Yes, I know it’s August and that the heat is causing squirrels all across Metro Detroit to spontaneously explode into flames. But as any Detroit Red Wings fan will tell you, any time is the right time to talk hockey. And when talk drifts around to some of the great enforcers of the recent past, one name invariably pops up alongside those of Bob Probert and Joey Kocur: Stu Grimson. Or, as Bob Strumm, general manager of the Regina Pats, dubbed him: “The Grim Reaper.”
What always intrigued me about Grimson was how utterly different his public and private personas were. His macabre nickname—one of the bestest of all-time, I say—continues to conjure up visions of some kind of Terminator-like figure dispensing justice and retribution all over the ice, a scythe instead of a stick in hand, a black shroud billowing in the slipstream. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Grimson was indeed a menacing presence at left wing during his 13 National Hockey League seasons, a small chunk of which—April 1995 through October 1996—was spent with the Wings. In 68 regular season games in Detroit, Stu tallied one point, which, to put this production into some kind of perspective, was exactly one point more than Budd Lynch would have scored playing with his only arm tied behind his back. However, Scotty Bowman hadn’t gotten Grimson from Anaheim for his scoring knack, though The Grim Reaper did surprise everyone by popping in a goal—his first and only career playoff tally—against Chicago in the ’95 conference finals.
Off the ice, ordinary citizens had nothing to fear. Truth be known, The Grim Reaper was more The Erudite Pugilist, happy to talk in an intelligent, personable fashion about such matters as faith, family, the stock market, and other non-sports stuff. He’d even offer some insight into his role as an enforcer, probably the crummiest job in all of sports, though you could tell his heart was never really in it. He admitted his family wasn’t too crazy about his nickname, but he’d grown indifferent to it. “I’ve always felt that the harder you fight a nickname, the tougher it is to shake,” he said. “So it’s nothing I do a lot to promote and it’s nothing I do a lot to stifle. I just accept it.”
Stu once obligingly detailed a battle he’d had with Edmonton’s Dennis Bonvie that was fascinating in its High Noon ritualism. Here were Bonvie, a tough youngster eager to make his reputation, and Grimson, the weary shootist with more notches than he cared to count, shoulder-to-shoulder on the edge of the faceoff circle. As Stu recalled, the conversation went something like this:
BONVIE: You wanna go?
GRIMSON (shrugging): It’s your call, kid.
BONVIE: It’s up to you.
GRIMSON: Well, one thing’s not going to happen. You’re not going to shake your gloves off and jump me.
BONVIE: No, no. We’ll stand back.
GRIMSON (politely): Well, that’s fine then. Let’s go.
After that it was a page out of Action Comics—BAM!! POW!! SOCK!! OOF!!—and then both fellows skated over to their respective penalty boxes for a well-deserved five-minute rest. “It was all very cordial and businesslike,” Stu said.
Grimson actually improved as a scorer after leaving Detroit, but fans were more interested in his to-be-continued battles with such NHL heavyweights as Probert, Randy McKay, and Georges Laraque. His rivalry with New Jersey’s Krzysztof Oliwa was the very embodiment of good vs. evil: Grimson, a big guy who had found peace in accepting The Really Big Guy as his personal savior (“Jesus is no wimp,” Stu liked to say), going toe-guard-to-toe-guard with “The Polish Hammer” of the, ahem… Devils. Perfect.
In his last years with Nashville, Grimson began to suffer some ill effects from the 2,000-plus penalty minutes he had accumulated, including blacking out during one fight. Thankfully, he got out of hockey in 2002 before his gray matter turned into cotton candy. Stu, who was originally drafted by the Wings in 1983 but chose to study economics for two years at the University of Manitoba instead, finished his degree and went on to law school. He’s now an attorney in Nashville, where he lives with his wife, Pam, and their four children. “You have to think,” he once told me, “not just blindly swing away.” Good advice, no matter what the season or situation.