Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The NHL must listen to Brandon Sugden's story

I just got off the phone with Brandon Sugden and have reached a conclusion. It’s time for the commissioner’s office of the National Hockey League to review the case of his attempt to attend Islanders training camp next week as a tryout.

If you don’t know the Sugden saga, here’s a good rundown from The Hockey News. To attend the Islanders’ camp, Sugden needed to be cleared by all 30 NHL teams because he had officially “retired” from pro hockey in 2006. League rules state that if you retire, you must sit out one year before you can be reinstated. The rule makes sense because you could have guys retiring all over the place the moment they don’t like their current fates.

But the Sugden case has its exceptions, and its merits. If you haven’t caught him on You Tube, Sugden is a fighter – one of the best on-ice pugilists of the last decade. He played four seasons with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL but became disheartened when the NHL came out of the lockout looking to cleanse the enforcers out of the league. He left “pro hockey” to sign a deal with the St. Jean Chiefs of the LNAH, a Quebec-based league where every team has a half-dozen players with at least 200 penalty minutes a season. For more money than he was making with the Crunch, Sugden flew in for games on Fridays and Saturdays with St. Jean and worked all week in his family’s label-manufacturing business in Toronto.

Then everything changed when the Ducks of Brian Burke won the Stanley Cup, and suddenly most teams were looking for enforcers. Sugden’s dream of playing in the NHL was alive again.

The Islanders extended an invite. The team has what they believe is an up-and-coming enforcer in 21-year old Joel Rechlicz and a tough guy in Mitch Fritz, like Sugden a journeyman AHL pugilist. But most everyone in the game will tell you Sugden – when in shape – may be the most effective player in pro hockey with his gloves off. One longtime AHL executive describes him thusly: “a trained fighter, unlike anyone you’ve ever seen. Knockout power in both hands. No doubt in my mind his skating is good enough to play fourth-line shifts in the NHL. He’d be a friggin’ cult hero on the Islanders.”

There is so much more to the Sugden story, which really is about him and not at all about the Islanders. His dad – whom I can tell from one conversation with Sugden is his life – has cancer and maybe not a long time to live. In between doctor’s visits, Mr. Sugden supervises his kid’s boxing workouts in the morning – Dad was a boxer, the first Canadian to spar with Muhammad Ali – and studies his weight training sessions to make sure Brandon isn’t taking any shortcuts.

But as touching as Sugden’s attempts to have his father see him play in the NHL may be, it cannot be the main part of his case with the NHL office and the four teams that blocked him. (Attempts to discover which three teams voted “NO” and which one abstained so he could plead his case have failed). With time running out, if I’m Sugden I get my agent and every power broker I’ve ever made friends with and approach the National Hockey League to personally tell my story. Like tomorrow.

And if I’m Sugden, I speak with Bill Daly and anyone else who’ll listen the same way he spoke with me tonight.

“Look, I made many mistakes when I was a kid,” the 30-year old Sugden said. “I was a rebellious idiot and got banned from a league. But I worked hard to turn my life around, which might not have happened if I hadn’t met my wife. I have been off drugs and alcohol for seven years. I have been a good person, a good example, for a long time. When I was in Syracuse I used to speak in packed auditoriums in front of more than 500 people about the wrong way and the right way to live. I did everything on my own time and I was proud when I was named Man of the Year for the Crunch.

“This is killing me. I want this chance – for me, for my dad, for a lot of reasons. I can only hope I get the chance to plead my case.”

Sugden told me tonight that he has received a few AHL offers over the last week, but he is determined to win his personal battle and is keeping his commitment to the Islanders because they were the first team to reach out and offer the invitation to camp. Only if he loses his appeal will he consider other AHL deals, which likely wouldn’t come from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers since they already have Rechlicz and Fritz under contract.

One last story about Sugden and his family. In 2003, he was looking for an AHL deal and he and his father put together a fight tape – now legend in some circles. Every team in the American League got one except for the Syracuse Crunch. A GM from another team called the Crunch and said, “Have you seen this Sugden tape? It’s unreal. I’ve already got enough fighters, but you guys must be interested.” But for some reason the tape never made it to the Syracuse offices.

When Crunch management contacted Sugden, they asked why they never got the tape. Brandon and his dad said they never in a million years would have been so classless to pitch for a job in Syracuse. On July 29, 2003, Trevor Ettinger – an enforcer prospect who played for the Crunch – committed suicide. Syracuse management thought so much of Sugden’s integrity that they brought him in for a tryout, told him they would have a zero-tolerance attitude toward any BS and gave the man a chance.

Whether the National Hockey League will is uncertain, whether they should is open for debate. I hope the league will at least listen to his story.


7th Woman said...

Wait, why does this issue need all 30 league votes? Is that how they are with ALL issues, or is everything else a MAJORITY vote? I don't get it. It doesn't seem fair that 10% could keep something from happening... unless this is a jury trial. This doesn't seem like it should be THAT big a deal.

Anonymous said...

Okay, i'll bite. Maybe the guy should get a chance. But if I were his PR director, I'd call him right now, and tell him to give an interview to THN. I'm guessing you told him as much, Botts.

"Sugden, who couldn’t be reached by Friday after declining to comment Thursday..."

crunchfanbutlove the b's said...

give me a break what is the nhl communist.sugar has proven he's cleaned up his act.the man did some great things off the ice while he was with the crunch.and on the ice well forget about it no one could take him. imagine him and big george going toe to pay just see sugar smoke big george.those 4 teams obviously think he'd make whomever their toughguys are look silly. let the man chase his dream and damn the nhl for trying to squash it.