David M Singer
Oct 9, 2006
When it comes to fighting, Brandon Sugden has done just about everything. He's fought on the ice, off the ice, and even had to fight to get back on to the ice, to... well, fight again.
Three seasons in the OHL led to stints in the ECHL and IHL where he was able to continue playing his style of game. After an incident involving a fan in the ECHL resulted in a life-time suspension Sugden's hockey career was all but over.
Life changes were needed before "Sugar" was able to get back onto the ice and play again, but he's been committed and has played in the AHL full-time for the past three seasons.
I had a chance to talk to Sugden about his life, career path and what could be next for him. This interview was conducted over the summer, before training camps opened.
Singer: Growing up, who were the tough guys or other hockey players that you idolized and hoped to emulate their game?
Sugden: While I was playing in the OHL, Link Gaetz was always a guy that I heard about, that I have seen play and I thought he was the shit. Then as I was getting to the point of my last year in the O I always heard of Dennis Bonvie and Rocky Thompson in the American league, but probably the guy that I wanted to emulate or try to be in the same mold was Link Gaetz.
Singer: So, were you always marked as a tough guy? Was that always your role growing up?
Sugden: Yeah, I have been playing since midget hockey and it's kind of hard to fight there but during my first year in the OHL I led the league in penalty minutes and I was the first rookie to do that ever. I had over 33 fights that year I think.
Singer: Did you grow up in Toronto?
Sugden: I actually grew up in downtown Toronto from the time I started playing at 12 or 13.
Singer: So, you grew up in Toronto, you played for London, you were drafted by the Maple Leafs. Tell me about that day. How did you feel?
Sugden: It was unbelievable. I went to St. Louis without my parents and we all hoped that it was Toronto and I remember calling my dad after the fifth round and he said "So have you been picked yet?" And I said "No, no I haven't" and he said "Oh, don't worry kid, you know, you'll get there" and I told him, "Oh, by the way, I have been drafted." So, it was kind of a big thing that it was supposed to be Toronto and it was actually a funny thing to happen that way. I think Toronto had 8 picks before the fifth round and Peter Cava got drafted just before me. He was 110 and I was 111, both for Toronto . So, we were walking down and he was there about three minutes before I was but we opened up the box and they gave him a jersey and shook his hand and everything, and then, they opened up the box and that was the last Maple Leaf jersey. So, I'm sitting there with no jersey. So, they told Peter to take off his jersey and they put it on me and they said okay, shake a hand, okay, take it off and give it back to Peter. So, they had to mail me mine like a month later. I didn't get to wear my jersey out to the bar that night with all the guys that got drafted.
Singer: Did you attend camp at all with Toronto?
Sugden: Yeah, I did two camps with Toronto . My first game with Toronto, I fought Nick Kypreos and I dropped him with one or two punches and he was trying to get back up but I was kind of holding him down. So, it was kind of like a one punch. It was actually my first shift in the first blue and white game with Toronto .
Singer: So, you made an impact right away?
Sugden: Yeah, I made an impact.
Singer: How did you get the nickname "Sugar"? When did that come about and when did it stick?
Sugden: That was my first year with Worcester, the Ice Cats. It was my first training camp with St. Louis and I got sent to Worcester and I think we were playing in the Traverse City tournament like they do every year, and my assistant coach, Steve Pleau, saw me fight. It was just a crazy fight back and forth and I was ducking and weaving and throwing lefts, rights, hooks, and upper cuts and he said I looked like Sugar Ray Leonard. So, from that time he called me 'Sugar' and everybody on the team started calling me 'Sugar' instead of Sugger or Suggy and then, the name just stuck.
Singer: That same year you played in Tallahassee Kyle Schultz sent me audio clips of him calling your fights. He called a great fight. Did you get to know him while you were there?
Sugden: I did and I got to know him, played some hockey with him while he was working with the Admirals of Milwaukee and I talked to him a bit. My dad still has his calls from the fights on his computer.
Singer: Also that year was when you played that one game for Peoria and received a life-time ban. What happened that night?
Sugden: Well, it is well documented now that I had problems with different substances, chemical substances, everything and I had played for Dayton for two years and I was kind of like the fan favorite in that town. But there was a couple of people that did not like me in that town and there was one particular booster lady that did not like me and when I came back from my first game, every time I touched the puck she had a whole section chanting ‘rehab' and other chants in that nature. I went through two periods of that and I was really upset about it. I came off the ice and saw her and I can hardly remember the thing. I guess, my stick -- I don't know if I really meant to throw it but -- the stick left my hand and I don't think the stick even hit the lady but some security guards came into it. I remember going to jail in my bottoms and my equipment. and then the next day hearing St. Louis dropped me and my agent dropped me and when I was struggling for life, I felt like my life was over.
Singer: Now, with that section chanting like that, a lot of people say that anything goes on the ice, but some say there are certain things you don't touch and substance abuse is one of them. Have you heard anything like that ever since that incident?
Sugden: Never. I mean, yeah, there are lines that don't cross such as if a guy loses his wife in a car accident, you don't tease him about that. There are certain things you don't tease about or taunt about and that was one of the things that I thought that was one of them. Because, I mean, it was the hardest battle of my life to get over that. It's a terrible disease and I finally got through it and then I got this bitch screaming and yelling and, when I came off the ice, I mean, she was screaming at the top of her lungs, her face was red, she was spitting. It was unbelievable. She was so enraged with me that she was screaming like that and it just drove me nuts all game.
Singer: Do you have any idea how fans can get that venomous towards somebody?
Sugden: I don't know. I mean, they got no other things in their life to be passionate about. I mean, she was part of booster club and a lot of different teams have a lot of weird boosters. Syracuse has good boosters here, but I have been on some East Coast teams where half the boosters were nuts.
Singer: Your first ice time back after that would be with Verdun?
Sugden: Yeah. Actually, the day I got into Peoria I met my fiancé and when I got suspended for life I was going to go home but I ended up staying with her and one week turned into a few months and few years and so, that's how I sort of passed a year and 8 months in Peoria.
Singer: How did you wind up choosing the Q [currently known as the LNAH]?
Sugden: It was the only place I could play.
Singer: They the only ones who would let you get on the ice?
Sugden: They were the only ones that were not honoring the suspension.
Singer: Although not a completely different league now, it was even more of a fight-geared league just a few years ago. You had some battles with Patrick Cote which have been well-documented. Was it hard to get back first into the grind of playing at all? Were you skating during your time off and then, how hard was it to then get into a fight afterwards, especially, when it's expected of you in a league like that?
Sugden: Well, the year and eight months that I was off in Peoria, I did not lift one weight, and I think I put on the skates just once when I was drunk and I skated. The whole year and eight months I was smoking 2 packs a day and drinking to the point that I would fall down drunk every night. So, it was kind of hard to get back until I really got back to Toronto . My dad, who was a professional boxer and professional trainer of fighters, slowly got me back in shape. I was at the point when I first started, that I could not skate up the ice once before I was almost puking... Now, I do 5-mile runs in the summertime with him and he got me started on walking a hundred yards. I mean, I was in such bad shape that it took 6 months of this training before I could even step on the ice. And when I did, to tell you the truth, it felt like home. It felt so good to finally enter my first fight, my first shift in my first game in the Q I grabbed Cote not knowing that he was pretty much the toughest guy in the league with Link Gaetz, and I did well. We had a back and forth tilt and all the guys were really psyched so in my next shift I grabbed him again and we fought again and you're kicked out after the second fight in a game. If I knew that I'd have got a couple more shifts in, but it was good. You know, it was kind of like a welcome home party, fighting one of the toughest guys around two times in one game.
Singer: Now, word comes you also met up with Link Gaetz during that year and you mentioned him before as the tough guy you looked up to, but the word is you beat him fairly easily? Are there any other memories from that year that stick out for you?
Sugden: I think I fought Gaetz three times and the first fight I had, I don't know, I beat him but it wasn't a blow out. The second fight, we went toe to toe for about 20 seconds just lefts and rights, right and again, he used an upper cut and I thought my head came clean off and then we both just wrestled to the ground and that was one game.
The most memorable fight was the last fight I had with them in Granby . He couldn't come back to watch the game. The ambulance came, and I beat him to a pulp and he was split open everywhere and it just felt like ‘oh, you know what, I just beat the shit out of the toughest guy in this league! I'm not scared now of going and playing in the A and, you know, I guess I am as tough as some people think' which was good because I always doubted myself a little bit since I had not played in so long. Maybe I lost it in that year and 8 months in Peoria but I got a lot of practice.
Singer: More than one player has told me that a lot of fighting is confidence. How large a part do you think that plays when you step on the ice?
Sugden: Huge, huge. You got to have confidence. You see, the thing about fighting is, that it's all about hitting and not getting hit. Now, that's the two most important things about fighting and you got to make a punch miss you by just a hair. If you make it miss you by a foot, then¸ you're going to be way out of time and out of place to throw a counter-punch. So, if you're not confident enough in your eyes to make a punch miss you by a tad, then, you're going to make yourself miss too much, you're going to be off-balance. Confidence plays a huge part in fights.
Singer: That next year, the beginning of 03-04, Syracuse signed you to a PTO. How did that come about and how grateful were you to get that shot to get your career back on track?
Sugden: Oh…it was unbelievable. How I got the shot, I had no inkling about that.
Darren Ferris and Bobby Orr had been my agents forever and my dad was doing all the calling. He was calling people and talked to one gentleman and he told him that I should get over to Syracuse and if I got lucky the coach, Gary Agnew, who remembered me from the OHL would give me a chance and that they would sign me to a PTO, see how I did, and it worked. It felt great. I mean, it took a while because I was still suspended when the season started. I had to sit out 4 or 5 games and then, I had 41 fights that year and it went well.
Singer: You had what seems like a fierce rivalry with Sean McMorrow your first year there. You both went back and forth. Was this a personal rivalry after a couple of fights or was it just that you two kept meeting up on the ice and it was the right time, right place?
Sugden: Well, I think we played them about 13 times a year, with Rochester, and they are our biggest rivals. It just happened that I won't back down and neither will he, so we both like to fight. Well, he might like to hug, but I like to fight and it just so happened that that's the way it was. The first fight we had, I think I beat him and he was throwing punches and I was throwing punches and I connected a lot. After that, I think, 2 more times, he threw punches while the refs were in there, and then the bear hugging and the tightening sweaters and scratching on the face with his nails so I didn't like fighting him.
Singer: So, he's a bit of a dirty fighter, you'd say?
Sugden: I'd say. I mean, that was going around. I remember fighting Rob Skrlac in 04-05, and he said "I won't fight that kid [McMorrow] anymore and he scratched me in the face and he pulls my jersey, it's retarded." A bunch of players have said that so it's not just me.
Singer: Now, reputations like that, how fast do you think that spreads throughout the player community? Obviously, guys bump up and down between the E and the A and the NHL. Does everybody know each other beforehand?
Sugden: I do now, but I didn't when I came into the league. I mean, pretty much guys do know what other guys can do but you know, when I came into the league, I didn't know anybody. I mean, there were 2 guys that I fought before and it was hard in my first year to come in but now I know pretty much everybody and if there's a new guy, then, I'll read up on him on the internet on your site.
Singer: [Laughing] We do our best.
Sugden: Yeah, which is one of my number one favorites.
Singer: Thank you, man. Thank you.
Sugden: Read it everyday. Some of those punks don't know what they're talking about though.
Singer: I think that is the nature of the internet and any topic that comes up. When you came to camp in 2004-05, you looked bigger and stronger. You looked like you were in the best shape that you've been in. Was there anything different at the off season before 2004-05 that helped motivate you to get you into that kind of shape?
Sugden: I think it was the thought of being in the AHL. I worked out like a weight lifter. I didn't work out like a hockey player.
Well, I came in and I was a lot slower but, I mean I could fight like a mother fucker, knocking guys out left and right. I was 245 pounds and I was ripped because I was lifting like a weightlifter although I couldn't skate fast and I couldn't play well. You know, all I could do was fight. So, I had to change my training and the problem with that is when you change your training to be like a hockey player, a hockey player isn't always supposed to be big. Then you find a weight at which you're quick and that weight to me is about 225 to 230. I can't be 245 and be quick. So I had to chang mindset-wise, and change my training.
Singer: You started that season with a barrage of TKOs... it was like a TKO parade...
Sugden: I had 8 fights, 8 TKOs I think
Singer: McGrattan, Perrott, Robinson and Bonvie, I mean, how the hell did you feel after that? Did you feel invincible?
Sugden: I did.
Singer: What accounted for that? Was it your conditioning or was it just your mindset?
Sugden: It was how big I was. I was 245 pounds and I hit like I was 300 pounds. That was how it was and I just had so much upper body strength. I mean, look at a picture of me back then and I was a monster. I was huge. Right now, I'm 227 but I think I had one day, I came out, I was like 248 pounds. How big is that? And that was just with squats and dead lifts and but I couldn't do shit at practice. I was slow as hell but I could fight and knock guys out and that felt great
Singer: What you're saying is that eventually you have to give that up in order to play the game?
Sugden: Yeah. I mean, I was skating everyday. I think by Christmas I was down to 235. Just with skating. I mean, I did no cardio that summer., The next year, I'd do skating every day because there is an NHL and, you know, I can't play in NHL that slow. So, I came into camp this year, at 233 and by Christmas, I'm like 229. I did feel invincible at first for a while until my fight with Boogaard that is.
Singer: He was one of the few guys who gave you any trouble that year. What were your thoughts on him now that he's a steady NHLer? Does it help your motivation that you've encountered all these guys before and you've beat some and you've done well with others and many are in the NHL. Do you think, "hey, that means I can do it too"?
Sugden: Oh, yeah! I know that there is always going to be room for a fighter in NHL and no one's going to want to be pussyfooting around in European Hockey at least not Americans and Canadians. So, I know there's going to be room. I know I have to improve on some things but I do think I deserve to be in the NHL from what I have shown and what I can show. I am loving seeing guys that I fought and beat…and fought and lost to…be up in the show because I know I can be there too.
Singer: Who are some of the best guys that you've fought and have all of them gotten their shot yet in getting a chance to play in the NHL?
Sugden: Well I think one of the toughest pound for pound guys is Rocky Thompson. If he was 6'4", 220, he would be the all time king of all hockey world. I mean that kid is the toughest pound for pound guy that I have ever seen in my life. I have hit him with the hardest punches I have ever had when I was 245 pounds and it didn't even flinch him. He just kept on going and I couldn't believe it. I thought like ‘okay, he is going out with this one' and he just throws and hits me with six after that. So he is one of the best fighters I have ever fought. It is just too bad he is, you now, only slightly larger than 185 pounds.
Probably the toughest guy in the league would be Brian McGrattan. The last half of 2004-05, after he realized where to grab a guy, he was very tough to play against because he was so big and throws hard and he's got good balance.
Singer: Is that where you say he made the improvement, that he has figured out where to grab a guy?
Sugden: Yeah, he never realized where to grab. In our first fight of 2004-05, I dropped him and it's because he got me right in the middle and he couldn't stop my right hand. I think I fought him four times that year, and in the last three times, we had wars and it's because he grabbed me in the right spot and he was pulling me off balance with his left hand and that's what he's got to do. He's big, he's strong, he's got a huge reach. So, I think he's one of the best. Boogaard just for sheer size and punching power. I mean, he hit me with a club, his forearm in the back of my head, and dropped me on my face. I don't know what you can do with a guy that big, but he's one of the best.
Singer: Was 2004-05 a tougher year because of the NHL lockout and a lot of players willing to play in the A that year?
Sugden: Oh for sure. I mean, from that year to this year, you've got McGrattan gone, you've got Colton Orr gone, you got a bunch of others gone, like Boogaard. With all those guys in the league this year, it would have been a lot more interesting. You know, a lot more fighting majors, a lot more action.
Singer: With these new NHL rules and the emphasis on skills over toughness even more than before, do you feel that now the bar has been raised even higher than you thought it was before to be able to get to the NHL?
Sugden: Yeah, I do. But in a way, I don't, because every team needs a tough guy. So, I mean, if all tough guys are at a certain level, then that's all they can fix for. So you have to be fast, you have to be good to be able to be a tough guy and now, he is getting less ice than he would have any time before. For example, Jody Shelley was one of the better skilled tough guys yet he still only gets 4 or 5 minutes in the game. But every team needs one. Every team doesn't have one, but every team needs one and if they're only getting 5 or 6 shifts a game, I don't really think it makes that much of a difference on the skill because a tough guy has the same job and he's still only getting a little bit of ice.
Singer: Right now, Jody Shelley is the man above you with Columbus . What are your plans for making a jump to Columbus and do you expect to have some battles within this camp coming up?
Sugden: Well, I don't think that. They told us last camp that they didn't want us to fight or anything. They brought me in and they said that they didn't want me fighting any other guys either, said that they didn't want me hurting any of their players so, I said "okay no problem" and they said "there'll be enough fighting for you in the pre-season games" and I only had one. I tried to fight Andre Roy and I grabbed him in Pittsburgh and he turtled. That pissed me off.
Singer: Let's say you step up to the NHL. Do you think you would have to do something to make your mark? Is there anybody you would look for to try and test your skills out against?
Sugden: Laraque. Georges Laraque, Georges Laraque, Georges Laraque. I was talking to my father about coming up with a contract last summer, and I was like, can you please put in the contract that I'm guaranteed 2 games against Edmonton . I mean, what other way to make your name than to fight the toughest guy in the league?
Singer: You said you watch all the fights we put up on the site and obviously you think he is tops in a league right now. Who else would you consider a top NHL fighter?
Sugden: Well, one of my favorites for years and he has been up and down, not up and down in the league, but up and down fighting caliber-wise, and I still think he is top three is Eric Cairns. I think I fought him three times in one game when he was playing for Hartford and I was playing for Worcester in preseason and he beat the living shit out of me the first fight. I don't remember the next few fights but, I guess, my next shift I went out and grabbed him again and we had a meeting with a kind of even fight and then, the third fight, I went out and from what I heard, I beat him to a pulp but I don't remember…
Singer: You don't remember that?
Sugden: He cut me in half the first time. He was just so big, I never fought a guy that big before but I went back two other times. So, it worked but I have seen him play on TV and stuff and I think he's real wild.
Singer: You're well loved in Syracuse obviously and pretty comfortable there, but would you possibly go to a team that has an open spot for a tough guy? With Jody Shelley, as long as he is playing, it seems like they are going to keep him up in Columbus whereas another city, that might be your shot.
Sugden: Yeah, it's a double-edged sword in a way because I want to play in the show, that's the guarantee that has been given, and every kid does. But what I gotta look at is, let's say I sign with a team and I get sent down to the American League, then I have to stay in the American League, I have to start from scratch to get the same notoriety, the same love that I have from this town.
I don't know if I have anymore 40-fights seasons with the way my hands are going but I could probably do 30 and do well if I'm going to have to start from scratch in a whole different team and a whole different organization. I'd like to stay with Columbus and see if they'd give me my shot and I still believe that if Shelley does go down with an injury or if he gets traded I'll get my shot.
Singer: How do you feel about the rule in the NHL and the AHL where a player who picks up an instigator in the last five minutes of the game faces a suspension and their coach gets fined?
Sugden: I hate it! I got one of those last year.
Singer: How does your organization treat you? Did they say anything afterwards or does the coach get mad at you?
Sugden: No, because the coach told me that it was the best 500 bucks that he ever spent, I don't know what it was exactly but it was Darryl Bootland in Grand Rapids and Andrew Murray on our team who I don't think had a fight all year. He was a player, but not a fighter and I was at the other end of the ice. Bootland dropped the gloves with Murray and Murray dropped the gloves Bootland. Good thing to show Murray 's heart and everything but, I mean, I'm not going to take their fighter beating up one of our goal scorers. In that situation, I have to do that. It's a stupid rule because that obviously leaves room for idiots to pick fights or beat up on goal scorers and not have to worry about repercussions. I hate it when it's 3 minutes left in the game and it's like 6-0 and my fans are leaving the building. Back in the old days, my fans would all pile into the building at that time because they knew that's when all the fights were going to happen..
Singer: How would you compare the entertainment product between the different leagues you have played in? Since you've had some time in the ECHL and some time in the A, and you had the brief period where you were up in Quebec, obviously, they are all putting up something different. Do you feel like when you go out there on the ice, something different is expected of you?
Sugden: I'll tell you that preseason the NHL, was the easiest hockey I've ever played. You are playing with high caliber players and they're always in the right position and you just do your job and don't worry about anything else. If it's an easy game, it's quicker but it's a lot easier to play it there than it is in any other league. So, that was fun to play.
Singer: Did they catch you off guard? Were you surprised about that?
Sugden: Guys have told me that. Mark Hartigan is one of my best buddies down here and he always said that it's much easier to play up there because everybody is doing the right thing and I noticed that in preseason. Although half the team is rookies, they're still all in the same mindset. The hardest place to play is the Coast [ECHL]. The IHL was pretty fun too because we were all kind of older guys winding up their careers and the guys that had played in the show it really was a fun place. But no matter where I go I'm expected to give the same thing. I know what I'm supposed to do. It doesn't make any difference to my mindset in any league I go.
Singer: You mentioned the older guys in the I finishing out their careers. Has any other player taken you under his wing and been a mentor to you?
Sugden: There was a player, Aaron Kriss in Dayton . He was an older guy and a defenseman and he tried to show me the ropes and he was good. I still talk to him every once in a while. Obviously, everybody called him big brother and me little brother because we were always hanging around each other. He tried to bring me under his wing. Dwayne Roloson in my first year in Worcester, back when I used to drink a lot, at least three times a week, would sit me down and tell me that I should stop drinking.
Singer: What are some of your more memorable fights?
Sugden: I think it was my first year in Dayton, I got called up to the IHL in Cincinnati and then, I think I only played 6 or 7 games and I had like 56 penalty minutes. The first game we played was against Kansas City and Dody Wood was on the team and my first fight was on my first shift and I had a really good fight. In the second fight in the same game, I broke his nose and he didn't come back the rest of the night.
That was like a big thing and then the next game, we played against Kalamazoo and I fought Mel Angelstad. I fought him twice in that game and I beat him up the second fight and then, the next game was in Indianapolis and I fought Jeff Paul and Nathan Perrott and dropped Perrott with two punches. So, I had like 6 fights in 3 games and I shook up each guy and they were the toughest guys in the league. That was a big thing for me and weighing 170 pounds and drinking every day so that was a pretty cool thing when I came into the IHL.
Singer: Many players tire out after a few years of being a tough guy. You still seem to really enjoy your role?
Sugden: I do. I was a fighter before I was a hockey player. I started boxing when I was 6. I've always had it in my blood. My father was a fighter and my grandfather was a fighter and our whole line of blood has been fighters. So I like to and then, I know that you get tired of it. That's when I come back and play in the Quebec League till I'm 50. That's the cut off age: 51 and you're not allowed to play. So, I could keep fighting.
Singer: Do you think you'll play as long as you can, or do you plan on playing until you've either made the NHL or somebody tells you to stop?
Sugden: Well, I'll play until my body doesn't want me to play anymore and that's down to the fact that I have a clean liver, I don't drink, I don't stay up late and go to bars and. I did enough of that when I was younger for 10 people in my lifetime, in fact. I think that my body will be more resilient due to the fact that I'm not putting alcohol or crap in it.
Singer: You mentioned your fiancé before and now you're engaged. So, you got somebody to whip you in shape even more than your father now…
Sugden: She's one of the reasons that I stay clean. She doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, she doesn't want to go to bars. She keeps me straight and narrow which is good.
Singer: Does she get worried when you're out there drawing punches?
Sugden: Oh, you mean fighting? Now I don't think she really does…you don't mind me fighting do you? She says…no comment. I'll tell you when me and Crystal first started dating, in that year and eight months I think I got arrested six times in Peoria for assault. Me and her would be going out somewhere and some guy would say something and I'd get off and fight him and hit him two times and he'd fall down and be knocked out or whatever and it's easy fighting drunk guys who think they're tough at bars.
So, every fight I'd have, I'd drop a guy here, drop a guy there. Then when she came and watched me playing in Quebec and I had a couple of fights and she would watch them on videos and stuff and she said, "I don't know what's going on…I don't know if you were tougher in Peoria but when you had a fight in Peoria, you would hit a guy once and he'd fall down and in the league games, you're hitting them like some 15 times and they're still standing!" [With a laugh] It's easier to fight drunk guys who think they're tough than trained athletes.
All photos by: Andrea Roy, courtesy of brandonsugden.com
Thanks to a patient Sugar for his time.
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