The legend of Link

Gaetz gets a grip on fatherhood with son Quinn. Ron Levine

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 24, 2003, issue. Subscribe today!

WHATEVER HAPPENED to Link Gaetz? Every now and then, in locker rooms from Juniors all the way up to the NHL, you hear that question. And when the answer comes, a shocked response invariably follows: "You mean, he's still playing?" By which is meant: "You mean, he's still alive?" Like other menaces from the great North -- Big Foot, the Abominable Snowman, socialized medicine -- Gaetz inspires the kind of incredulous terror that makes you glad he's not in your hometown. Not to say that he won't soon be, or wasn't recently. As with all legends, Gaetz lives a now-you-see-him, now-you-don't existence. He is the grim Waldo of hockey, the fourth Hanson brother, with a drinking problem and a penchant for disappearing acts. Gaetz has played for at least 24 teams over the past 16 years and has been kicked off a good number of them, sometimes even banned from entire leagues. A menacing 6'3", 240 pounds when he's in shape, and a scarier 270 when he's not, the 35-year-old Gaetz has sent scores of players to the hospital and spent countless nights in jail. He is, by the account of anyone who's ever played against or with him, the meanest and scariest hockey player ever paid to skate.

How mean? Nick Fotiu, a premiere NHL brawler during his 13-year career, coached Gaetz for a year with the East Coast Hockey League's Nashville Knights. "In practice, I used to tell the goalies to let him score," says Fotiu, now an assistant coach with the American Hockey League's Hartford Wolfpack. "I'd tell players not to take the puck from him. If they did, he'd run them. I've seen him crosscheck kids in practice and knock them cold. I've seen him put people out with one punch. He'd win fights and wouldn't stop. I'd have to yell, 'No more!'"

How scary? Four years ago, in Miramichi, New Brunswick, police found the battered form of a huge miner whom Gaetz had pummeled and tossed into a snowbank. A local who knew both assailant and assailed has this to say: "They were drinking and got into a car together, and the guy thought he could tell Link a thing or two. Well, I'll tell you what. If you're gonna shoot your mouth off with Link, you're gonna get it shut. That lad got his face dismembered. He looked like he was wearing a halloween mask."

There are dozens of Link Gaetz stories like this. Some are told by the man himself, others by friends, still more by those who bear witness to the consequences of running into Gaetz at the wrong time. Wherever he's gone -- from Nashville to Mexico City to Anchorage -- Gaetz has blazed a trail of police records, broken bones and tall tales.

Whatever happened to Link Gaetz? Depending on which gossip nugget, web rumor or hockey-world buzz you believe, the answer might (or might not) be:

He is playing for a team in Saskatchewan. (No, he's been run out of town, banned from just about every bar or tavern in a 35-mile radius.)

He is playing in Quebec for a team called Les Paramedics. (No, he was released last year.)

He is stranded in Mexico City, after the minor league Toreros folded like a cheap taco. (No, he's playing for a senior league in Quebec.)

Gaetz, in fact, leaves as many false leads behind as he does victims, and it's only after days of inquiry that his actual whereabouts can be verified. He's playing (for the moment, anyway) for the Trois Rivieres Vikings of the Quebec Major Senior Hockey League.

Oh, and -- is this possible? -- He's sober, engaged and a father.

LINK GAETZ stands outside the locker room in the Trois Rivieres Coliseum, a dank dungeon reeking of cigarettes and sweat. He looms at the end of a dark corridor, with blond hair like prairie grass and legs that look as if they could support an overpass. He has a red scratch in the white of his left eye, and tangle of scars under blond chin stubble. He stares at a trainer, discussing an ice bucket. The trainer listens with undivided attention.

"I'll need that ice in the penalty box," Gaetz says. "As soon as I fight, I've got to throw my hands in." He holds up two huge hands, knuckles all banged up. "They hurt like hell," Gaetz says moments later. "This is my last season unless I can find a new pair."

The game is about to start, Gaetz's first after his preseason suspension for two-handing a player in the legs. "I'll probably have to fight Serge Roberge," he says. "He's a friend and I hate fighting friends, but ..."

He didn't have to be a goon. Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, a seven-time All-Star defenseman, played with Gaetz in San Jose during the 1991-92 season. "Link was big and strong and he could really move," says Wilson. "He probably had the hardest shot in the league. Comparing him to Derian Hatcher is quite fair." Fotiu agrees: "He should be one of the top 10 defensemen in the NHL right now."

On draft day in 1988, Gaetz was picked in the second round by the Minnesota North Stars. He'd been in a bar fight the night before and showed up with two black eyes. "In the first round we drafted Mike Modano to protect the franchise," says Lou Nanne, then the general manager of the Stars. "In the second round we drafted Link to protect Mike. In the third we should've drafted a lawyer to protect Link."

He could have used one. Tony Twist, who parlayed his fists into a 10-year NHL career, remembers Gaetz from their minor league days, especially a night in Brainerd, Minn. "Link got hold of a motorcycle and a pistol," Twist says. "The bike ran out of gas and he started walking. He passed a church, shot out the stained glass windows. He was disappointed because he was aiming for the bell." Result: arrest for carrying a firearm without a permit, conviction for disorderly conduct and three days in jail.

Then there was the time when Twist's Peoria Rivermen hosted Gaetz's Kalamazoo Wings. Twist was heading home when he noticed a smashed TV in front of the hotel Continental Regency and a hole in a fourth-floor window. Depending on whom you believe, Gaetz was either upset that he'd been thrown out of practice (the police version) or annoyed that his window wouldn't open (Link's version).

Most Gaetz stories have that twist of odd humor. Once, while collecting a $900 debt from an old roommate, Gaetz stole the man's TV. When the cops arrived, one officer asked Link if he'd also left a Mr. Hankey on his ex-roommate's bed. Yes, Gaetz answered. "I pissed on his couch, too." That's classic Gaetz. He always seems to produce (or inspire) the line that caps a Link story, what a writer would invent if it didn't already exist. It's generally taken as a sign of his intelligence. "I'd love to get his IQ tested," Fotiu says, admiringly.

That's another odd thing about Gaetz. He inspires loyalty, even affection. He has enemies, sure, but a surprising number of people say the scariest guy in hockey is a good friend. This may have to do with Gaetz's one obvious weak spot: kids. Steve MacSwain, Gaetz's teammate on the Anchorage Aces, recalls how moved he was when gaetz sent his young son, who was fighting cancer, a pair of teddy bear slippers for Christmas. And a journalist in Miramichi remembers that Gaetz was an impossible interview, but a kid seeking an autograph could have all the time in the world.

Gaetz played for two years in the Stars system, coming up to the NHL for 17 games and fighting some of the league's heaviest hitters, like the Red Wings' Bob Probert and Joey Kocur. Tapes of those matches are still collected by fans. Taken by San Jose in the 1991 expansion draft, he immediately became the town's favorite Shark. Ken Arnold, publicity director for the team, remembers Gaetz being mobbed by Cow Palace fans before a preseason game. Valerie Wood, who wrote a 2002 novel (Enforcer) based on a player like Gaetz, was in that mob. "He was so good-looking," Wood says. "Tall, blond, handsome. He had this mystique. He was exciting. Every shift you kept an eye on him, waiting to see what might happen."

What might have happened and what did became two separate stories on April 2, 1992, when Gaetz was thrown from the passenger seat of a Camaro driven by a friend, Patrick Bell. Bell, later charged with driving under the influence, had lost control on an off-ramp at 80 mph. Gaetz arrived at the Peninsula hospital with back and facial injuries, and was semicomatose for eight days. His mother, Sonja Koskinen, flew down from Vancouver to hear doctors say her son might die. His brain stem had been injured, and Gaetz awoke with his left side partially paralyzed and no memory of the accident.

He left the hospital after six weeks. Over the next two months, he worked with therapists to regain movement and speech, and he confounded doctors by returning to the ice late that summer, skating twice daily.

It would have been a miraculous comeback story if Gaetz had had as much success with his drinking as he did his injuries. He was arrested and convicted for drunk driving that fall, and the Sharks traded him to the Oilers. Not for the last time, Gaetz had used up his reservoir of goodwill. "I'm just throwing my hands up in the air," Sharks general manager Dean Lombardi said at the time. Gaetz never played in the NHL again. At 23, he morphed into a minor league lifer, signed and dropped by three teams over the next two seasons before landing in Nashville in 1994. "I could handle him when I was around," Fotiu says. "But out of my sight, anything could happen." Anything in a pattern: Gaetz would get drunk and wreak havoc, and Fotiu would have to rush to the scene. Once, after a night of partying, Gaetz took a house full of terrified Knights players hostage, his only weapon the sheer force of his personality. Fotiu was called, and Gaetz opened the door with a beer in his hand. "I said, 'C'mon, Link, let's call it a night,' " Fotiu says. "So I grabbed the bottle out of his hand, and Link blew. We went toe-to-toe in the living room. Tumbling over couches, the whole bit. Finally, the cops showed and took him away. Five in the morning, he comes over to my house and wants to fight. I say no. Eight o'clock, he comes back. He wants to go to breakfast."

After Nashville, Gaetz's itinerary continued to read like a Spinal Tap tour gone wrong: Cape Breton (in Nova Scotia), San Antonio, Mexico City, Madison, San Francisco, Anchorage, Toledo, Fresno, Eston (Saskatchewan), Miramichi and Saguenay (Quebec). Playing for the San Antonio Iguanas in 1995, Gaetz was tossed in jail after yet another brawl. The next morning, the female judge asked his name. "It's right there on the card you're holding," Gaetz said. Annoyed, the judge set bail at $10,000. "Why don't you make it $100,000, bitch?" Gaetz said. She did, and Gaetz spent 10 days in the slammer.

Although he could fill arenas with his fighting, Gaetz was running out of teams that would gamble on his absences, escapades and erratic behavior. As he moved farther North, the teams and leagues got smaller and smaller. Then, a year and a half ago, Gaetz was stopped for a traffic violation in Woodstock, New Brunswick, and cops discovered a warrant for that incident with the miner in Miramichi. He split the next four months in two New Brunswick prisons, where he got into six fights, one against three inmates. On probation, he's not even allowed back in the States until 2007.

THE QUEBEC Major Senior Hockey League is where goons go to die. Ex-NHL enforcers like Gaetz, Roberge and Patrick Cote get paid to play and fight, guaranteeing the crowd a few marquee matchups every game. When the Trois Rivieres Vikings acquired Gaetz, they immediately started selling 400 more tickets a night, real money in a 3,000-seat arena.

During warmups, Gaetz skates in lazy circles. His shots are cream puffs. The hard shooter Doug Wilson knew is nowhere to be found, lost to indifference and years of abuse and neglect. Then again, Gaetz is not here to shoot.

In the first period, he dispatches his first victim, fist-fodder named Dannick Lessard, whose day job is security guard and whose nose gushes like a spigot, drenching Gaetz's jersey. Almost as soon as Link is out of the penalty box, he's at it again with Roberge. Each flails with desperation, and Roberge catches Gaetz hard on the chin. Both go down clutching jerseys. Not a pretty sight.

After the game, Gaetz, in jeans and a red t-shirt, goes to the front office to pick up his cash. He's reluctant to talk about salary, but fighters like him in a league like this might get $1,000 a night. Later, at a pizzeria, Gaetz politely asks the waitress for a soft drink as he examines his life. Okay, examines is a stretch. Gaetz isn't very introspective. His four-month prison stretch was "the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "It taught me that I never want to go to jail again." He's doing his best not to drink, and he's alternately excited and hesitant to talk about the side of himself he calls "the animal show." He confirms some stories, claims he can't remember others. All he's sure of is that the best things that ever happened to him are jail, sobriety, Jennifer (his fiancee) and Quinn (his 4 1/2-month-old son). After an adulthood spent mostly in hotels, Gaetz has settled with his family in Riviere du Loup. All of a sudden, life is good. "My boy is such a wonder," he says. "I just hope he doesn't have my genes." Then, after reminding his dinner companion to tip the waitress, Link Gaetz disappears into the night.

Later that week, he is traded again, to Le Promutuel, another team in rural Quebec.

At least that's what we hear.

Bryant Urstadt is the features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.

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