NHL enforcer Todd Fedoruk fighting drug abuse

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VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) - As rain washed over him, Todd Fedoruk stumbled on the streets of Tampa in his latest haze, this one ignited by a concoction of booze and cocaine.

His secret, reckless lifestyle had fueled his transformation from NHL enforcer to a junkie hooked on cocaine and marijuana that threw his life and career into jeopardy. Fedoruk had been in this dark place before, believing he beat his addiction the first time with the same steely will he needed to scrape with the baddest bullies in the league to earn his keep in the NHL.

Yet here he was, back socializing with the wrong crowds, patronizing the seedy part of towns, hustling for whatever type of drugs he could abuse. On a rainy pre-dawn trip after the 2010 season, a disgraced Fedoruk had nowhere to hide.

“I didn’t want to drive anywhere because I was loaded,” he said. “I couldn’t stay in the house because I was paranoid. All the insanity came back.

“I knew everything was coming to an end. I didn’t care about hockey anymore. I didn’t care about my family. I was struck with this feeling of, how the hell did I get back here after everything I’ve been though? How the hell did I get back in this position again?”

He needed help. Drug addiction was not a disease he could fight alone.

Sitting in an NHL locker room, drinking a cup of coffee, Fedoruk now believes he’s one of the lucky ones. In a summer that has the NHL reeling from three chilling deaths of noted tough guys, Fedoruk is alive to share his story.

“A lot of guys in my role,” he said, “kind of carry these demons around with them.”

Guys like Derek Boogaard.

_____

The first time Fedoruk met Boogaard, they were teenage prospects in Regina, Saskatchewan. Fedoruk, four years older, saw a kid who couldn’t skate, couldn’t fight a lick, yet had already grown into his 200-plus-pound frame that would serve him well as one of the league’s top instigators.

Boogaard and Fedoruk would meet up again in the NHL under more unruly circumstances.

The first time they brawled in 2005 _ Boogaard with Minnesota and Fedoruk with Anaheim _ it resembled the scene out of one of those cartoon dust clouds. Each player got in shots, jerseys were yanked over heads, and helmets went flying before the officials broke it up.

On Oct. 27, 2006, they had the rematch. Boogaard threw a couple of jabs at Fedoruk’s face during what at first appeared just a replay between two men who made a living as guardians of the game.

Boogaard, though, ended the fight like it was Tyson-Spinks when he dropped Fedoruk with a punishing right hand. Fedoruk clutched his face and dropped to his knees before quickly popping back up and skating back to the locker room. Boogaard raised his arm in victory as he skated to the penalty box and an appreciative Wild crowd roared in approval.

Fedoruk needed five plates on the right side of his face to recover from the beating and missed 18 games. He returned to the lineup in December and kept fighting _ even after removing his face shield. Faces can always be repaired. Reputations as a soft player are harder to overcome in the rough-and-tumble NHL.

Even with titanium plates in his face, Fedoruk wasn’t about to fall off the wagon. He had been clean for nearly six years and had been scared straight when his first organization, the Philadelphia Flyers, ordered him to rehabilitation.

It wasn’t until Fedoruk found himself playing for Minnesota _ and formed an unlikely alliance _ that the sober ship started to steer off course.

The Wild claimed Fedoruk off waivers in 2007 and assigned him a conjoined stall with Boogaard. Boogaard dressed to the immediate right of his one-time victim. Fedoruk eased tension in the locker room among his new teammates with humor.

“I said I didn’t feel comfortable with him on my right side. I asked if he wanted to switch stalls,” Fedoruk said. “He chuckled and he laughed at it. It was kind of an icebreaker.”

The pairing also started a budding friendship.

Boogaard apologized repeatedly to his friend through the years for the attack and the duo became late-night running buddies. They were roommates and vacationed together. They forged a bond based on a common background, common goals _ and a shared knack of self-destructive behavior.

Boogaard carried those demons Fedoruk described and partied hard. Fedoruk went harder. He relapsed during the 2006-07 season and plummeted deeper into the abyss of addiction each year, hitting a peak in Minnesota, even as he knew Boogaard was battling his own personal troubles.

“I don’t think we were good for each other,” Fedoruk said. “We had a common ‘misery loves company’ type of relationship. I remember always talking to him about being careful.

“But it was the pot calling the kettle black because I was messed up, too.”

As Fedoruk bounced from Phoenix to Tampa Bay, he stayed in touch with Boogaard. He heard Boogaard was in rehabilitation and reached out to his troubled friend, hoping he could offer the type of advice he was longing for through his own journey.

It was too late. Fedoruk talked to Boogaard’s brother, but that was as close as he got to Boogey.

Boogaard was found dead in May due to an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone. His death gave Fedoruk the kind of scare he wouldn’t get on his loneliest, drug-addled nights. It could have been him.

“I was doing,” Fedoruk said, “the exact same things.”

_____

With his blond hair, blue eyes and good-natured personality, Fedoruk could pass as the All-American boy if you didn’t know he was from western Canada. Fedoruk was raised in Redwater, Alberta, a small farming community where hockey was the only way for him to escape boredom. He beams as he talks about skating down roads to three rinks created in empty lots for the neighborhood kids. How fathers competed to create the best rink _ his dad affixed lights to metal poles _ so kids could stay outside and play hockey through the winter chill all night long.

As he got older, there were more hazardous ways to pass the time than with a stick and puck.

He remembers being 14 or 15 years old, hanging with a group of older teens when he got drunk for the first time. A shy kid, Fedoruk was suddenly the center of attention. His social fears and anxieties evaporated one sip at a time. His idea of an alcoholic was some bum under a bridge with a brown bag in his hands, not a blossoming hockey star with his eyes on the NHL.

“What booze did for me at that age, I fell in love with it instantly,” Fedoruk said. “What I felt that night stayed with me forever. I had found a new friend. And it was alcohol.”

He could have used a more pious sidekick. Fedoruk’s drinking increased and he spent a night in jail at 19 because of a bar fight directly related to his alcohol consumption.

Fedoruk moved on to harder partying and later nights. His drinking morphed from casual fun to an addiction. That didn’t prevent him from getting drafted. The Flyers made him a seventh-round pick in the 1997 draft.

What drinking did was halt his promotion to the NHL. He was out of control at 20 when the Flyers gave him an ultimatum: Get help or he’d be sent packing.

Fedoruk did what he could to salvage his career and got clean. He checked in to Marworth in Waverly, Pa., for alcohol and chemical dependency treatment. He was admitted for a 28-day stay, but was let out after only 17 days.

Fedoruk always felt like he didn’t fit in and was socially awkward around people. At Marworth, he found answers and ways to cope that didn’t involve hitting the bottle.

For almost six years, he found a new friend in sobriety. He was promoted to Philadelphia and played 53 games as a rookie. He played four seasons with the Flyers, then won a championship with their AHL team during the lockout.

His best years, personally and professionally, were sober. Fedoruk met his wife _ they wed after a Flyers practice _ and had their first had child when he was clean.

He was traded to Anaheim and had the gritty forward career year in 2005-06 with 23 points in 76 games.

And he never refused a fight.

Fedoruk underwent surgery in November 2003 after a fight with Eric Cairns of the New York Islanders left him with a broken face. He was clobbered by New York Rangers enforcer Colton Orr in 2007, caught with a hard right against his reconstructed left cheek that sent him down and out on his back. Surgeons implanted a small, permanent titanium plate in Fedoruk’s upper cheekbone to stabilize the orbital structure.

Fedoruk couldn’t maintain his straight-and-sober lifestyle for much longer.

He was just a young, rich athlete having a good time in a sport where alcohol is about as ingrained as nets and pads. That’s not milk champions swig out of the Stanley Cup.

Eventually, his run of good fortunate collapsed again.

“I always told myself, as long as you’re not doing coke,” he said, “it’s not going to be that bad.”

But there was more coke.

_____

Fedoruk says he lived three lifestyles.

One as a brawling hockey player who upheld a code of conduct, one as a devoted family man, and one as a relapsed drug addict who secretly prowled the streets for his next big score. There was no trigger point, no defining incident that sent his life spiraling back out of control. He simply says he lost focus on the big picture of how to maintain his sobriety.

He wanted to be the life of the party.

“I was loud, somewhat obnoxious,” he said. “It was always, let’s go, let’s keep it going. It was 6 a.m. and I was looking for people to wake up and keep going.”

Fedoruk insisted fighting and years of absorbing blows was not the sole reason he returned to drugs. He had money and some fame and couldn’t handle the fine line between needing a weekend binge and falling into the deep end of addiction.

“I wanted that oblivion. That’s what I craved, that escape,” he said. “With being sober, everything is real. You’ve got to deal with (stuff).”

He’s had to cope with the offseason deaths of Boogaard and enforcers Wade Belak and Rick Rypien. Belak hanged himself and Rypien was discovered at his home in Alberta after a call was answered for a “sudden and non-suspicious” death.

Like Fedoruk, all three prided themselves on answering the bell for the next fight.

“Could the pressure of fighting make you want to pick up? Yeah, I think that can be a trigger,” Fedoruk said. “I think it is a trigger. For me, it was. You just want to forget about having to fight the guy. You line up against a guy like Boogey, God rest his soul, but he’s 267. He’s a big man. You think about that a week before you fight him.”

After some soul searching in April 2010 following the rainy Tampa meltdown, Fedoruk felt worthless and turned to rehabilitation for a second time. In this stint, he completed a 28-day intensive outpatient program at Turning Point of Tampa.

Fedoruk calls April 26, 2010 his sobriety date _ and a not a day too soon.

“Everything you put in front of me,” he said, “I did.”

Even with cocaine in his system, Fedoruk said he never failed a drug test. He also said he never took hard drugs with other NHL players.

Fedoruk entered the NHL/NHL Players’ Association Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, which he knows helped save him. He truly believed the league cared about the physical and mental health of its players.

His wife, who could have bolted so many times, stuck by him. Fedoruk took a self-imposed sabbatical from the game last season and put his health and family life in order. The couple celebrated the birth of their third child, and his break made him realize how much he wanted to play again.

Fedoruk had 97 points and 1,050 penalty minutes in 545 NHL games with six teams over nine seasons. His agent let teams know Fedoruk was primed for a comeback and he signed a tryout contract with the Vancouver Canucks in August.

Assistant general manager Laurence Gilman said the Canucks did their homework and had a candid conversation with Fedoruk about his ordeal. The Canucks found a player who loved the game and had his priorities in order.

“We felt it was worth it to give this person an opportunity,” Gilman said. “If he comes to camp and performs well, and fits in with our group, he’ll have every opportunity to make our team.”

If Fedoruk makes the roster, he’ll keep throwing punches if that’s what it takes stay in the league.

“If he plays here,” Gilman said, “we expect him to play in the same manner.”

_____

In the weeks leading into mid-September training camp, the 32-year-old Fedoruk frequently trained at the Flyers‘ practice facility in Voorhees, N.J. Drug abuse or not, a year off for any reason can be fatal to a 30-something athlete, and Fedoruk needs all the work he can to make a team fresh off a run to the Stanley Cup finals.

He knows questions about his hockey abilities are a distant second to ones about maintaining his sobriety. Fedoruk calls it a “healthy fear” that he could relapse and vows to take the necessary steps to prevent one in Vancouver.

He wanted to share his story before camp because he’s tired of keeping secrets, and to maybe help the next Fedoruk _ and prevent the next Boogaard.

“There is help out there. There is a way out,” Fedoruk said. “It’s just getting to the point where you can say, all right, I give up. I’m done. I don’t want to fight this fight anymore.”

He keeps a close circle of sober friends now and, while not becoming an overbearing born-again, more frequently attends church.

His confidence and a healthy lifestyle have been restored and he understands the daily maintenance needed to live the rest of his life without succumbing again to drugs.

“I don’t want to relapse again,” he said, “I know that much.”

___

Dan Gelston can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/apgelston

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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