BUFFALO — An instant after Shawn Thornton dropped his gloves against John Scott on Jan. 13, the Boston enforcer was in danger.
Thornton, who is 6 feet 2 inches and 217 pounds, leapt at the 6-8, 259-pound Scott to breach the bigger man’s perimeter. But Scott landed the first grab — a left hand full of Thornton’s jersey, just inside the Bruin’s right shoulder and under his right cheek.
Scott locked his left elbow, straightened his left arm, and began his barrage. Scott pumped 10 rights at Thornton. Several times, Scott tagged Thornton behind his left ear. Thornton, whose right hand was in another ZIP code, didn’t swing once.
“Once I get my arm locked out, there’s nothing he can do,” Scott said. “It’s an inevitable end. I’m going to hit him.”
After Scott’s 10th and final punch, Thornton crumpled to the TD Garden ice. Thornton pulled himself to his skates only with the help of linesman Michel Cormier. Scott had given Thornton a concussion, the first of two the Buffalo tough guy dealt to the Bruins in 2013.
‘If [fighting] was taken out of the game, yeah, I don’t think I’d be in the league.’John Scott, Sabres defenseman
On Oct. 23, a backchecking Scott launched a blindside shoulder to the head of Loui Eriksson. The NHL suspended Scott seven games for an illegal check to the head. The wallop knocked Eriksson out for five games because of a concussion.
Scott’s hands are pillows when holding second daughter Gabriella, born last Friday. At Scott’s workplace, they are weapons.
Because of his reach and power, Scott is arguably the NHL’s most feared fighter. Scott has 31 career NHL scraps, according to HockeyFights.com. This year, Scott opened up Douglas Murray’s face. Two years ago, Scott bloodied Kevin Westgarth. Because of the thunder rumbling inside his blue-and-gold Reebok gloves, four NHL teams (the Rangers, Chicago, and Minnesota were the others) have bid for his services.
“I think I’d have a hard time finding a spot to play,” Scott acknowledged when asked of the possible elimination of fighting. “If it was taken out of the game, yeah, I don’t think I’d be in the league.”
On Thursday at First Niagara Center, the Bruins will play the Sabres for the first time since Scott belted Eriksson. Thornton is suspended. Eriksson is out because of a second concussion, the result of Brooks Orpik’s hit Dec. 7. Scott, a healthy scratch for Buffalo’s 4-2 win over Winnipeg Tuesday, may not be in uniform either.
The Black-and-Gold wreckage in Scott’s wake is no coincidence. On July 1, 2012, Buffalo signed Scott to a one-year, $600,000 contract. An underpinning reason for then-general manager Darcy Regier’s interest was his team’s sleepy reaction the previous season to Milan Lucic decking goaltender Ryan Miller.
The man who helped sell the Sabres on the league’s scariest behemoth coached Scott when he wasn’t even allowed to fight.
The early stages
In the summer of 2012, Ron Rolston, who was coaching Buffalo’s AHL team in Rochester, called a college friend. Jamie Russell, Rolston’s teammate for two seasons at Michigan Tech, had coached Scott at their alma mater. Russell told Rolston that Scott was a good person and teammate. Scott’s fists, however, were the assets that would serve Buffalo best.
“He’s a nuclear weapon you have at the end of the bench,” Russell, now a Providence College assistant, told Rolston. “I don’t know your situation in Buffalo, but I think you need that a little bit with what happened with the Bruins the year before.”
In 2003-04, Russell’s first year, Scott was a Michigan Tech sophomore. Scott, a native of St. Catharine’s, Ontario, chose Michigan Tech over Vermont and St. Lawrence with no illusions about his future. Scott, a mechanical engineering major, was likely to work in a car plant, not a hockey rink.
Scott was like an aircraft carrier. He couldn’t accelerate. Once he finally reached cruising speed, he didn’t have the agility to stop and turn.
But an aircraft carrier boasts two things: size and artillery. Somehow, the middle son of a 6-foot father and a 5-5 mother exploded into a giant. The hands not soft enough to score were hammers when curled into fists.
As a defensive defenseman, Scott leaned on opposing forwards. His reach allowed him to swat pucks off sticks. And in Scott’s lone college throwdown, Jan. 17, 2004, North Dakota captain Ryan Hale learned it was a good thing the NCAA punished players for fighting.
“He didn’t do so well against John,” Russell said. “He cut him pretty good. He had to leave the game with stitches.”
At Michigan Tech, hockey did not come naturally. Some things, mostly skating, are still not easy for the 31-year-old Scott. He hunches over slightly and takes short, jabbing strides. In the NHL’s broadband pace, Scott’s 0-to-60 sprint is dial-up.
“It’s easy for me once I’m up to speed,” Scott said. “That’s fine. I can keep up with most people. But from standstill to getting up to that point is hard. I’ve really worked on explosive starts, stopping and starting, quick turns, direction changes. If I take a week off or a month off where I don’t work at it, it goes right back to square one.”
Scott was undrafted. But his size and fighting potential made him a unique specimen. In 2006, the Wild invited Scott to camp on a tryout basis. The rookie didn’t make the team, but was assigned to Houston, Minnesota’s AHL affiliate. As a first-year pro, Scott fought 11 times. The following year, Scott logged eight fights.
On March 8, 2009, Scott said goodbye to the AHL for good. He had earned a full-time promotion to the Wild. But he needed help to stay up top.
Learning to fight
Jeremy Clark is the owner of Minnesota Top Team, which trains athletes across multiple disciplines such as mixed martial arts, boxing, and judo. Clark also trains hockey players out of his Eagan, Minn., facility. Clark counsels them in fitness as well as fighting. Scott needed guidance in the latter.
“When John came in, he was not good at boxing,” Clark said. “He’s 6-8. You can’t teach that. He’s a big man. But he had very limited boxing ability. And he was scared. Scared of the rink, scared of guys, scared of fighting. He didn’t have the confidence you usually see in a guy that size.”
Clark had to rewire Scott’s mind. Scott needed to stop thinking about the worst-case scenario: that every fight would end in a knockout. Clark also taught Scott to simplify. Jab with the left, then grab on, Clark instructed. For an entire summer, Scott practiced those two moves.
It paid off. On Oct. 6, 2009, Anaheim took a 3-0 lead over Minnesota into the third period. Scott asked George Parros to fight. Parros agreed. Scott stunned Parros with a left jab. As Scott pulled his left hand back from the blow, he used it to grab Parros’s jersey. Scott held Parros away. Several punches later, Scott dropped Parros with a right. The Wild scored three third-period goals and a fourth in overtime to claim a 4-3 win.
It was the first of Scott’s six fights in 2009-10. They helped land Scott a two-year contract with Chicago. Upon additional sessions with Clark, Scott incorporated other layers: how to face a lefty, how to fend off someone who gets inside position, how to deal with body shots.
“To see where he came from when he first walked into my gym, now he’s arguably one of the toughest guys on the ice,” Clark said. “He made leaps and bounds. I’ve got other players who’ve fought five, six years in the league. They didn’t progress nearly as fast as John.”
On nights before an anticipated fight, Scott had trouble sleeping. Repetitions and guidance quieted his concerns. Now, shedding his gloves is routine, just like making a glove save is rote for Miller.
Every time his gloves come off, Scott is in danger of causing and absorbing short- and long-term damage. Those thoughts do not enter his mind.
“You can’t get too fired up,” Scott said. “You can’t get too into the moment. Then you make mistakes and get beat up. I’ve always been taught, ‘Just go in there, be calm and breathe, look at the target, and go for it.’ It’s business. That’s exactly what it is. I have a job to do.”
Had his career unfolded as he had hoped, Scott would be a shutdown NHL defenseman. Scott would still fight. But Scott’s coaches would give him double-digit minutes and penalty-killing duties.
Scott’s best skill ended that dream. He logged some shifts on defense for Minnesota and Chicago. But Scott’s five-minute visits to the box disrupted the pairings. Scott’s coaches figured it would be easier to account for a fourth-liner’s missed shifts than juggling five defensemen.
And by now, fighting is the central pillar of Scott’s identity. In a preseason game against Toronto, Scott didn’t like 6-5, 217-pound Jamie Devane dispatching 6-foot, 185-pound Corey Tropp. On the following faceoff, it didn’t matter that Scott lined up against Phil Kessel. Scott didn’t care about the mismatch. Scott told Kessel he was going to fight no matter what.
The aftermath: a 10-game suspension for David Clarkson for leaving the bench, a preseason suspension for Kessel, and an undisclosed fine for Rolston. The NHL cited player selection and team conduct in explaining Rolston’s punishment.
“I was asking that guy the whole game if he was interested, then he fights a little guy like that,” Scott said. “He was just ignoring our bigger guys: [Cody] McCormick, [Drew] Bagnall, shying away from all of us. Corey Tropp comes up — he’s 5-foot nothing — and he hits him. I had to do what I had to do. I’m not going to let Toronto come in and bully us around.”
On Tuesday against Winnipeg, which does not dress an enforcer, Sabres coach Ted Nolan informed Scott he would not be needed. The Sabres were averaging a league-low 1.54 goals per game. On Nov. 15, 2009, Scott scored his first NHL goal. Scott has yet to record his second. Through 18 games this season, Scott is pointless while averaging 5:17 of playing time per game.
With Scott out of uniform, the Sabres beat the Jets, 4-2. It was the most goals Buffalo scored in more than a month.
In Buffalo’s dressing room, Scott, maybe not by coincidence, sits to Miller’s left. An action shot of each Sabre hangs above each player’s stall. Miller is looking to his left, ready to drop into his butterfly. Tyler Myers is battling Chris Kunitz in front of the net.
In his picture, Scott is fighting Matt Carkner. Scott’s left hand is clasped around the back of Carkner’s jersey as he leans his opponent into the boards. Scott’s right hand is curled into a fist. Scott is snarling. Of all the players’ pictures, Scott’s is the only one of a Sabre engaged in a fight.