WENDAKE, Quebec — The line reaches across the lobby to the glass door entrance 15 minutes before warmups for a hockey game in a low-level pro league just north of Quebec City. We pay $12 a ticket at a table next to the Wendake Sports Complex pro shop, where a game-worn Black Jack No. 87 jersey carries the name of the league’s most famous player: BRASHEAR.

He played in 1,025 NHL games and amassed 2,635 penalty minutes during his 17-year career. He earned more than $16 million as one of the league’s most feared enforcers for the Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers.

He is now almost 52 years old and we are here to see the famous fighter go another round.

Donald Brashear is the marquee attraction. He is the Wendake Black Jack captain. He appears in most of the team’s online promotions. Brashear is the only player who doesn’t wear a helmet during warmups. His bald head shimmers under the rafter lights. From the stands, he looks almost exactly as he did when he retired from the NHL 13 years ago. A salt-and-pepper beard and slight lines around his eyes are all that betray his age. He is 6-feet-3 but seems at least a foot taller than any other player. He is much broader through the shoulders, but trim through his frame — without the average-joe paunch that several of his counterparts carry as they weave through a pregame routine.

Brashear skates in swift strides, casually gliding then accelerating, dangling a puck with his stick, and flicking a light shot at the Black Jack goaltender. He smiles and laughs with teammates. He taps their shin pads with his stick. Brashear looks joyful — like a man, blessed with remarkable athleticism who is fortunate to still play the game he found safety and comfort in as a boy, escaping the turmoil of his childhood.

It’s the happiness Brashear described to me two years ago, when he told me that he’d started skating in a pro league for a few hundred bucks a game, right before the pandemic shut it down. Gliding on ice, all of the troubles that plagued him after his NHL career faded away: the substance abuse, the broken relationships, the anxiety attacks, the bankruptcy, the arrest. In the game, he was just a boy doing what he loved.

Brashear and I spoke for more than 10 hours over several weeks while I was working on a story about the trauma he endured as a boy, the mistakes he made and challenges he faced as an adult, and the peace he finally felt close to finding. He described his anxiety as an enforcer in the NHL, knowing that he was expected to fight the toughest players in the league if he wanted to keep his job. As a talented prospect with the Montreal Canadiens, he wanted to be known for his skill, but it was overshadowed when hockey found a better use for him.

Brashear hated to fight. It made him nervous. He despised what it made people think of him and what it made him think of himself. But what else was he to do? The crowds cheered his name, expecting to see men fall. Teams wanted to know that no one would mess with their stars. It was love for violence, money for blood.

Donald Brashear, in 2008 with the Capitals, squares off with San Jose’s Jody Shelley in front of an appreciative crowd. (Don Smith / NHLI via Getty Images)

Five rows of packed seats stretch across one length of the Wendake arena for the Saturday night game. Fans stand in whatever gaps can be found in the area above the top row. It’s a full house with a few hundred people. A line stretches to a folding table where patrons buy cans of Budweiser, vodka coolers, and mixed drinks in red Solo cups. A man at a mixing board next to two large speakers pumps out a dance remix of “Cotton Eye Joe.”

Black Jack plays Montagnards de Beaupré, a team from a village of 4,000 people about an hour east along the St. Lawrence River. They are rivals in the four-team Senior AA league that is just one of several pro loops across the province of Quebec.

Brashear plays on the top line. He still has flashes of skill, putting up points in most games he plays. He lays a hard check on a player, picks up the puck and fires a pass that leads to a Black Jack goal. He yells triumphantly and embraces his teammates. Early in the second, he throws a check in the offensive zone and a row of guys leaning over a railing, holding red cups and beer cans, howl and holler.

Last winter, Charles Duchesne — a member of the Saint-Ambroise Flaming Chalets — punched Brashear without warning. Brashear later hunted him down and punched him back, leaving Duchesne bloodied. Brashear then punched another player as the referees tried to intervene and fans tossed trash on the ice. He was suspended for three games for the incident.

This fall he joined a second team, two hours away in Saguenay — the Jonquière Marquis, in the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH), another pro league that is known mostly for the regularity of its brawls. In Saguenay, a bell sounds when players square off to fight, as though they were in a boxing match.

In October, in his first game with Jonquière Marquis, Brashear fought 40-year-old Derek Parker — a player who once tallied 508 penalty minutes in his rookie season in the LNAH back in 2005. Parker inched toward Brashear with his fists up while Brashear waved his arms loosely in front of him waiting for Parker to make a move. When he did, Brashear struck him with his right hand. Parker bear hugged Brashear, holding him as tightly as possible while the linesman watched. Finally, Brashear broke his right fist free and punched Parker in the head, sending him to the ice. Parker covered his head with his hands and Brashear skated away as the home fans cheered and the linesman gave him a tap on the bum.

Brashear also fought in his first game of the season for Wendake. In November, he was suspended for two games with Jonquière Marquis after chasing a member of the Laval Petroliers and pummeling him while two linesmen tried in vain to pull him away.

On this Saturday night in December, Brashear lays a check on a Montagnards de Beaupré player that shakes the boards and thunders across the arena. An excited roar rises from the stands. Brashear finishes several more checks with the same force in the second period, anticipation for violence rising with each hit.

Near the end of the period, Brashear trips and falls hard to his knees after a whistle. He jumps to his feet quickly and glares at the Montagnards de Beaupré players. Some of those players are members of the Canadian military who play to make some extra cash. Several others work construction. One is a window salesman. They range in age from their early 20s to their early 40s. All of them have a history in the game, playing some degree of competitive hockey — junior, college, or minor pro — before getting day jobs and playing the game for hire, often on multiple teams.

They all back away.

“Nobody wants to have beef with that guy,” says Mathris, an 18-year-old who comes to the Black Jack games regularly with his friends.

Even the Donald Brashear glare is cause for concern. (Photo courtesy Yannick David)

During the second intermission, the group of teenagers discuss the probability of a fight happening before the end of the game.

“In the third period it will happen,” says Felix, also 18. “I’m sure.”

I spoke with Brashear occasionally after the story I wrote about him was published in February 2021. He didn’t have concerns about how his experiences were portrayed. I checked in every few months to see how he was doing. He always seemed well. He’d avoided drugs and alcohol. He was working at a golf course. He was thinking about other ways to make money, before collecting his NHL pension.

Then, last year, Brashear stopped responding. He was known to be reclusive at times. So I stopped reaching out.

When clips of his recent fights emerged online, I messaged him again to see how he was doing. He read my texts, but didn’t respond. When I left a voicemail and sent a text saying that I was coming to Quebec City to watch him play, he didn’t respond. Hours before the game, my last message was not acknowledged.

As the third period starts, the energy in the arena builds. A group of young men, holding Solo cups in a roped off “VIP” section next to the speaker,  jeers the opposing team and shouts with every hard check and retaliatory slash. The score is something like 6-3 for the Black Jack, but I’m not watching for the goals.

Fans crowd around the glass on the ice level, below the stands. An ejected Black Jack player, wearing his Sherwood shoulder pads without a jersey, stands and cheers next to the fans, sipping a Bud Light.

With less than five minutes to go, blood drips from a wide gash above the eye of a Black Jack player. He took a hard right as he tried to grab hold of the Beaupré player pummeling him and fell to the ice. The fans cheer wildly, standing to try and improve their view of the action below.

Brashear rises from the bench as the teams jaw at each other. Cedric Verreault, a 41-year-old who played 14 seasons in the LNAH, stands beside him. He hasn’t played a minute all game. Goons, as the players refer to them, are hired by each team to be around for precisely this kind of thing. When tension escalates, those players step on the ice to settle any differences and give what many of the fans pay to see. In the past, Beaupré has hired guys for about $100 strictly to fight Brashear, I’m told. One sat through an entire game without tape on his stick. But on this night, none of the Montagnards are willing to endure that kind of beating.

The game ends. The score is 7-3 for Wendake. The speakers blast “Sweet Caroline” and everyone belts out their best karaoke rendition.

Down a hallway next to the lobby, loud music streams out of the locker room as players walk in and out in half their gear, sipping beers and chatting excitedly.

Some distant dream lives again.

“I love it. It’s not for the money,” says Michael Novosad, a 40-year-old Black Jack. He’s a business development manager who is in charge of sales for a hydraulics company. He played junior and Division I college hockey — and then 18 years in the LNAH.

“I just can’t quit.”

There is genuine passion for what exists here. Dozens of fans linger in the lobby, greeting friends and family members who played. Some kids seek autographs. These are community teams, with the gate money paying for the players they cheer. Across the province, the rink is where people come together to be entertained and to watch regular men star in the center ring of a traveling road show.

“It keeps the fans happy,” says Mikael Vallerand, the 26-year-old Beaupré player who fought in the final few minutes of the third. “That’s why they come.”

It’s why I came.

I felt the anticipation rising all game — wondering which hard check might lead to Brashear unleashing on whichever poor man had the outsized confidence to challenge him.

I came for violence. I came for my piece of the 51-year-old fighter who can’t quit. I came to ask him why.

Is this the childhood joy? Or another overtime shift plying a trade he hates?

Brashear showers quickly and dresses in jeans and a puffy winter jacket. He slips a black toque over his bald head. He carries his gear in an old Philadelphia Flyers hockey bag and moves swiftly through the lobby, where his girlfriend greets him. He hugs her. They walk out the glass doors.

I call from behind: “Donald.”

Brashear stops and turns as I catch up to him. He smiles and shakes my hand.

“May I ask you a few questions,” I say.

Brashear shakes his head.

“No questions,” he says calmly.

He turns and walks away in the bloodless winter night.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photo: Courtesy Yannick David)

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