It was a long and wildly exciting fight, but one that Syracuse Crunch enforcer >Brandon Sugden was doomed to eventually lose. The evolution of his sport carries a mean punch, and it finally tagged Sugden on the jaw Thursday.
Sugden, the gap-toothed, grinning face of Syracuse hockey for more than three seasons, announced his retirement from the Crunch and his withdrawal from the NHL chase. The brawler was betrayed by his own sport, which wants to phase out the blood-thirsty cravings of its fans that he satisfies.
“It (retirement) happens to everyone some time in their career. You have to know when it’s enough,” Sugden said Thursday. “I would like to say when it’s enough, rather than have someone say it for me.”
The thing is, Sugden, 28, was sort of tapped on the shoulder and shown the door. He had played in only 11 games this season – and then just for a couple of shifts in each.
Sugden made his debut with the Crunch just four seasons ago, but in hockey terms, that era might as well have been the ice age.
Fighters were still a vital part of the game, sent out to level revenge against opponents who took liberties against skill players.
With the sport’s priorities switching to breezy, open offensive games the last two seasons, enforcers became as relevant as an old pylon.
Fighting is still allowed, but coaches who dress forwards who can’t chip in offensively or on special teams are shortening their own bench.
“With all the power plays and penalty kills, you have to be able to contribute in one of those two facets,” said Crunch coach Ross Yates.
Sugden understands this, and praised Yates for his encouragement and support. But he can’t grasp why his contributions to the game had to go out of style so abruptly.
“I hate what they’re doing to hockey,” Sugden said. “I just think it’s a boring game now. You have to have the fear on the ice. You have to know if you do something cheap, it’s going to get dealt with.”
Sugden said opposing players started to mock him for his role.
“I’m the guy that everybody chirps at. When I start to beat guys up, (they say), ‘Hey, have you even gotten a shift tonight?”’ Sugden said. “It makes me miserable.”
Sugden decided a few days ago that he’d had enough. On Thursday morning he told Yates, who said he was surprised. Yates said he asked Sugden if he wanted more time to think about it, but Sugden said no.
Sugden then met with his teammates and told them he thought his dream of reaching the NHL is over, and that he’s done. Sugden said he and each player exchanged hugs.
“I was more misty than I think I’ve ever been in this arena,” Sugden said.
“It’s weird that part of the game is kind of disappearing, and jobs are disappearing with it,” said teammate Darcy Verot.
“Most people covet having a job at this level. To walk away from it, he must have had strong feelings. I think everybody knows in the back of their mind, you’re not going to play forever. Whenever that happens in front of your eyes, it’s a jolt.”
Sugden is looking into playing semi-pro hockey in Canada, but he said he and his family – his wife, Crystal, who is pregnant, and 10-year-old son Anthony – might continue to live here almost year-round.
In Sugden’s heart, Syracuse has gone from a last-chance haven to a home. Sugden battled alcoholism and drug use earlier in his career, and when the Columbus organization took a chance on him in 2003 he was almost certainly looking at his final opportunity.
Sugden embraced it, becoming the muscle of the team on the ice and its personable image at dozens of goodwill appearances.
“That’s what makes the decision extra hard,” Sugden said. “People (out-of-towners) say, ‘Oh, Syracuse, it (stinks).’ But I love it. People in this city have a heart of gold.”
That sort of support system gave Sugden a security blanket to tuck in among the personal items he threw into a trash bag and hauled out of the War Memorial on Thursday.
“You never know how you’re going to feel,” he said of his career change. “Right now, I feel as at peace with myself as I have all season.”