My blood-soaked jersey was ripped almost entirely down the front, exposing my flannel long johns which were now missing the top two buttons, a third button hanging by a lone thread. My mouth was bloodied, but I couldn’t tell if it was from my nose, my loosened teeth, or both. My right eye was starting to swell shut. My stringy, sweaty hair was matted to my face. My head felt like I had way too many beers the night before. The ribs on my right side felt like I’d walked through a plate glass window. My left shoulder, always prone to dislocating, didn’t respond when I tried to take off my jersey.
Despite all the pain, as I assessed the damage in the mirror, I couldn’t help but smile
It wasn’t a Jack Nicholson a la “Here’s Johnny…” smile, but it was close. It was the kind of smile you get when you’ve figure something out; the kind of smile meant only for yourself. I needed a change, and I knew it. And I’d finally admitted it to myself.
My most pressing concern in that moment were my teeth. The lower front four were not where they’d been earlier in the day. They too, were hanging on by a thread, my tongue confirming we had a problem, the taste of blood burping its way back from my stomach…
I was still smiling when the trainer came in carrying my helmet and gloves, “Hey JP, the police are waiting for you out front.” Hmm. It was me who had taken the beating. My smile was starting to fade a bit. “Really?” I said, bloody drool dripping from my lips.
When you hit rock bottom, there is nowhere to go but up
I had not started the fight, but I did not skate away either. As my gloves came off, I grabbed my opponent’s jersey. Control in a hockey fight is vitally important. Strange as it may seem, you want to hold the guy and punch him at the same time. Hockey fights are short-lived, so you focus on making the biggest impact up front.
Now, ordinarily each ref would grab one guy and the fight would soon end. Not on that night, though. On that night, both refs grabbed me, leaving me unable to defend myself. To say I was getting the shit beat out of me would be an understatement. Thankfully, my jersey tore and I was finally able to break free, enraged over being used as a punching bag.
In that moment, I made the biggest mistake of my young life
Now free from the fight, I spun around to the two referees who’d been holding me. For as long as I live, I will never forget the look on the ref’s face as I grabbed him with both hands and gave him a quick shove. I watched as he hit the ice and slid backwards, both feet splayed in the air. It almost seemed comical. Almost.
Knowing that I would likely be ejected, I started skating towards the locker room, shaking my head, and mouthing “No” to my boisterous friends who were cheering me from the dark, rickety, and cold bleachers. My friends were there to pick me up, knowing I had been dumped a few weeks earlier for “not being career minded enough.”
The ref did not get hurt, though I am guessing his pride took a big hit. Still shaking my head and glancing back, I felt sorry for him as he struggled to get up. He was visibly shaking. For the first time ever, at least on the ice, I felt regret.
Then the other ref, the one I had not shoved, amped up himself, blew his whistle and yelled “Game misconduct, Perry,” as his arm indicated I should exit the ice even quicker than the pace I was going. Come on, man. I am having a moment here I thought to myself.
Back to the police and the rest of the story
So, there I was, staring at myself in the mirror, my smile now more like a half-smile. I could hear my uncle Bob saying “Jackie, today is the first day of the rest of your life…” In that moment I finally understood what he meant. You might say it hit me. If today really was the first day of the rest of my life, then tomorrow would be, too. I didn’t want any more days like today, so I decided to get excited about tomorrow, and the next day and the next day… All I needed to do was get this day over with.
The plan came together quickly. Using only my right arm, I stripped off the rest of my gear and threw it in my bag. I gave the trainer my hockey bag and asked him to wait a few minutes and then carry my bag out and give it to my friends. Then I exited out the back door of the ice arena. Once outside, I ran the nearly 3 miles home wearing nothing but shorts and beat up running shoes. There was fresh snow on the ground, though I could not feel a thing.
I was pretty sure, since nobody but me was hurt, the authorities were not going to press charges, or so I hoped. I figured the cops would wait with my friends, and my gear, and when I never came out, give up and call it a night. As it turns out, that is exactly what happened.
Like most nights, I knew my friends would all make their way to my house and that night was no exception. Running home, I knew I needed a fresh start. As much as I loved my friends, I knew the best way to get started with my new life was simply to leave.
My new life would start in Los Angeles
My friends had brought beer and money. By the time they all left, I had sold them everything I owned except for my hockey gear (which my friends had grabbed from the trainer). At 3AM, a little punky, a lot sore and cautiously optimistic about my new life, I fell asleep. I awoke to the first day of the rest of my life.
I left town with $278 to my name and headed for California. Hope had sprung eternal…
That was December 17, 1983