Apr 24, 2006
Jeff Hansen, one of the most popular current players on the Southern Professional Hockey League's Knoxville Ice Bears, recently returned to the team at the end of the 2005-06 season and used his rugged presence to help guide them to the President's Cup Championship. While throwing fists night after night can certainly take its toll, he has the satisfaction of hearing over 3,000 loyal fans in the Knoxville Civic Coliseum scream for him because of his efforts.
Born in Calgary, Hansen has developed into one of the premiere fighters in the SPHL today. He was able to watch Tim Hunter drop the gloves with the Flames growing up, allowing Jeff to morph his fighting style into one that is very reminiscent of his idol's.
Hansen had the opportunity to display his fighting ability with the Verdun Dragons of the notorious LNAH earlier this year - an adventure that saw him drop the mitts 13 times in 13 games. In a recent interview with Jeff, he discusses the state of minor league hockey and his love for the physical side of the game we all love.
Gribben: While growing up, what were some of the hockey players you were influenced by?
Hansen: I always loved the rough stuff and was a huge Flames fan. I used to love watching Tim Hunter fight-super technical, and very smart. You got to love that nose of his too.
Gribben: At what age did you first want to be a hockey player?
Hansen: My dad played, and I wanted to be like my dad, so I guess ever since I could walk. My mom told me a story about how she lost me once at the rink when I was 2. She found me in the ref’s room talking about the game with the refs.
Gribben: Which has been your most memorable fight of your career so far?
Hansen: It had to have been at the end of my rookie year here in Knoxville. The night before I got a stick in the face and broke my nose. It was about 2 inches wide and I had 2 shiners and couldn't breathe. Bruce Watson was all over me all night trying to get me to fight, and I kept turning him down. I was pretty scared of taking one in the beak. The first time we fought it was a pretty good fight, but he got the nose and it exploded. After cleaning up and throwing in the nose tampons I headed back to the box, and we went again as soon as we got out. I caught him with a big one and KO'd him. You never wish that on anyone, and it’s a little scary, but at the time I was pretty pissed at him. The crowd loved it because Brucie had a long history of being a meathead in Knoxville. It also helped that I got the Gordie Howe hat trick that night.
Gribben: How would you describe the 13 games you played in the LNAH for Verdun?
Hansen: I really enjoyed it; it reminded me a lot of when I was playing junior. There isn't as much of a leash on, and the coaches kind of just let you do what you want on the ice. I liked it in Montreal, it’s an unreal city, and I was 5 minutes from downtown, so there was a lot to do.
Gribben: Do you have any favorite memories from the time you spent there?
Hansen: I thought it was hilarious how we would mess around and play-fight after every practice. Jason Bone and I would stay out sometimes 20 minutes after everyone was off the ice, just working on things. One thing I will definitely remember forever is when our assistant coach punched a player on the other team in warm ups... that was wild.
Gribben: Would you say the reason you and Jason Bone bonded so well in Verdun was because you guy's had fought each other twice during the 04-05 SPHL season, when Bone was playing for the Jacksonville Barracudas?
Hansen: He is just an honest, clean fighter that loves to fight. I knew he was an honest guy when, after our first fight, he looked across the glass and gave me a smile and a nod, even though I thumped him! (just kidding bud). But we got to become pretty good friends in Verdun, and I think that had a lot to do with it, just because we already respected each other on the ice.
I think as long as there is a mutual respect for each other this type of friendship can happen. There are a few guys I have fought in the last few years where we would tear each other apart if we ever became teammates.
Gribben: How was your contract with Verdun written up? Were you being paid per fight?
Hansen: I was paid very well. I was happy in Knoxville and had no intentions of really going anywhere. Verdun kept calling back and sweetening the offer and eventually it didn't make sense for me to say no.
Gribben: Assuming you were being paid to fight - did you go out of your way to find or get into fights, or did they just happen naturally like they would in any other league?
Hansen: If you are looking for a fight in the LNAH, you don't have to look too far. Every team has 5 guys every night that would fight you. It’s not like other leagues where fights get hard to find when you get a reputation.
Gribben: While in the LNAH, would you say you played the game differently in comparison to how you would normally?
Hansen: I just had to learn not to think about fighting. I used to get all pumped up before games when there was one heavyweight on the team. I would go over the fight over and over in my head, all possible scenarios, and how I would react. When I came to Verdun, I had to just forget all about that. Every night I knew I was going to fight, and I knew I was going to fight someone tough. So there was no point getting all worked up over it.
Gribben: How do the fighters in the LNAH differ from those in other leagues?
Hansen: I think fighters are pretty much the same, no matter what league you are in. But in the LNAH guys study you more, and they know how you fight, and how to react better to you. Once word got around that I threw hard, fast rights, I was finding my right getting tied up almost instantly. It teaches you to be a better fighter by making you think more and be more technical.
Gribben: Would you say there is a difference in fighting styles between the American minor leagues and the LNAH?
Hansen: I think that down south in the US more people fight wide open. I don't mind getting hit (by most people!) so I love to trade with guys wide open. I think that for my size I can throw pretty fast, so wide open works well for me. Up north I really had to quickly learn how to be technical, because not many guys like to fight wide open there. They like to tie up and pick their shots, and if a 260-pound guy like Jacques Dube or someone ties you up, it’s hard to get free.
Gribben: How do the fights themselves differ in the LNAH in comparison to other leagues?
Hansen: For one, the square offs can last forever... the linesmen don't yell at you to get going and some guys take forever to get going. You also see some interesting stances before fights, like the pre-fight stances of Derek Parker, Daniel Cyr, and Brad Lambert.
Gribben: Who was the toughest player you fought while playing in the LNAH?
Hansen: That is a tough question. If you look at the roster of any team; they are full of guys that have absolutely terrorized other leagues. I fought Parker, Dube, Samuel Duplain, Cyr, Lambert, Steve Reid, Tommy Bolduc, and a lot of others and all those guys are tough. I have a ton of respect for some of these guys fighting 60 times a year though; it’s got to be hard. It has to take a little luck and a lot of painkillers, especially for a guy like Parker who fights pretty open and exciting.
Gribben: Do you think the LNAH deserves the reputation it sometimes gets as a beer league where fighting is more of the main attraction than its hockey or is it just one of the last leagues left in North America that still showcases “old time hockey” with unabashed rough stuff and skill?
Hansen: I think that the thing that most people don't realize is how skilled a league it actually is. Yeah, you have the sideshow, and you are going to see about 5 fights a game, but our team had about 10 ECHL and AHL all-stars and 3 ex-NHLers. It’s an exciting, fast game, even without the side show, and I think the fans definitely get their money's worth. I don't know about the “old time hockey” statement though, it was actually the cleanest league I have ever played in. There isn't much hitting or stick work, I think because the skilled players keep their noses clean so they don't have to have any part of the rough stuff. I wasn't alive to watch old time hockey, but I am pretty sure it wasn't two, 250-pound fighters squaring off for two minutes at center ice and fighting. It seems more to me as a new breed of hockey.
Gribben: When seeing how minor leagues such as the UHL and ECHL have taken measures to adopt NHL rules, do you feel that there will come a time where the only place for players like you to play will be in the LNAH or leagues like it?
Hansen: I don't think so, but in any league down south, you have to be able to play. My first year here, I had came from Junior B back in Alberta, and I was awful. Even though I was playing the enforcer role and fighting all the time, I was on the bubble all year. In no league other than the LNAH will you see a fighter that can't do a crossover. With only 10 forwards in the southern leagues, a team can't afford to have a total dummy on the bench. As long as the enforcer can skate, hit, and run around and intimidate people, he will always have a job.
Gribben: How do the hockey fans in the LNAH compare to those that are in Knoxville?
Hansen: I think the difference is that there is so much good hockey for people to watch in Montreal. Within an hour drive, you can watch the NHL, five major junior teams, or three LNAH teams. We definitely had our die hard, loyal fans in Verdun, but it is obvious that a lot of people are there for the fights. Knoxville's fans are better than anywhere I have ever been. We play in a little, LOUD, old building, that seats just under 5000. It is pretty hard to get a ticket in Knoxville on the weekends; the city really supports this team.
Gribben: Why did you choose to come back to play for Knoxville?
Hansen: When I left for Verdun, I talked to Jim Bermingham, my coach here in Knoxville, and he told me to go and try it out. He said the worst thing that could happen is I come back in six weeks. He told me that I had a spot on the team whenever I wanted to come back. Knoxville is becoming a home to me. I have so many good friends here, and I missed it. I had fun in Verdun, and it was a great experience for me, but I will probably be in Knoxville for the rest of my career.
Gribben: What’s it going to take for Liam McCarthy to shave and get a hair cut? Do the guys in the locker room rib him a lot because of his facial hair?
Hansen: Haha. Liam is definitely a character, and the beard suits him I think. He started growing the beard because in the summer he went home to go to a wedding and he forgot his razor, so he hasn't shaved since, or got a haircut. He is a Harvard grad and probably the smartest guy I know, and the best thing about him is he doesn't care what anyone else thinks.
Gribben: What are your thoughts on Luke Phillips? Is he the real deal or a product of hype and high penalty minutes (396 last year)?
Hansen: I like Luke, he’s a good guy. You’ve got to take your hat off to a guy who is 5'8” and will fight anyone. Sometimes he get a little goofy with his running around and running his mouth, but he plays the role well. He’s a pest that no one wants to play against, but everyone would want on their team. I don't know about there being any hype about him, but he does well for how big he is that’s for sure.
Gribben: What are your thoughts on Andrew Katzberg?
Hansen: Katzy to me seems like a goofy, tough kid from Saskatchewan. Sometimes his antics on the ice are a little questionable, like in the playoffs when he speared our equipment manager on the bench, but he’s just playing the role. As far as fighting goes, he will fight anyone, anytime, three times a game if you are willing. He is definitely not a killer, but he has a damn hard head. I broke my thumb on his head in a fight this year.
Gribben: In the SPHL, like in many minor leagues, the officiating sometimes has the tendency of being hit-and-miss. Because of this would you say that it's even more important for hockey clubs to have enforcers who are ready drop the gloves and defend teammates whenever necessary?
Hansen: I think that in the SPHL, a lot of times the refs didn't call enough. I think it’s because a lot of these refs are young and don't want to ever make a bad call, so they only call very obvious ones. They tend to let the hands and the elbows get up on hits, not call charges or boardings, and let the sticks up. I don't know if it is any more necessary to have an enforcer because of this, but it has to help. I got hurt this year, and had to watch games from the bench, and I was amazed at how much more the other team started running around once I was out of the line-up.
Gribben: With the recent minor league fall-out of the "new" NHL, do you ever worry that SPHL league officials will try to curb rough play in order to replicate the NHL's current product?
Hansen: I think that it will stay the same. If they were calling our league like they call the NHL, there would be 100 minutes in penalties a game.
Gribben: Over the past 5-6 years, the North American minor leagues have gone through somewhat of a transition. Gone are the days of pure enforcers and an emphasis on old-time hockey while promotions like “guaranteed fight night” have been replaced by more family friendly gimmicks, such as colored ice surface nights among other things. What are your thoughts on this?
Hansen: I think they are trying to market more to families, even in Knoxville, you don't see dollar beer night or college night anymore. The fans in the south still love their fights, but it seems like here our aim is more family friendly. Except for once a year, we have the Miss Icebears, which is a Bikini contest on ice. I wish we had more of those nights... haha.
Gribben: Would you say it’s wise for the minor leagues to forsake the die-hard fans and the style of hockey that they and most of us grew up watching? Will there come a time when "old time hockey” will become obsolete; a thing that can only be seen on tapes?
Hansen: There are always going to be people who play that style of hockey, certain players know no other way. The fans love these players; they are the fan favorites in every city all over the country, so why would this ever change? I agree that hockey isn't quite like it once was, but there are people who will always keep ”old time hockey” alive.
Gribben: Where do you see yourself in the next few years? Does the SPHL fall into the equation?
Hansen: I don't see myself going anywhere else other than Knoxville. It’s like a home to me and I'll probably be here for a while. You can't beat the weather, the city, or the fans.
Gribben: Where do you see the SPHL within the next few years? Will the league continue to expand or will it stay the same?
Hansen: I think expansion is definitely in the works. They are already talking to Richmond for next year, since their other team in the UHL is done. SPHL teams make sense for smaller markets where other teams have failed. In order to be profitable, they only require a couple thousand fans per game, and the operating expenses are way down, due to a smaller salary cap and less travel. I think they are taking it good places, and I expect to keep seeing the quality of play and the number of teams going up.
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