IN THE SECONDS before goalies Rick DiPietro and Brent Johnson fought on that fateful February night two years ago, in the instant before they grabbed each other's jerseys and cocked their fists, DiPietro was, by most measures, the more fortunate of the two. He was the first-round draft pick, the future of the Islanders, the owner of an impossibly secure 15-year, $67.5 million contract. Johnson was the aging backup for the Penguins, his sixth organization, earning $600,000 season by tenuous season. Only Johnson had spent sleepless nights wondering whether he'd played his last NHL game; only he knew how it felt to be sent down. But then Johnson threw a single punch, a leveler. And everything that was true before that fight would not be true after.
This morning Johnson is eating strawberry crepes at a bakery outside Pittsburgh. He'd arrived in a spotless black Jaguar. Although he is not playing hockey at the moment -- he struggled last season and couldn't find a postlockout contract -- he still looks like a hockey player, lean and put together. At 36 he looks like the end game of best-laid plans.
Last night, a world and 471 miles away in Hartford, Conn., DiPietro, 31, returned to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, having been demoted to the AHL, a move that was somehow both shocking and inevitable at the same time. In his past five injury-filled seasons, he'd won just 14 games. Slump-shouldered and drawn, he'd told a reporter that he felt as though the Islanders had ripped out his heart; he went on to allow five goals on 12 shots and was pulled after the first period. "The Fight" might remain his most public humiliation, more than a million views on YouTube and counting, but now it had some competition.
Johnson remembers that night in 2011 with adrenaline's clarity. From the other end of the rink, he thought he saw DiPietro clothesline Pittsburgh winger Matt Cooke. The play was whistled. Johnson looked up at the scoreboard. The Penguins were winning 3-0; there were just 16.5 seconds left on the clock. For a guy looking to hold on, maybe a scrap wouldn't hurt his locker room reputation. "A perfect storm," Johnson calls it. He hollered at DiPietro, and DiPietro nodded.
In his long rush up the ice, Johnson flashed back to his first (and, until then, only) professional hockey fight. It was 11 years earlier, when he played for the Worcester IceCats, and he'd fought a big Canadian goalie named Patrick DesRochers of the Springfield Falcons. "It felt like his fist filled my whole face," Johnson says. DesRochers cut him with a wild left, and the scar over his eye remains a permanent reminder of lessons learned. When Johnson closed in on the lefthanded DiPietro, he was ready. In fact, he made up his mind to open with a surprise left of his own.
An incredulous DiPietro was still flat on his back when he pointed up at Johnson: "Are you a lefty?" Both men knew that damage had been done, each having experienced polar vantages of a face giving way. Johnson shook his head and patted DiPietro twice on the stomach. "F-- ," DiPietro said then, before he missed six weeks of hockey waiting for his fractures to heal. "Just one of those things," Johnson says today. It was just one punch out of the thousands thrown that season, in 645 NHL fights. It was just one more collision in a sport and a universe that sees millions of them.
By then Johnson had already mastered the hard art of acceptance. He had to. Backup goalies aren't masters of their own destinies. He doesn't especially want to be remembered best for a fight -- "I'd rather be remembered as a good goalie, as a good guy" -- but he knows that like so much of an athlete's life, how it ends was never really up to him.
We can't know how DiPietro's own career and life might have played out differently had it never included Johnson or his accumulation of what-ifs -- if those 16.5 seconds had just ticked away, if Patrick DesRochers hadn't thrown that scarring left, if Johnson had gone with his right. Maybe those six lost weeks would have changed everything. Maybe they would have changed nothing. These are this winter's only certainties: Brent Johnson is going to escape with his wife and young daughter to Disney World; Rick DiPietro will earn millions to play hockey in Bridgeport.
And it will be harder to tell than ever before: Who is the lucky one?