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The Life of a Protector

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes
As it relates to hockey, the word “enforcer” has its own entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The Wikipedia page for “Enforcer (ice hockey)” is the second search result when you key in the word on Google.

Michael Smith
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But in his Twitter bio, Jesse Boulerice describes himself as a former NHL “protector.” It carries a different connotative weight and, denotatively, seems to apply even after life on the ice.

The Protector

Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004. The Carolina Hurricanes were at home facing off with the New York Rangers on ESPN2. The well-deserved lead story from this game was Ron Francis eclipsing Marcel Dionne for fourth place on the NHL’s scoring list with an assist on a second-period goal.

Read the Associated Press recap, and you’ll find no mention of No. 36, except for his name scribbled next to a fighting major in the box score.

Thirty-nine seconds into the second frame with the Hurricanes down 1-0, Boulerice squared off with Chris Simon. The two danced around engaged, Simon landing the early shots. He caught Boulerice square in the head a number of times before Boulerice was able to wrestle Simon to his knees and connect with a few of his own. The two eventually fell to the ice, Boulerice claiming victory.

Just over two minutes later, Kevyn Adams tied the game at one. Josef Vasicek added a pair of goals within 100 seconds of each other halfway through the period to make it 3-1 Canes. Carolina held on to win, 3-2.

“I remember Jimmy Rutherford and Mr. Karmanos were congratulating me after the game, saying I did a great job and turned that game around, giving me credit for the game win,” Boulerice recalled. “I thought that was incredible for them to give me that respect, but obviously, it was the whole team that did it.”

A decade prior, a then-16-year-old Boulerice had won his first fight.

“It was in front of the net. The guy was cross-checking me, and I just snapped,” he said. “The next thing you now, he’s on the ice, and I’m going to the penalty box trying to remember and realizing what just happened and how I did that. It’s instinctive, I guess, but then when they (the scouts) see that you have natural instinct, then they push you toward it.”

Before that moment, Boulerice wasn’t that guy. He wasn’t a pugilist, an enforcer, a protector. He didn’t grow up envisioning himself to be that guy.

“When you’re younger, you want to be the top-scorer. Every protector probably was at some point, just as every other player in the league was at some point in their youth,” he said. “I was as well for the first few years … I was that guy, the leading scorer. I was playing defense and leading the team in scoring.

“All of a sudden [a fight] happens and you’re good at it, then you kind of get pushed toward that role.”

The Beginning

The story of Boulerice’s upbringing isn’t unfamiliar.

He was born and raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York – Plattsburgh to be exact, which is just over an hour due South of Montreal and not more than 25 miles south of the Canadian border.

In addition to the day-to-day chores involved with operating a farm, playing pond hockey was just something you did.

“I got more into it, and my dad ended up building a rink the backyard. We did that whole thing,” he said. “My toes were freezing, and I wouldn’t [go inside]. In the summer, I had my roller blades out. My dad built me a net, and I was shooting pucks in the net everyday. He had to come make me stop and do the chores.

“But, I’d keep sneaking out and shooting pucks. He’d keep coming back and yelling me, and I’d get back to work. That’s the stuff you do as a kid, and you don’t even realize that’s what it takes to make it; you do it because you love it, and it paid off.”

Boulerice progressed through the USA Hockey system, and prior to turning professional, he played three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with Detroit and Plymouth. In the late 90’s, he played in the World Juniors with Team USA, winning a silver medal with the team in 1997 and serving as one of the team’s alternate captains the following year.

Boulerice was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the fifth round of the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.

The “Ups and Downs”

When asked how he would characterize his career, Boulerice, now 34, paused.

“I would characterize it as a trying and challenging battle with ups and downs in that role,” he said. “There were a lot of times where I asked myself, ‘Why are you doing this? This isn’t who you are as a person.’ But it’s a role on the ice as a job, as your career.”

The first trade of Boulerice’s NHL career occurred on Feb. 13, 2002, when the Flyers shipped him to Carolina. With reassurance from Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren, Boulerice viewed the trade as a new opportunity.

In the 2002-03 season, Boulerice played 48 games with the Canes. The next season, that number rose to 76, as he experienced the most statistically fruitful season of his career. His ice time jumped from 3:51 per game to 6:32.

“It was a development process when I got here with Paul Maurice. He was working with me quite regularly, pushing me, telling me how to practice every day and what he wanted me to do to develop as a player to get more ice time and a bigger role with the team. Over the first few years, it was happening,” he said. “I felt my game coming together in not so much of a protector-only role. It was completely coming together to the point where I’d be able to go from 20 fights a year to 10 to maybe five and be more of a contributing factor in penalty kill and defensive situations.”

Maurice was let go 30 games into the 2003-04 season, replaced by Peter Laviolette.

“There was a communication issue there, and that was really a huge turning point in my career,” Boulerice recalled. “It was tough to deal with that, and I don’t think I did a very good job.

“I think instead of fighting harder to continually progress my career, maybe I gave up a little bit, and that set my career back.”

Perhaps a casualty of the newfound emphasis on speed and finesse that emerged from the 2004-05 work stoppage, Boulerice picked up only scrap minutes in 2005-06.

Frustrated with his stagnant development, he considered asking for a trade, seeking advice from team captain Rod Brind’Amour.

“The conversation with Rod specifically was, ‘Should I ask for a trade, or should I stick it out and have a chance to win here?’ And he was like, ‘You’ve got to do what’s best for you. If that’s asking for a trade to get a better chance somewhere else, that might be the best thing,’” Boulerice recalled. “I remember saying to Rod, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever have this good of a chance to win the Cup.’ This was halfway through the year, and I already had the feeling we were going to win.”

He didn’t ask for the trade.

But, on Jan. 30, 2006, after dressing in just 26 games with Carolina, Boulerice was sent to St. Louis in the trade that saw Doug Weight join the team that would end up winning hockey’s ultimate prize. Boulerice was in the building the night the Hurricanes won the Cup, sitting in the stands rather than celebrating on the ice.

“It was difficult to go from first to worst and watch your buddies that you sweated with and bled for in previous years go win it, make it all worth it, and you don’t get to partake in it,” he said.

Stability was fleeting. Boulerice re-signed with Carolina in the summer of 2006 but never cracked the NHL, skating in 16 games for Albany. The next summer he signed back with Philadelphia, splitting time between the Flyers and the Phantoms of the AHL. Edmonton marked Boulerice’s third organization in as many years. He dressed in two games with the Oilers in November of 2008, the last of his NHL career. He spent the next two seasons with the Wilkes-Barre Penguins.

Boulerice hung up his skates at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season at age 32. He played in 172 NHL games, recording eight goals, two assists and 333 penalty minutes.

Some remember him for his rugged grit and aim to protect those wearing the same crest. Others portray him as a villain by pigeonholing a few bad incidents. He admitted this is sometimes difficult to ignore.

“It wears on you in the regard that too many people will see something and think that a flash of time in your life characterizes who you are,” Boulerice said. “Too many people are ignorant to that, and it kind of wears on you. So the negative noise you have to brush aside, move on, do what you’re doing and be positive about it.”

Concussions in Sports

Hockey is a physical game. The protector’s job in itself is rooted physicality, the remnants of which – visible and invisible – are borne for a lifetime.

These invisible remnants have recently received heightened attention in hockey, punctuated by the death of Derek Boogaard.

The New York Times compiled a three-part report on Boogaard’s life. Boulerice read it, paying specific attention to the notes Boogaard had handwritten.

“I read it and was fighting back tears,” Boulerice said. “It was like reading my story.”

Over the course of the 567 games Boulerice logged at the NHL and AHL levels, he said he had two notable concussions, one of which was “severe” and another which lasted “several months.”

And now?

“As far as post-career issues, knock on wood, I’m fine,” he said. “Long-term effects, I don’t know. No one does. There are a lot of studies and people claiming that there are concerns in that direction.”

Life Behind a Desk

In a way, Boulerice still protects people.

But instead of doing it with clenched fists, he does it by managing their money. After retiring in the summer of 2011, Boulerice joined Merrill Lynch as a financial advisor.

It wasn’t as stark of a transition as it might seem. Boulerice had been preparing for the career move for a couple of years, studying and attaining licenses and certifications during the tail-end of his playing days.

“I was really ready to move on, and I wanted to start a new career,” he said. “I knew I wanted to shift gears and do what I’m doing. I geared up for that, and it was just an easy transition.”

From an ice rink, sticks, pucks and skates to a desk, suits, a multitude of phone calls and enough coffee to get you through the long hours. It’s not an evolution you see every former hockey player make. But it’s one that had interested Boulerice for years.

“I started working with an advisor at 19 when I got my first signing bonus,” he said. “We didn’t have very much money growing up. So, obviously, I didn’t know what to do with an amount of money like that. So that got me started and interested.

“[I do it] to help my friends and family and people that don’t know or didn’t know – like I didn’t at one point – what to do with their money.”

Building a client base isn’t easy, though. Boulerice knows the first three to five years of the job are “grueling,” noting there usually isn’t enough time in the day to get done what’s needed.

“Just like learning anything else, it takes hours and hours and hours to become an expert. Going back to the fundamentals every day, practicing what you’re doing, learning, continuing to build on what you’re already doing,” he said. “These guys (financial advising team) are teaching me so much and not letting me fail or make mistakes.

“Working with a team like that, you help each other out, push each other, make each other better,” he said. “It’s just like being on a (sports) team. It is a team.”

The Future

Boulerice and his wife Jackie welcomed their third child, Shea Blake, on Sept. 11. Since then, he admitted he wasn’t getting a lot of sleep.

He also recently moved to Merrill Lynch’s downtown branch after beginning at their Cary office. He said there’s nowhere else he’d rather be working or raising his newly expanded family.

“When I decided to stay in the area was probably my first season here. I loved it here,” he said. “Once you’re here and used to it, you don’t want to go. I’ve been here for over 10 years now, and I never left. I always came here the summer and trained.”

He’s even keeping one foot on the ice, as he received his level three coaching certifications from USA Hockey this summer. He said he plans to assist youth hockey in Raleigh as much as possible.

As one of a handful of former Hurricanes roster players in the area, Boulerice is also a part of the Hurricanes Alumni group, which officially formed in the summer of 2011. The group’s headline event last season was the first Alumni Fantasy Game, fulfilling the dreams of those who never got a taste of professional hockey. Not tipping his hand too much, Boulerice said the group has more planned for the season and summer ahead.

“We talked about starting this group with the intentions of giving back to the community and raising money for the Kids ‘N Community Foundation,” Boulerice said. “This goes back to what I was saying earlier – keeping my toes in the water. It’s a way for me to stay connected to the team, which was like a family to me the whole time I was here, and give back to the community.”

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