His wife isn’t thrilled with the rumbling, he jokes. But he can’t do much about it even when she gives him a poke to roll over. The lingering effects of numerous shoulder injuries and four surgeries to put things back together in those joints have made it tough to drift off lying on his side.
But at least Kyle Hagel sleeps well now. It wasn’t always so easy.
For nine years, he would lie down for an afternoon nap before games as has been hockey tradition forever. Yet by the time his teammates were already dreaming, he’d often still be staring at the ceiling with his head spinning. Just as he’d done the night before.
The Hamilton native’s role was team guardian. Tough guy. Fighter. Whatever you want to call it. From Fresno to Reading to Rochester to Las Vegas to Rockford to Peoria to his hometown to play for the Bulldogs to Portland and finally to Charlotte, he used his body and fists to protect his teammates.
He’d play each shift as physically as possible. Which meant throwing hard checks. Those crunches were often disliked by an opponent who would then drop the gloves to let him know his efforts weren’t appreciated. And vice versa.
He fought something like 200 times over his career. Maybe more. Add up the time he spent in the penalty box and it’s well over 20 hours. So as he’d lie there in bed hoping for sleep, he knew the price he might be paying in a few hours. That knowledge wasn’t always easy to process he admits.
“That’s the worst part,” the 33-year-old says. “The anxiety is worse than the fighting, for sure.”
As he starts talking, he begins cracking open the door to the psyche of a tough guy, more than most of them ever will.
It didn’t help that at 205 pounds, he was never the biggest guy on the ice. Chances are, the man he’d have to take on that night would be bigger. It required significant bravery. That said, he’d come prepared. He’d taken boxing lessons in the summer. He’d watched video of tough guys on the other team to scout for tendencies. Which hand would they throw with first? Were they a lefty or a righty? Did they have a move that could get Hagel in trouble?
Sure, there was fear. Of course there was. Those shoulder injuries? They all came from fights in which he fell awkwardly. His nose has been broken for or five times, he’s had more than 100 stitches in his face and his orbital bone was once shattered in a scrap.
“I entered into it knowing that I was going to be hurt,” he says. “And I just accepted that as part of my job. And that’s that.”
He admits it’s more complicated than just that, though. Hagel believes for some guys this kind of stress can lead to mental illness or bad life choices. We’ve all heard the stories of tough guys who’ve died after their careers were over. He doesn’t know all their circumstances but he wonders.
It didn’t get a lot easier when he got to the rink either. He hid his anxiety well from his teammates but his palms would be sweating as he prepared for the game.
“To give you an allegory people could apply to their own life, just imagine (you’re in) seventh grade and you get into it with another kid at recess,” he says. “It’s like, ‘After school we’re going to meet behind the portables. We’re going to fight.’ For you to sit through the rest of the day at school, you’re not yourself when you’re thinking of that fight that’s going to happen when the bell rings.”
The relief arrived when he finally sat down in the penalty box to serve his sentence after the scrap and the door closed behind him. As he grabbed a bag of ice for his sore knuckles, the anxiety and the adrenalin and angst faded away.
Yes, we’re using the past tense here. Today he’s working the bench as an assistant coach with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League just months after retiring as a player and loving the new life.
“But I miss playing,” he says. “It was really hard to hang ’em up.”
Even the fighting? With all the stuff that comes along with it?
“The nod or the stick tap on the shin pads you get from the guys just feels so good,” he says.
He may be one of the last who can tell this tale. With fighting on a rapid decline — TSN recently reported that 83 per cent of NHL games this season haven’t had one and more than 80 per cent of OHL games haven’t included one — there won’t be many more like him. Some will say that’s great. Others will rue the passing of this part of the game.
Staged fights have already largely vanished. Teams just can’t afford to carry one-dimensional players who can’t skate anymore. Hagel has no time for them anyway.
“It leads to one 6-foot-5 monster squaring off with another 6-foot-5 monster in a fight that seems to be completely irrelevant to the game,” he says.
That wasn’t his deal. Hagel generally found himself in fights stemming from something that actually happened in the game. He didn’t need to have a degree from Princeton to figure that was the wiser move.
But he does have a degree from Princeton. Yes, that Princeton. Got a degree in politics while four times being named to the conference all-academic team. This, after being on the honour roll four straight years at St. Jean de Brébeuf and being his class valedictorian.
His background and his intelligence make him a complicated man. Yes, he fights but he’s also created an award-winning reading program that he’s started up in the various cities he’s called home. He helped build an app that won on “Dragons’ Den” a few years back. He founded a volunteer program called Hockey Players For Kids.
Yes, he’s punched plenty of people in the face but he’s a seven-time man of the year for his team who was chosen man of the year for the entire American Hockey League once for his extensive work in the communities he’s called home. Simply put, he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll meet.
And he’s the furthest thing from stupid. Which allows him to clearly understand the payoff — he was able to have a career in the game — as well as the possibilities.
Four or five punches per typical fight that landed multiplied by 200 fights are a lot of shots to the head. He’s clear on brain injuries and the permanent damage they can do. He hopes he never suffers and he doesn’t expect to having avoided the haymakers of the superheavyweights. But he admits he doesn’t know what’s in store.
“Sometimes when (my head coach and I) forget what city we’re in or forget what hotel room we’re in on the road, we say to each other out of jest, ‘Sorry man, it’s just my CTE talking,'” he says. “We’re half serious, half joking. Mostly joking.
“But is there maybe going to be lingering effects later in life? Yeah, perhaps. But that’s the bed that I made. That’s the choice that I made in order to play the game I love. It was part of the role I had to play.”