifted scorer as a right winger rising in the junior ranks, Thomson made his reputation with his fists by the time he reached the NHL as a ninth-round pick of the Washington Capitals in the 1984 draft.

"I fought my way into the NHL," the 40-year-old Edmonton native said matter-of- factly of a 115-game career in which he netted but four goals while accumulating 416 minutes in penalties.

Knowing what he knows now about the high cost of being the game's version of a "gladiator," Thomson wouldn't do it again, the big-league paycheque and the intoxicating hero's homecoming after the season be damned.

Nor does he want any up-and-coming player following his lead into the penalty box and, off the ice, into depression and the drug abuse of "self-medicating" to ease the pain of being pummeled and the threat of being pummelled again.

"We needed to numb the fear, the fear of going into Philadelphia and facing Dave Brown, all the while knowing you're one punch away from leaving the league."

"You worry about losing a fight, and losing it all."

Since joining the chorus of voices calling for the end to violence in hockey, Jim Thomson has been assailed as a "hypocrite" for biting the hand that once kept him so well when he was cashing those big-league cheques.

That he's become a turncoat to tradition is the one hit Thomson is more than willing to endure these days.

"Sure, I'm a hypocrite, so what. That was then, this is now. I was ballsy enough to come out and say it," he said, adding "enough guys, including myself, lived in fear."

"We were all gladiators. We were Russell Crowe every night of our lives. Everybody will lose eventually."

As far as Thomson is concerned, the recent deaths of former enforcers, such as one-time Toronto Maple Leaf Wade Belak, is a "disturbing trend" the league can't ignore. He hopes that another death won't be needed before fighting is taken out of hockey.

"They're going to find out that the behind-the-scenes life of a gladiator is killing us," he said.

"My dream was to make the NHL, but it was the worst nightmare. I had to fight the monsters every night."

Pointing to the Olympic hockey as a "shining example," Thomson is confident the game can survive -- and thrive -- if fighting is banned.

"With the violence in our society, let the beauty of the game play out to the fullest."

Thomson hasn't left the game completely behind since retiring as an active player.

ALCOHOLIC

In addition to coaching his son James, 14, and stepson Matthew, 15, at the minor midget level in his adopted hometown of Aurora, Thomson runs a hockey school as part of his Dreams Do Come True mentoring program.

He has also become a motivational speaker who uses the experience gained in a roller-coaster life of addiction and recovery as the basis for presentations to students aged 10 to 18.

"Kids need guidance at what to do, and what not to do. I talk to human beings on how to live the right way. I try to tell people to take advantage of how good life is," said Thomson, speaking from the experience of "showing up at games at 14 stoned."

Helping others -- sometimes, to the point of taking part in interventions -- is part of Thomson's ongoing rehabilitation as a recovering alcoholic who also abused oxycotin when he had too much money and too much free time during his playing days.

On the darkest of those days, he thought about suicide, to numb the pain "once and for all."

"You don't know how many times I stayed awake at night wondering how I'm going to do it. My new drug is helping people kick addition."

Thomson, whose mentoring program is available at jimthomsonsdreams.com,was in Welland recently visiting Ed Burkholder, a local car dealer who also is a scout for the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL and a commentator on Niagara IceDogs broadcasts on Cogeco's OHL Package.

Burkholder said Thomson's life story would be as appropriate for pro hockey players on the Walleye as it would be for high school students.

"There's no limit to this message," added Burkholder, who befriended the former NHLer while the two were appearing together as panelists on Off the Record talk show.


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