David M Singer
May 21, 2004
Craig Coxe played professional hockey for 16 seasons. Parts of 8 were spent in the NHL for a total 235 NHL games. Coxe was a gamer, doing what he could for his team each game night. In the NHL he made his mark as an enforcer. His love for hockey kept him playing far after his NHL career was over and his experience allowed him to make the transition into coaching.
Coxe will most likely be remembered for his battles with other NHL heavyweights. Two highlight-reel fights with Bob Probert, encounters with Joe Paterson, it didn’t matter who his opponent was, Coxe was going to go all-out. Before the Stephen Peat-PJ Stock rock ‘em sock ‘em-fest a few years ago, there was Coxe-Probert. It was a fight that has outlived the game it was a part of. Coxe had a style popular with the fans – stand back and throw ‘em. A good defense is a good offense kind of mentality; an open-style usually reserved for guys half his size. Perhaps if he played in the age of easy information and Center Ice packages he would have been able to extend his NHL days on sheer popularity alone.
Craig was nice enough to spend some time with me to talk about his career.
David Singer: You’re listed as being from California, but you played junior hockey up in Canada, was just wondering where you grew up and started playing.
Craig Coxe: I actually grew up in California. I was born in San Diego. When I was 4 we moved to Tucson, AZ and that’s where I actually started playing hockey. Lived there until I was 10 and then we moved back to California and I played there until I went to Canada. When I was 15 I played for a year in Washington, and finished up playing midget hockey in California. When I was 17 I went up to Canada to play juniors.
Singer: You played for Belleville, right?
Coxe: Actually when I was 17 I moved to St. Albert, Alberta, played a year at tier 2. My mom and dad really wanted me to finish high school, and I knew if I played tier 2 I could still go to school. So I played one year at St. Albert and that’s when I got drafted to the NHL and then I went and played two years in the Ontario Hockey League for Belleville.
Singer: You put up some decent numbers there…
Coxe: I wasn’t any scoring champion…
Singer: Yeah, but you were averaging about a point a game up there. When did you think your role might become what it would be in the NHL? Did you assume you were being drafted to be a tough guy?
Coxe: When I was drafted I didn’t think it was to be a tough guy. When I was drafted out of tier 2 I got a lot of penalty minutes, but I put up real good numbers also. I think I was in the top 10 in the league in scoring and playing on a really good team. I mean to be a tough guy, to be a heavyweight in the NHL, that didn’t really happen until I went to Vancouver. I was drafted by Detroit in June and in July Ilitch bought the team and fired everybody. He brought in all his own people and none of them knew who I was. I played a couple of more years in juniors and that’s when I had the opportunity to go to Vancouver. The coach there was looking for young guys who were willing to fight, my coach knew I could do it and that’s how it all started. I knew I was going to Vancouver to be a fighter.
Singer: Not that you hadn’t been in quite a few scraps before that, but did you feel that you were taking on a role that you didn’t have before?
Coxe: No, in juniors I was one of the tough guys we had on the team. I was used to that. I played juniors with Marty McSorley and some other guys that were real tough guys. When you got me and Marty on the same team, we were the heavyweights for our hockey club; we knew going into the NHL what we were getting into.
Singer: Some players seem discontent with the role nowadays. How’d you feel about taking on that job?
Coxe: I was willing to do anything I had to do to make it into the NHL. I
really was. I could play the game too and that’s the unfortunate part
about it, that I never got the opportunity to. I was always stuck in that same
role until I went to Calgary. That was the only team that said to me: “listen,
we don’t need you fighting all the time because we feel you could play
the game and we want you to play the role of a tough hockey player that’s
got some skill.” I mean I was never going to get 50 goals a year or anything
like that, but I could still play the game. Granted I only played 5-8 games
for the Flames, but I had about a point a game playing there.
Editor’s note: Craig had 2 goals, 3 assists, 32 PIM and was a +2 in 7 regular season games for the Flames; he added a goal and 16 PIM in 2 playoff games.
Unfortunately I got traded again and got put back into the same role in St. Louis. Brian Sutter wanted me to do nothing but just fight. By that time I had come to the point in my career where I’d been playing pro for about 5 years and felt that I had established myself as a tough guy. I fought all the big boys and proved myself and wanted to play the game also. You could see the game was changing and you couldn’t just be a meathead and had to be a hockey player also. Early in my career I spent a lot of time after practices just out on the ice trying to make myself a better hockey player. I felt I could do both and when I went to St. Louis I got stuck in the role where he wanted me to just fight and didn’t want me to play. I rebelled. He sent me out there to go get into a fight and I’d go out there and pick up the puck and start playing.
Singer: Is it virtually impossible for a guy to get out of that role?
Coxe: No, I wouldn’t say it’s virtually impossible, but it’s not easy, especially back when I was playing. Now there’s hardly anybody in the NHL that’s just a tough guy and can’t play the game. Look at Tie Domi in the playoffs this year for Toronto. He proved that tough guys can play. The tough guys are good hockey players now also. Donald Brashear in Philly, he’s playing all the time. Those guys are getting the opportunity to play. For them, they’re getting the opportunity to do both. It just depends on the situation you’re in. It depends on the team that you’re playing for. Some teams don’t want to take you out of the role, some want to use you for both. It all just comes down to the team you’re playing for.
It’s so much easier to go out and fight after you’ve played a few years and you’ve established yourself that you can play in the league. It’s easier to be playing a regular shift or be involved in the game and then to go out and get into a fight. If you’ve been playing for a while and you feel you can play the game and you’ve proven you can play the game, you don’t want to just have to sit on the bench for two periods and then all of a sudden the third period comes and the coach comes and knocks on your shoulder and says “let’s go get at her”. My first three or four years that was no problem. I probably played in 10-15 games where I dressed and never saw one shift at all and that was fine with me. I was there to do a role and sometimes I would get only one shift a game and that would be to fight and that was fine. You’re young and full of piss and vinegar, you love to do it.
Singer: How hard is it to come out in the third period and fight after sitting the first two and still have your legs?
Coxe: You’ve got to get used to it because it happens. Most of the time, especially after you’ve played for a while, you can see ahead of time what’s coming. So you’re not just sitting there. You’ll know that you’ll be getting the nod so you’ll be standing up, stretching your legs out a little bit so you’re not going to go out there and cramp all up. It’s not easy, it definitely isn’t, you just kinda get used it.
Singer: A lot of guys seem to fight not to lose. You never seemed to do that, you just always seemed to go out and give it your all. Was there no fear about getting hit? You certainly have an open and popular style.
Coxe: I was never in for the clutching and the grabbing. The way that I feel is if you’re going to get into a fight, let’s stand back and let’s see who’s tougher, either you are or I am. It’s the bottom line. If I’m going to spend five minutes in the penalty box I’m going to try and motivate my team and give them some life and get the crowd behind us, for me to go out there and grab the other guy’s arms and just wrestle around, throw a couple of punches and not really make it exciting, it’s not going to do anything for me or the hockey club. That was just my style. If I’m going to get into a fight, I’m never going to jump anybody, I’m going to stand back and say: ok, it’s time to go, I’m giving you the opportunity, I’m not going to grab a hold of you, I’m going to drop my gloves, stand in front of you and say let’s go. Let’s see who’s tougher, either you are or I am.
Singer: You had one hell of a night back in ’87.
You went with both Probert and Kocur in the same night in Joe Louis Arena…
Coxe: Not only that but we won 4-1 and I scored the second goal, the game-winner.
Singer: That had to be some night.
Coxe: When people ask me what the highlights of my career are that was definitely one of them, that game.
Singer: How many people ask you about that night?
Coxe: Hardly anyone knows about the Kocur fight, they all just know about the Probert one because that’s the one that got on Don Cherry’s tape.
Singer: Your first Probert fight was a hell of a bout as well.
Coxe: Nobody’s seen it. That was a good fight.
Singer: I thought both of you guys were going to just collapse at one point.
Coxe: In my opinion that was a lot better of a fight then the one in Joe Louis, but the one in Vancouver wasn’t nationally televised, the one in Detroit was.
Singer: What was it like after that game in Detroit? Probert was becoming king of the NHL heavyweights and Kocur certainly had his reputation going and you dropped him.
Coxe: You knew fighting Kocur that you never wanted to get into a long, drawn-out fight with him, he hit way too hard. He’s ruined guys’ careers. I fought him once in the minors. He and I broke into pro the same year and both of our first year’s we fought down in the American Hockey League. When we got into the fight he hit me one time that put a hole into my helmet, so I knew he could hurt you. You want to try and get it over with quick with him. Just get him on the chin so he goes down because he can do a lot of damage.
Singer: Speaking of your helmet, you seemed to take it off a decent amount.
Coxe: There was one year that I had eye surgery for a detached retina. I had the surgery over the summer and the team made me wear a shield and I couldn’t get into a fight with the tough guys wearing a shield. So I would just unstrap it, take it off and say let’s get at her. If I [left it on and] get hit hard then it’s going to shatter my face, and I just don’t believe in fighting with a shield on.
Singer: Other than Kocur and Probert, who were some of your tougher opponents?
Coxe: Nicky Fotiu was probably one of the toughest that I ever fought. Troy Crowder gave it to me one night pretty bad in Vancouver, I definitely underestimated him.
Singer: Well, that year he went through one of the best runs that any guy’s done in a short period of time.
Coxe: Yeah, he dummied a lot of tough guys.
Singer: That fight for you was your first NHL bout in quite some time.
Coxe: It’d been almost a year.
Singer: What are some of your other big hockey moments?
Coxe: I got to score my first NHL goal in L.A. with my mom and dad and brothers and sisters in the stands; and also scoring the first goal in San Jose Sharks history, that was also a real nice one. I heard about people knocking me because I didn’t give the Hall of Fame the puck, but the reason is because I give all that stuff to my father. It’s no disrespect to the Hall of Fame, but if it wasn’t for my father I wouldn’t be here and he helped me out a lot with getting to where I was. So he gets all my jerseys, all that stuff.
Singer: You played in many levels of leagues. How different is it, at least in terms of being a tough guy, going from one league to another? How does the level of opponent change?
Coxe: It’s huge. The guys are in the NHL for a reason, because they are the best. I fought some tough guys in the American League and the IHL, but not like guys that were in the NHL. Like I said, they’re there for a reason; they are the best at what they do. They’re big, strong men that are very good at their jobs.
Singer: When you’ve got two tough guys on the same team, do they buddy up or is it more of a competition?
Coxe: In my experience, and almost every team I played for there was another tough guy, it’s never been a competition as far as any kind of hatred towards each other. You always got along real well and you always try and help each other out and build off of each other.
Singer: Going into a game would you look ahead at possible opponents and give each other tips or strategies?
Coxe: Oh yeah, we’ll talk about things like that. If one guy’s fought a guy on the other team more or seen him more you definitely want to get a read on what’s this guy like, what does he like to do, how does he like to fight, what’s he good at, what are his weaknesses and build off of that. You definitely want to help each other.
Singer: What was your playing weight? You seemed to be a bit skinnier then most of your opponents.
Coxe: I was, I couldn’t put weight on to save my life while I played. The docs would always say my metabolism was just too fast and when you’re skating everyday it’s impossible to put weight on. I mean I eat like a horse. When I retired it didn’t take me long to get up to 240, but I think the most that I ever weighed while playing was right around 220. I was usually playing between 215-220. I would try and try everything I could to put weight on. It was impossible during the wintertime. In the summertime I could sometimes get up to 225-230, but you’re still working out in the summertime, still skating, so it wouldn’t stay on very long.
Singer: You finished out your playing career and started your coaching career in the Central League. What are your thoughts about the CHL?
Coxe: The Central League has really grown since I was first playing there. The first year that I was there, there were only six teams in the league. I basically had no where to go. My NHL career was done; San Jose had bought me out of my contract. I went and played about a half-year in the IHL and the following year I didn’t have anywhere to go. I was a bit of a partier when I played and it’s an unfortunate thing that sticks with you and nobody really wanted to give me a chance. I needed to play somewhere because I still wanted to play hockey and I had the opportunity to go there. I put up good numbers there and got to skate with some guys who were good hockey players, a few [other] ex-NHLers were there. The longer the league went on, the better and stronger it got. Now it’s probably the most secure pro minor league. They don’t lose teams every year, they keep gaining, they keep getting stronger and the talent there is getting very, very good. All the veteran rules they’re making in the ECHL are making guys go to the Central League and United League making them even stronger. Its real good hockey. It was a lot of fun to see it growing and it was a lot of fun to coach in it.
Singer: How difficult was the transition, going from player to coach?
Coxe: It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be because my last 4-5 years I was a player-assistant coach just about everywhere I played, so I got to know about what goes on behind the scenes, got to be involved in the decision making about who we’re going to have on our team, the systems that we’re going to play and the things we’re trying to strive for to be a successful hockey club. So when the opportunity came up after I stopped playing, I got to be an assistant coach in San Antonio. The coach there was a guy I had known since I first moved to Canada, him and I played in St. Albert together. He was a couple of years older then I was, one of our overagers on our tier 2 team, so I’d known him for almost 20 years. He had been coaching in the Western League for almost as long as I’d been playing hockey. So it was a good opportunity for me to step in and get underneath a guy I respected, who also respected me and that I could learn a lot from. It’s easier to go from a player to an assistant coach then go from a player directly to a head coach I’m sure. So it worked out ok for me, it was a good transition. I was very lucky that Chris Stewart, the coach in San Antonio, helped me out and said, “I’d like you to help me out and stay here and be my assistant coach.” If it wasn’t for Stewie, then who knows, I don’t know what would’ve happened.
Singer: Do you plan on coaching again?
Coxe: I would love to, yeah. It’s something that I really enjoy a lot, but the unfortunate part about it is there are thousands of us who want to do it and very few jobs to go around, but it’s something that I really love to do and I hope I continue to do it.
I had a great time playing, especially in the NHL, and I met a lot of very good people.
I really do appreciate you doing this interview with me; it’s nice to know people still want to know what you’re doing.
After speaking with Craig it is obvious that the game of hockey is something that he is passionate about. I would like to thank him for being generous with his time and sharing stories about his playing days with me.
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