John Kordic's Major Penalty

Story by: Patrick O'Sullivan

Jon Kordic's adult life was defined by uncontrollable rage. His six years in the NHL is a testament to his success as an enforcer, and his four teams an indication of his inability to keep his fury on the ice. His career was composed almost entirely of fights, suspensions, arrests, and squandered second, third and fourth chances.

The public saw two sides of John Kordic during his early NHL years. The angry, determined, undersized enforcer who infamously challenged and bested the biggest and strongest the NHL could offer, and the consummate teammate who gently joked with the children in the dressing room, became a favorite of the downtown revelers, and who mockingly kissed his knuckles after yet another brutal but victorious fight.

Surprisingly, with the Portland Junior Hawks of the minor leagues, Kordic was considered a skilled player, adept at passing, stick handling and scoring. He led the team's defensemen in points but suddenly developed a penchant for fighting that was encouraged by the coaching staff and fostered by pressure to use steroids. The owner of the team, Brian Shaw, had been accused of sexually abusing the players and Kordic suggested, years after the fact, that he'd been one of the victims. A friend of Kordic's claimed that Shaw told John that he was impressed with what he'd seen on the ice but ëeven more impressed with what he'd seen in the shower.'

Kordic was drafted and called up on the basis of his newfound violent tenacity and it was what was expected of him when, in 1986, he played his first game with the Montreal Canadians. Kordic viciously and brutally fought and enforced and, due to his brutal success at both, earned a two-year contract with the big club in the big city.

Ivan Kordic, John's father, had supported his son's desire to become a hockey player but was vocally critical of his impressionable son's violent style of play. It became commonplace for the tough guy to be seen in his dressing room stall crying after having spoken to his father about his game. While he coped with bigger fighters with the now regular injections of steroids, he found the lavish lifestyle, the Crescent street strip-joints, and the heaps of cocaine muted the resonating disapproval of his father. When he started to miss practices and experiencing severe drug-induced paranoia, the Canadians deemed Kordic's increasing unreliability detrimental to the team and, despite his popularity, in 1988 traded him to the Maple Leafs in exchange for Russ Courtnall.

Courtnall himself had been a popular finesse player and the Leaf faithful weren't ready to accept a bruiser in his stead. Kordic tried as he could to become a favorite, increasing his fighting and peppering his play with fan-friendly mindless violence. Fellow NHLer Dave Shand summed up Kordic's time in Toronto as well as the opinion of the league in saying ëhe may have been the toughest guy in hockey, but totally wacko. He'd spear you in the face for nothing.'

When his father died in 1991, Kordic's guilt and dependence compounded into increased erratic behavior both on the ice and off, and, after being filmed cheering for the opponent at a Leaf game, he was again written off and traded to Washington.

Despite an effort to stay away from drugs, Kordic was twice suspended for alcohol related offences and was released from the Capitals having played in only seven games in which he earned 101 penalty minutes

The following season, the Quebec Nordiques decided that they would take a chance on what was still a young and promising player, but protected themselves with a contract that paid per game rather than per year, and a clause that stipulate that Kordic could be subjected to random drug tests on twenty minutes notice. Despite initial months of promise both in his game and in his life, in January of 1992, Kordic failed a drug test and was kicked off what would be his last NHL team.

Seven months later, while playing with the Edmonton Oilers Farm team in Quebec, Kordic checked himself into the suburban Maxim Motel. The police were called when furniture was smashed against the wall and screams were heard from within the room. It took eight officers to hold the high and violent Kordic down and two pairs of handcuffs to keep his arms still. He was put into an ambulance and, at 27 years old, died of cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital.

John Kordic, who squeezed an enforcer's career worth of fights into six incomplete years, who was routinely arrested for assault, who, despite a comparatively diminutive stature was the most feared man in a brutally violent sport, didn't want to be remembered as a thug. Ironically, he'll always be known as the victim.

The half-Indian prairie boy was taken advantage of wherever he went, constantly seeking approval but finding only chemical comfort. The NHL took a beating because of John Kordic, but it wasn't by his hands. Shamefully, every team that employed him was aware of his drug dependence, and every team was willing to turn a blind eye so long as the dependence was of use to them. And when Kordic became more of a liability than a benefit, they simply traded the problem away, forsaking the individual for whatever he was sinking to.

And as much as hockey looks on Kordic's life as a source of embarrassment and humiliation, the spectators and the fans have equal reason to feel guilt over his demise. The chants of ëKordic, Kordic, Kordic' weren't support or praise, they were a call to arms, a demand for a fight, a promise for acceptance that was never delivered. John Kordic died during the prime years of his career and well before the best years of his life. And as Kordic sacrificed his head and his body and as the frenzied crowd screamed him on, it was the little man with the most furious of eyes, the most determined of attacks, and the most depleted and desperate of souls who gave the beating of the moment, but took the beating forever after.



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