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Sitting Down with Downey

Sarah Green
Nov 7, 2002

Walking into the Dallas Stars' locker room for the first time is like stepping into an unapproachable inner-sanctum. For a first-timer like me, the experience makes you want to measure your breath, keeping it slow and quiet so as not to disturb the rarified atmosphere. It's a place that many wish to enter, but few ever gain access to. Like a Methodist penetrating Mecca, there I stood. A woman in the middle of the most manly of manly worlds.

Photography by Mike McLean

My purpose that day was to interview one of the toughest men in a tough-man sport. Right winger Aaron "Diesel" Downey has a reputation in the hockey world as a prime enforcer, a man who'll let his fists speak for him when words have become pointless. Downey's brand of play is specialized. He hasn't been asked to be a goal-scorer, a big play maker, or to set up assists, although he can do it. (And as a Chicago Blackhawk last year, he scored a big goal against Dominic Hasek and the Red Wings).

This season "The Undertaker," as he is also known, has been called into action as defender of those gilded ones known as the Stars' centermen and scorers. Mess with the multi-million dollar boys, and you may find yourself messed up by number 47. Never doubt the effect that a good scrap has on hockey fans and on a team. It can bring up the energy in everyone. Downey can light a fire in an arena when his gloves come off, and can help get his teammates' blood boiling.

Downey is not on the ice every night, but when called to duty, he's ready, and with often very beneficial results for his team. In an encounter with Washington in October, Downey logged a mere 22 seconds of play. But during that time, he was involved in the creation two minor penalties on the Senators that led to the Stars scoring two power play goals.

Aaron Downey was one of the very last guys off the ice that morning. It's usually that way. He's a hard worker, serious about his job, and in a club that is loaded down with great talent, he's working on finding his fit. Downey has been around the minors and the NHL for a while. He knows what it takes. He trains with a boxer in the off-season, and uses a punching bag as part of his physical maintenance throughout the year.

Photography by Mike McLean

It's said he's not really a big guy for an enforcer, but he was very impressive as he walked in and took a seat on the bench next to me. His broad hands nearly crushed mine as we greeted each other. He's a plain-spoken man with a soft voice that belies his job. I started the interview sincerely hoping that I wouldn't make him mad.

Sarah: Why did you choose to play hockey?
Aaron: I don't know, it's something we did growing up, you know. Growing up with a pond on the farm with three older brothers, that's what we did. Kind of a way of life.

SG: How old were you when you started skating?
AD: Three years old.

SG: Three? So you had to keep up with the big guys.
AD: Yeah, started out dad got us on the pond, and it went from there.

SG: How did you get pegged as an "enforcer"? How'd that happen for you?
AD: Well, you know, just getting out there and playing good hard hockey. Starting out, like everyone else, you try to a be goal-scorer, then going up the ranks and playing other elite skills you kind of got to do something to fit in. I was always a grinder type player, a blue collar player with a blue-collar background, so basically, my game started to evolve into more of a crash and bang game, and that kind of crash and banging led into an altercation, and one altercation led to another, and you kind of get a reputation as being a tough guy, an enforcer. If people have seen one of your fights, and you do well, next thing you know you're more or less accepted by your teammates as a good guy to have on the team. It more or less comes with the job, now. Sometimes, you got to step up to the plate and answer the bell, you know.

SG: You don't seem to have any problem taking on guys who are slightly larger than you.
AD: Aw, no. I've been fighting guys bigger than me all my life. Actually I have a tougher time taking on the smaller guys.

SG: You do? How come?
AD: I don't know, just for some reason I get used to fighting the great big guys, you know. I've got a system, and the smaller guys seem to have a better center of gravity. A big guy may not have great balance, so you really learn how to fight them.

SG: Do you have any special tricks you use with a big guy?
AD: Yeah, I like to pick a spot, find a tired guy or wear a guy out, use my strength and leverage to tie a guy up, get him into a position he's not familiar with, pick my spot and then when it's time for me to start punching, then I'll start punching. If I think a guy's got an edge on me, then I'll pull something out of the hat.

SG: Is there anyone before a game that you put a bead on, that you pick out to go toe to toe with?
AD: Well, the other tough guys on a team. You've got to be ready for them the whole time. I've got a lot of respect for anybody who does this job, and you've got to be prepared for them. You've got to know who you're up against, and also there's always a sleeper in the crowd. You've got to expect the unexpected. You have to keep that in the back of your mind.

SG: Which of your teammates would you least like to go up against?
AD: Oh, it would be Hatch. Hatcher. He's a big guy. I think if anyone has freedom of choice, they wouldn't want to go up against him. He's a big guy. He's huge.

SG: He's kind of scary just walking around. Arnott's over there. He looks a bit tough.
AD: Oh, yeah. Big guy.

SG: How do you get geared up for a game, how do you get ready?
AD: I believe preparation is 99% of anything you do in life. If you're not prepared then you're not going to feel your best, and you're not going to do your best, no matter what it is, from farming to being a businessman, to running a maid service, if you're not prepared to do your job, you're not going to do your job effectively. I do a lot of visualization, a lot of stretching, a lot of good, solid warming up before I play. Basically, you've got to get yourself stimulated, you need to be believing in yourself, psyching yourself up in an intuitive way.

Photography by Mike McLean

SG: Do you use a punching bag before a game?
AD: No, not before a game, but I like to hit the bag, especially back a couple of years ago in the minors when I had 39 fights in 78 games. That's when you've really got to be staying in shape and hitting the bag You gotta be on your game.

SG: Do you have any superstitions? Like placing your skates a certain way, doing specific things before a game?
AD: I don't believe in superstitions. I'm more of an easy going, happy-go-lucky type of guy. I believe in the universe, in God, and superstitions are a mental thing. You're dooming yourself if you are tied into one way of doing things. I think positively. That's how I got here, not by the way I place my skates.

SG: We don't get to see you enough on the ice.
AD: Yeah, you don't do you?

SG: Does that frustrate you?
AD: Yeah. I haven't done a whole lot of playing. They have a great group of guys here, so I don't get to play every night. Even last year, I kind of took a back seat and shared with Bob Probert. I made some good plays, but I'd like to play more. I enjoy what I do. This is not going to last forever.

SG: You've moved around in your career. Do you have a family life, and does it get affected by the moves?
AD: I have a girlfriend in Boston. She's a great girl, and is in school working on her masters degree, and I'm doing this. She supports me, and vice-versa. We'll meet at the end of the tunnel. My mom and dad and brothers are back home in Shelbourne. They support me here, and I support everything that they do.

SG: You're on the road a lot. Who's your roommate?
AD: Scott Pellerin. Last year my roommate was Tony Amonte. I get to meet some good guys on the road. You make some good friends. Being on the road is a little demanding sometimes, but it's all in how you accept it. Roll with it and have a good time, and it's so much easier. You're in this job, enjoy it.

SG: What city has the crappiest locker room?
AD: Back in the old days, New Haven. It was a pretty bad barn. Rank. A bad locker room. Bad environment. I always thought the fans were pretty cool, though. Good fans, just the facilities were awful.

SG: Do you notice fans during a game, or are you too focused?
AD: Fans? Oh, yeah, especially when they're right into it. Especially after a good hockey fight, and the fans are on your side. Definitely a good shot of adrenalin your way, you know. It's like capturing a prize, it's your reward.

SG: Can you hear them at the American Airlines Center? Reunion used to be louder.
AD: That's what they say. I never experienced Reunion, but I think Stars fans are coming around, starting to believe in us again, and we're working hard to win some home games.

SG: When you have children, and I'm sure you will, would you want them to play hockey?
AD: Oh yeah, sure, I'll get them started. If they don't like it , they don't have to play. I won't keep them from it. Not when I've had the chance.

SG: Aaron, thanks so much for talking with us.
AD: Thanks to everyone at hockeyfights.com. Thanks for putting up a website that gives us guys some plugs.

Much thanks to Aaron, Sarah and Mike McLean, for taking some great photographs for us.

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Teams:
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Aaron Downey