ONE LAST FIGHT

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Robert Frid fought hundreds of times over three years of junior hockey and eight seasons in the lower minor leagues. He’s had at least 75 concussions and been knocked unconscious many times. Declared permanently disabled in his 30s, Frid, now 41, doesn’t think he has much time left

Robert Frid is in pain. He is sitting in a restaurant booth and is so uncomfortable he leans against his soft backpack, which is filled with medication he totes wherever he goes. After awhile, he stands up beside the table and the staff watch warily, not sure what to make of this big man with missing teeth.

On bad days, like this one, his hands shake. His eyes are glassy, the result of a daily mix of Percocets, oxycodone, nabilone and medical marijuana he takes for pain control and nausea. Visiting this Jack Astor’s in Hamilton, having a conversation, is one of the most strenuous things he will do all month.

Frid is a former enforcer. He fought hundreds of times over three years of junior hockey and eight seasons in the lower minor leagues. By his count, he has had at least 75 concussions, including multiple times where he was knocked unconscious. He’s 41 but appears much older. Even on good days, he struggles with basic tasks like bending down to pick something up. His hands have been broken so many times that he labours to do up his shirt buttons; his nose is so battered he often can’t breathe out of it.

But it’s the damage to his brain that is most troubling. His long-term memory is poor. He has anxiety disorder and headaches and usually can’t sleep through the night. One neurologist believes Frid shows early signs of Parkinson’s disease. Another has diagnosed him with dystonia, a movement disorder that causes painful muscle contractions in his legs, feet and hands.

Frid is likely living with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative disease that is being found posthumously at an alarmingly high rate in the brains of many former football and hockey players. He never made the NHL, but is an example of the damage that can be done in hockey’s minor circuits, where a higher level of violence is the norm.

Declared permanently disabled in his mid-30s, Frid believes he is now fighting for his life. He is certain that he has an advanced form of CTE – “Stage III or IV,” he says – but wants to become an advocate for former players in his situation. He wants junior leagues to eliminate fighting, which he calls “legalized violence among minors.” And he wants to warn parents about kids following his path. Most of all, he doesn’t want anyone else to end up like him, abandoned by the game.

“I won’t last another few years,” he said.

A FIGHTER IS BORN

Frid was never a star. He often played in house leagues growing up in Burlington, Ont. But he was big and athletic enough as a teenager to make Triple-A teams on the bottom of the roster. He was also fearless. After his mother died of cervical cancer when he was 16, Frid’s big hits became more frequent – they were his catharsis. “You get angry when you lose somebody that close,” he said.

Junior teams quickly noticed the redheaded kid built like a man – he was already 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds – who would do anything to score an ugly goal or lay a bodycheck.

The London Knights, one of the marquee teams in the Canadian Hockey League, selected him in the 10th round of the 1992 OHL draft. He went before some of his more talented teammates, who sat stunned in the crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens when his name was called. It was a rare bright moment for Frid and his stepfather, who had worked on his game together that year, through their grief.

Knights scout Bob Gerow told the media that Frid could be the next Louie DeBrusk, the team’s recently departed enforcer who went straight to the NHL.

Frid had never fought before. Now he was a fighter.

Looking back, Frid says his memory of his junior hockey career has the most gaps. But he has called former teammates and asked questions – 20 years later, he wants to remember.

What he knows is he fought a lot in London. There were intrasquad games against teammates where he would be lined up against other big, tough kids also trying to be the next DeBrusk. Sometimes they would drop the gloves a half-dozen times in one afternoon.

“He would do anything it took to make the team,” teammate Darryl Rivers recalled. “He wasn’t a top-three-line player.”

“Rob was a strong skater and a hard-working player,” said then-Knights coach Gary Agnew, who declined to answer questions about Frid’s role or the injuries he suffered playing in London. “I don’t recall him ever being a problem.”

“I got the shit kicked out of me,” Frid said.

Frid’s first serious concussions came playing for the Knights. As a rookie, he was knocked unconscious when Windsor Spitfires defenceman Ed Jovanovski hammered him into the end boards on an icing play. It was about that time that he started to vomit prior to games and again during intermissions.

This was the mid-1990s, and information about head injuries was scarce. There were no concussion protocols in junior hockey, and players never sat out for weeks on end, waiting for symptoms to fade. Eric Lindros’s first major head injury wasn’t until 1998, and even then the Philadelphia Flyers star was derided by many for being soft when he struggled to return.

Frid was 18, living away from his family for the first time. He assumed nerves were making him lightheaded and nauseous, and he continued to fight almost every game. His head injuries were never a conversation with the Knights, or even at home with his billet, who was a nurse at the local hospital. She didn’t raise any concerns, even though she was putting his blood-stained pillow in the laundry every week.

“It was different back in the day,” Rivers said. “There wasn’t a lot of awareness.”

DeBrusk visited London and gave Frid tips on how to fight. He developed a style of grabbing opponents with his left hand and holding them as far away as he could, turning his head so that the back of it would take some of the punishment. He fought future NHL heavyweights like Eric Cairns and Eric Boulton and held his own. His second full season, Frid finished seventh in the Ontario Hockey League with 216 penalty minutes. His 16 goals and 16 assists brought interest from pro teams.

Frid was invited to the St. Louis Blues training camp the next fall. He fought again and again and suffered another concussion early on. The Blues cut him, and he threw up on the flight home. He ended up in the hospital with an irregular heartbeat and doctors monitoring his vital signs.

His grandfather intervened. “Fuck Rob, you’ve got to get out,” he said. “Get some education.”

HIRED GUN

Frid played the next two years at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B. He majored in economics and enjoyed school.

But he was a poor fit in a hockey league without fighting. Pro teams kept calling, too. Feeling better, Frid started to believe he could live out the Canadian dream of playing for a living. In 1997, he signed in the East Coast Hockey League – two rungs below the NHL – with the Louisville Riverfrogs, a team in Kentucky where fans could sit in hot tubs and watch a frog-shaped blimp fly around the arena.

Like most minor leagues, the ECHL was filled with fights. Teams with colourful names like the Louisiana IceGators (who led the league with 40 penalty minutes a game that season) and Baton Rouge Kingfish sold the violence as part of the show, playing to a crowd unaccustomed to hockey.

Robert Frid said his love for his daughter Tegan keeps him going.

Robert Frid said his love for his daughter Tegan keeps him going.

GEOFF ROBINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

It didn’t take long for Frid to get another concussion. One night early on against the Columbus Chill, he was shoved face-first over the boards. His two front teeth hit the other team’s bench and scattered into pieces. Frid was knocked unconscious, and a trainer couldn’t wake him despite using a half-dozen smelling salts.

The Riverfrogs rushed Frid to the hospital. He finally woke up when a doctor attempted to remove the remnants of his teeth with a pair of pliers. “I felt like my head was going to explode,” Frid said.

He wasn’t treated for a concussion. On the drive back to Kentucky, he made the team’s bus driver pull over at a gas station so he could buy alcohol. He drank six beers in the back of the bus and passed out for the four-hour ride home.

Frid bounced from team to team and league to league as a hired gun. He had more than 200 penalty minutes in five consecutive seasons in the United, Central and West Coast leagues, giving and receiving beatings in small cities in Georgia, Alaska and Texas. Some teams even paid bonuses based on how many times players fought.

Some years, he made only $350 a week. The most he ever earned was $900 a week with the Anchorage Aces in 2000-01. But Frid enjoyed the other fringe benefits of being a pro hockey player. He was a minor celebrity in many towns, and fans would buy him beers at the bar.

“Rob Frid was a hero,” said Don McKee, who coached him for two years with the Odessa Jackalopes. “Any guy that played that role, the crowd loved them.”

But by 2003, Frid realized something was seriously wrong. During some fights, it felt as though he was being struck by lightning. “I didn’t have any feeling from my head down to my legs,” he said. “Then hits were like that. Then I started seeing more stars all the time, even on general contact. That’s when I knew.”

He was 29 when he retired from hockey.

Now disabled and living in pain, Frid is emotional when he contemplates his career. He anguishes over how he and his teammates had no idea the damage they were doing when they played through postconcussion symptoms. He wishes he knew to retire the way players like North Bay’s Zach Bratina did last fall, walking away at 19 because of too many hits to the head.

“It makes more sense when I look back now,” Frid said. “I should have never played again after that one hit [in Columbus]… But we didn’t know this could be a result. We expected broken teeth and bones and all that.… But neurological issues and shit like that? That’s what makes things difficult.”

“There’s a guilt factor I’ve felt,” McKee said. “What can I do for Rob? I could never key on what I could do for him.”

‘IN DIRE STRAITS’

Had Frid been catastrophically injured – paralyzed or badly disabled – while playing, insurance through the teams would have provided care and disability payments for life. Today, he has neither, and his only income is $712 a month in Canadian Pension Plan disability.

Mel Owens, a former NFL linebacker turned lawyer who has become a crusader for benefits for retired football players, has taken up his case. After years of litigation, Frid received a $40,000 (U.S.) workers’ compensation settlement earlier this month for his one season in Alaska.

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