Revisiting Minor-League Fights and the ‘Baddest Man in Hockey’ 25 Years Later

Revisiting Minor-League Fights and the ‘Baddest Man in Hockey’ 25 Years Later

Fighting may be dying, but it’s not dead yet. While most say ‘good riddance’ to the gory days of hockey, some still hanker for boogeymen roaming the rinks.

Daniel Amesbury.

Photo by Chris Rustch

Billy McCreary is doing his best to put on a show for the home crowd at the Danbury Arena in Connecticut. In challenging the entire visiting Delaware Thunder team to a fight, McCreary is carrying on a longstanding family tradition, one that includes his father delivering the most brutal check Wayne Gretzky ever endured. In his first game of the season, McCreary’s antics are turning the hockey world’s clock back at least 20 years, back when this kind of behavior was in demand, especially for fans in Section 102, one of the last safe havens for fans with a taste for fighting, trash talk and cheap beer.

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Now pushing 40, McCreary finds a willing combatant in Adamo Asselin. Almost 15 years McCreary’s junior, Asselin has no idea that his dance partner is actually the Danbury Hat Tricks’ GM. “You won’t fight a 40-year-old man, you
a–hole,” a fan screams at Asselin from Section 102, the raucous seating area behind the visiting team’s bench.

At 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, and more of an agitator than a fighter in his day, McCreary’s bark is far worse than his bite on this night. The brief tango amounts to
little more than two roughing penalties, perhaps a bit embarrassingly for Asselin. “You couldn’t kick a 40-year-old man’s ass, you a–hole!” the same vulgar fan shouts.

Mostly retired from playing since 2012, McCreary added himself to the Hat Tricks’ lineup as an emergency signing because he couldn’t find anyone else to bring some grit – albeit on short notice – to a game in the low-level Federal Prospects League. Twenty years ago, he would’ve had no such shortage of muscle to choose from. But the game, even this far down the pro pyramid, has changed. Thanks to some generous penalty-calling on the part of the officials, neither McCreary nor Asselin received the automatic suspension that comes with a fighting major that occurs with less than three minutes to go in the third period. That rule, and others implemented in pro hockey over the past two decades, is an attempt to limit the gratuitous violence that some say hurts the product.

Yet there was a time – lifers like McCreary and longtime hockey fight fans will tell you – that minor-league tough guys were hot commodities. There were enforcers on every roster and fighters who sat by the phone in New England and all over Canada, waiting for a team looking for extra hands – or fists. Fans eager to see scraps that were good for cheap thrills knew the “who’s who” among enforcers and felt the tension as storylines unfolded. Fights were a way for teams to fill seats and for fans to defend their turf. There was tons of work in small-town arenas all over North America, and willing combatants were ready to wear any uniform with pride at a moment’s notice.

None more so than the baddest of them all, Gary Coupal.

Twenty-plus years removed from his last pro game, Coupal, now 48, hardly sounds like the minor-league boogeyman who got himself banned from just about every league he played in…and even one he didn’t. He sounds like any retired pro, eager to talk about the glory days and how proud he is of his children during his lunch break from his job at a Canadian electric utility company. The space between his playing days and the present has softened the old goon, but in his heyday as the “Baddest Man In Hockey,” Coupal took to fighting as a means of securing his place on the team.

“Back then,” as he and others of his ilk say, Coupal used to roam the plains in Kansas and work in deep parts of Texas, wreaking havoc and earning bans from nearly every league below the NHL (and essentially that league, too). His career retrospective includes a 46-game ban in major junior and a 49-game sanction in a minor-pro league. Sometimes even fans put themselves at risk by getting too close to players like Coupal, who forgave nothing in his way.

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“Back then, hockey was different from what it is today,” Coupal said. “I was never actually told by the coach to fight, but when my first shift came with seven minutes left in the first period, lined up against their tough guy, I knew I wasn’t there to score.”

Coupal grew up in Capreol, Ont., a mining town of about 3,200 residents that was amalgamated into Sudbury in 2001. It is home to the Northern Ontario Railroad Museum and Heritage Centre, but it’s best known for the series of abandoned villages referred to as “ghost towns” that haunt the area. Gold was found in some abandoned towns, but not enough to spur even a slight rush. Once Coupal settled in with the Sudbury Wolves, a storied member of the OHL, he fought to keep his place on the roster and in the limelight.

“Rookies on an OHL club didn’t play much, so I thought the best way to stick with Sudbury was to fight,” Coupal said. “I was 17 or 18 at the time and in front of a packed crowd of 5,000-plus fans who cheered the loudest when there was a fight.”

In 1992-93, Coupal put up modest offensive stats but ranked fourth in the league in penalty minutes. 

“Ego gets in the way when you’re a young kid and you got a lot of attention for fighting,” Coupal said. “A lot of people respected me because I fought, my teammates respected me for fighting, and that’s how it was back then.”

The next season, Coupal flashed a bit of a different game, collecting 24 points in 48 games, with just 194 penalty minutes (12th in the league). He wasn’t drafted into the NHL, but his reputation as a player to avoid messing with had grown throughout the OHL. Eventually, Coupal’s zest for fighting boiled over into the first in a series of ugly incidents.

“I was on the rush when Brian Wesenberg knocked me down,” Coupal recalled. “We slid into the corner, and when I got up, he was holding my shirt and I couldn’t skate away. I swung my stick and hit him on the top of the head, but we wore visors and helmets. I got ejected, Wesenberg never missed a shift.”

The OHL suspended Coupal for the rest of the season and the playoffs. Coupal suggests the sanction he received likely had to do with the culmination of several incidents leading up to that encounter. Or, as Coupal was informed later, it might have been something else he did that night.

“We had a reunion a few years ago and we talked about the incident, and the guys said it wasn’t so much what I did, but that when I skated by the bench I kissed the blade of my stick,” Coupal said. “That’s what made it look so bad, and I vaguely remember doing something like that.”

In 1994, Coupal’s actions were extreme but not unusual. “The only thing out of the ordinary is I got caught,” he said. “Back then, the video didn’t have every angle covered. Was I doing anything differently than others were? Probably not.”

Coupal’s uncle, Richard Coupal, helped him prepare to plead his case in front of OHL owners. His uncle even wrote a letter to Don Cherry, seeking support for his nephew, who was facing a full blackball from organized hockey. Eventually, the powers showed mercy on the young goon by allowing him to continue playing in 1994-95, albeit in the hardscrabble Colonial League. 

“Back then, I was able to plead my case to go somewhere else,” Coupal said. “A few of the owners came to me and shook my hand and said I spoke really well.”

He was essentially forced to turn pro – into a particularly violent environment in Michigan. There he racked up 100 penalty minutes in 18 games with the Muskegon Fury. Then during the playoffs, Coupal fought legendary enforcer Mel Angelstad three times in a seven-game series.

“In the first fight, he headbutted me, in the second, he bit me on the neck, and in the next fight, he kneed me in the head,” Coupal said. “He never got suspended. So, if you ask me if I deserved what I got for doing what I did with my stick in the OHL? The answer is ‘yeah’ and ‘no’ because a few months later I was fighting a guy who bites, headbutts and knees, and there were no penalties.”

The next season, Coupal moved up to the ECHL, a more advanced circuit with some NHL ties. In 1995-96, he had his best pro year. Playing for the Columbus Chill, in the big college town that harbors the campus of Ohio State University, he collected 24 points and a fantastical – if not deplorable – 408 penalty minutes, his most in six pro seasons. To date, that figure ranks 13th in ECHL history.

“That was probably my best year,” Coupal said. “I did have a lot of penalty minutes, but our coach, (former NHL defenseman) Moe Mantha, used me on the power play. I got a regular shift on top lines, and it was one of my better years in terms of development.”

After Mantha moved on, Coupal grew frustrated with his lack of ice time under a new coach. In late 1996, 10 games into Coupal’s second season in the ECHL, he couldn’t resist the urge to fly off the handle. Coupal was suspended for 49 games after he reached over the opposing team’s bench with his stick to knock Aaron Downey of the Hampton Roads Admirals unconscious.

“In the heat of it, I swung my stick and I knocked him out cold,” Coupal said. “Funny story, nobody even really knew what happened to Downey, I didn’t even get a penalty for it, but they caught it on video.”

For Coupal, the damage was done. He sat out the rest of the season at home in Capreol, at which time he met his future wife and the mother of his children. It was the end of the line for him in the ECHL.

Despite effective banishment from a second league, Coupal’s intensity was the type of thing that made for good hockey theater in the low minors. He was summoned back to Muskegon at the start of the next season, but it wasn’t long before his next sadistic episode.

In late December 1997, Coupal was arguing a spearing penalty with a referee toward the end of a game in Moline, Ill., when he decided to break his fiberglass stick over his knee and throw it into the crowd. It was a move the fans of the Colonial League, which had rebranded as the United League, had seen before, but it didn’t stop league commissioner Richard Brosal from issuing Coupal a lifetime ban. 

“As I skated off, I broke my stick over my knee and threw it into the crowd,” Coupal said. “The fans started chanting ‘Throw it back!’ and someone threw it back onto the ice. I think the commissioner saw that I’d been kicked out of the OHL and the ECHL, so he banned me for life.”

No one was hurt in the incident, and Coupal’s reputation didn’t suffer. He finished that season by enduring a demotion to the Western Professional League, a since-shuttered organization where teams sometimes played in rodeo venues and strapped on their pads in parking lots.

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The biggest boost to his reputation came in the Sept. 4, 1998, issue of The Hockey News when THN correspondent Ken Campbell declared Coupal “The Baddest Man In Hockey.”

“That’s when I had the Philadelphia Flyers calling me, so no publicity is bad publicity,” Coupal said, half-joking. “That brought attention, some good did come out of it.”

Along the way to earning one of the most notorious reputations in hockey history, Coupal went to two training camps with the Flyers, in 1998 and 1999. No single sanction in his career sealed his fate as much as when the AHL told the Flyers that Coupal would not be welcome in their league. Being persona non grata in minor-pro hockey is no position for any player to make a living from. Coupal had fought so much to keep his job, crossing the line so many times in the process, he could no longer secure the kind of employment that might make him a legitimate NHL prospect. Frustrated with balancing the cold brutality of the tough-guy role and a chance to play the game at a high level, Coupal packed it in after two final seasons in the Western Pro League. 

“It was still decent hockey, lots of fights,” Coupal said. “You’re getting paid for something you love to do.”


At the NHL level, where the league is producing family-friendly TV, the rough stuff is way down. In 2001-02, shortly after Coupal wound up his career, Peter Worrell led the NHL with 33 fights (and 354 penalty minutes) playing for the Florida Panthers. Twenty years later, in 2021-22, Tanner Jeannot led the league with 14 bouts – impressive considering the 2018-19 leader had just six fights.

It may have been natural for the NHL to clean up its act as attention toward the league and TV money grew. Yet the decline of fighting in minor-pro hockey – and the unpredictable players willing to bleed for their teams – points to a broader, systemic elimination of what some consider to be the most entertaining (and frightening) element of hockey.

Alec Ohlensehlen is among those observers. As host of the podcast Five for Fighting, he is a sort of keeper of old-time hockey. He collects interviews with former
minor-league tough guys in which they relive the fisticuffs of yesteryear. He also stays current on hockey fights today.

“There are more ways to see hockey fights than ever, but there was more fighting when there was less technology,” Ohlensehlen said. “Fighting draws people in because it’s a unique aspect of the game.”

Even in the minors, fear of penalty and suspension is one reason that violence has reduced since the days of Gary Coupal. 

“In the AHL and ECHL, there’s a two-minute penalty for taking off your helmet, and once a player exceeds 10 fights, there’s a suspension for each fight,” Ohlensehlen said.

The FPHL is one place where fighting is more welcome, but not necessarily more common. Last season, grizzled veterans Joe Pace of the Port Huron Prowlers and Justin Schmit of the Columbus River Dragons fought each other six times. One of their fights, which occurred during a neutral-site game when Pace was on loan to the Carolina Thunderbirds, has been viewed five million times on YouTube and commented on more than 19,000 times on Facebook. While internet math can be deceptive, the engagement on the video is evidence that while some fans still cheer for fighting in hockey, many more casual observers don’t get it and may never.

“I believe the lack of fighting comes from the next generation coming up through U.S. hockey and Canadian hockey, from delaying when kids start body contact in youth hockey to severe penalties for fighting,” Pace said. “Emphasis on highly skilled teams and individual players has pulled us away from
old-school style. I’m an old-school guy, chip pucks out, chip pucks in, wear down their defense, and finish your checks.”

A spirited scrap between Justin Schmit and Joe Pace is a common sight in the FPHL.

David Dell/Delta Imaging Photography

Both in their late 30s, Pace and Schmit are “part of the old guard of pro hockey.” Schmit turned pro in 2006 and Pace in 2004-05, when the NHL lockout made it tough to find a job in the minors. Schmit is more of the traditional “goon,” he managed 188 penalty minutes in 41 games with just five points in the FPHL last season. While Pace has played in the league consistently since 2011, Schmit returned to the U.S. in 2021 after many years in Canadian senior leagues. Both are among the oldest but toughest players on the circuit.

“Last year up in Port Huron, I had a three-fight night, and it went pretty good, but once guys like ‘Pacer’ (Joe Pace), Nick Williams from Port Huron, and myself are gone, I don’t think there will be any more of that in the minors,” said Schmit, who on that night fought Pace, Williams and also Casey Harris, a 46-year-old who had not played a pro game since 2004-05. “We’re the old guard now. The only rookie who got in a fight on our team last season was a goalie.”

The viral video of the Pace-Schmit fight also proves that nothing brings out the emotion in a hockey crowd the way a fight does. It’s clear that, as the two trade wild punches and try to pry the sweaters off each other, fans at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum are loving the action. It’s an intentional fight, but one that is being staged for a fair enough reason – to alert fans that old-time hockey would be returning in 2022-23.

A.J. Galante, who put on one of the toughest shows in minor-league history as GM and co-owner of the Danbury Trashers, has scrapped sticks and pucks altogether in favor of Ice Wars, a “tough man” competition wherein combatants battle in hockey gear, including helmets and skates. The “stand-up” action isn’t dissimilar to boxing, but the hard helmets, shoulder pads and hockey pants are a symbolic attempt to preserve an intense element of hockey that is missing from the modern game.

“You can’t get wrapped up in wishing there were five or six fights a game anymore,” Galante said. “A hockey fight is something that builds through the game when players run around or, say, two weeks ago an opposing player ran your goalie and now you’ve got to get him back. People love fights because a lot of them happen in the heat of the moment.”

Justin Schmit and Joe Pace.

David Dell/Delta Imaging Photography

For now, hockey fans have learned to live with less fighting. And there’s a sense that, like it or not, we may be in the last era of the bad guys.

“In the ’80s, I would literally telephone, mail hardcopy letters and endlessly fax every coach and GM in the ECHL, IHL, AHL,” said Doug ‘The Thug’ Smith, whose life story was immortalized in the Goon films. “I’d barrage them asking for a tryout. I explained how I was a fighter and wanted a job as an enforcer. I still have some of those letters that I saved. I would correspond with some who would answer me back. Most would ignore me. Once I got established in the ECHL and got a bit of a reputation, it was coaches who called me.”

Even though he doesn’t shed it on this night late in December 2021, McCreary has blood in this game. His grandfather and father both played in the NHL. McCreary Sr. played more than 300 games with four teams and served as a coach for three others. Billy’s father, Bill Jr., played 12 games in the NHL for Toronto in 1980-81 and famously levelled Gretzky, becoming the first player to deliver a truly hard hit on ‘The Great One.’ It’s a family value of the McCrearys to play the game hard.

“My grandpa would tell me stories of how Gordie Howe would go into the corners and throw the other players into the chicken wire they used in place of the glass back then,” McCreary said. “Guys would go into the corner against Gordie and they’d come out all torn up.”

A few weeks after the game against the Thunder, McCreary added Asselin on Facebook after the utility player left Delaware’s roster. Impressed by his grit in their scrap, McCreary offered him a tryout with Danbury. Asselin eventually finished the year with the Hat Tricks.

On another night at Danbury Arena, later in 2021-22, McCreary watches as the Hat Tricks and the visiting Port Huron Prowlers combine for 13 goals. Despite all the scoring, a fan watching from the arena’s luxury seating area is disappointed with what he’s watching and gets in McCreary’s earshot to let him know. “All these goals but not one fight,” said the fan in a raised tone.

“Unreal,” McCreary responded. “It’s like a totally different game.”

McCreary resumed coaching the FPHL Hat Tricks for 2022-23. In doing so, he signed several Ice Wars participants, recruiting from Galante’s new enterprise to reignite the aggressive hockey that Danbury fans like best. McCreary, who also acts as GM, signed a quartet of Ice Wars goons prior to training camp.

Only Daniel Amesbury, a native of Maple Ridge, B.C., stuck with the team. He won over the Danbury faithful, amassing 39 penalty minutes in his first two games. On the opening weekend, Amesbury was suspended one game for a late hit that put a rookie defenseman out of action. An open-ice hit the following weekend allegedly left another foe with a broken collarbone and cracked ribs. Amesbury, who had not played professionally since 2013-14, brought a level of toughness even the FPHL hadn’t seen in a while and was suspended a total of nine games after roughly a dozen shifts. “To be honest, it seems funny to me,” Amesbury said. “I’ve always been an
underdog, the one that had to worry about the bigger, stronger and tougher opponent. Calling me the most intimidating player in the league just shows you how much the game has changed.” 


This article first appeared in The Hockey News’ Rookie Issue, available for free with an annual subscription at THN.com/free.

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