The Detroit Red Wings have had many popular enforcers that have included Howie Young, Bryan Watson, Bob Probert, Stu Grimson, and Darren McCarty. One of the most popular with the fans was Joey Kocur.
Drafted in 1983 by the Wings as the 88th overall pick, the Saskatchewan farm boy along with teammate Bob Probert formed the “Bruise Brothers,” as they became two of the fiercest and most penalized enforcers in NHL history. In his first full season in 1985-1986, Kocur led the league in penalty minutes with 377, breaking the team record.
Job was to protect Yzerman
“Our role was to help protect Steve Yzerman, Petr Klima and the other skilled players but at times when our team needed a boost we would try and create some excitement by winning a fight,” Kocur told me in a wide-ranging interview two years ago.
“When Bob and I fought there was a lot of excitement. Honestly, we kind of felt like rock stars. We did what the Detroit fans wanted us to do. We were real blue-collar players and it was a pretty great time for us. I enjoyed answering the bell, winning a fight, and protecting my teammates. I didn’t fight just to fight. It was always team related.”
Known for his devasting right hand that shattered teeth and helmets, the right wing engaged in 219 fights over his 15-year career. He ranks second behind Bob Probert in team history with 1,963 penalty minutes.
Kocur explained his fighting technique:
“I would get a hold of my opponent’s jersey up near his right shoulder with my left hand where I could control him like a lever and move him wherever I wanted to. I would pull the guy into me and when it was time to punch, I would just start throwing my right hand and create as much force as possible. I had to be able to take a punch to use the technique I used.
“But I had to be careful that I didn’t miss because if he hit me and I went down it would be embarrassing as all hell. With hockey fights sometimes it’s trial and error. You try something and it works, great. And if it doesn’t, you get a bloody nose. Bob and I met a couple of times with Emmanuel Steward (famed boxing manager) and he showed us some things and gave us a motivational boost. But fighting on skates while holding onto your opponent is totally different from boxing.”
In an unpopular trade, Kocur was dealt to the New York Rangers in March of 1991 where he won a Stanley Cup in 1994 before being sent to Vancouver two years later. He was released and ended up playing in a beer league and for the Red Wing Alumni team later. He was signed by the Wings in December of 1996 in an effort to end the team’s 42-year-old Stanley Cup drought.
The Famous Grind Line
As a member of the first “Grind Line” with Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, (after the 1998 season Darren McCarty replaced Kocur on the line) the threesome played a key role in helping the Wings win consecutive Stanley Cup Championships in 1997 and 1998.
Kocur’s improbable return to the Wings in December of 1996 is right out of a Hollywood script. Here’s what he said:
“I always wanted to play for the Wings again. I was out of a job, playing in a local beer league and with the Red Wing Alumni team. Bob Probert was with Chicago and I said to him before a game against the Wings, ‘why don’t you kick the crap out of them and maybe they’ll realize they’ll need an intimidator’. Bob obliged and the following day there was an article about how the Wings needed to get tougher. I later learned that my friends at Art Moran Pontiac, Jerry Vought and Bob Moran had kept telling Scotty Bowman, who was a customer, that the Wings should sign me. In my second game back, we were in Chicago and I started a fight with Bob Probert. At the end of it I was on top of him and said, ‘Thanks buddy for getting me back in the league’. He said, ‘no problem.’ Years later when we were being interviewed for the book, The Bruise Brothers, he asked me why I had started that fight. I told him that I had to because they signed me to help protect the others. There were never any hard feelings between us.”
Kocur remains grateful that coach Scotty Bowman gave him an opportunity.
“By placing me on the line with Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, Scotty gave me the opportunity for the first time to be on a regular shift,” Kocur said. “He allowed me to be a total hockey player and not just an enforcer. Kris, Kirk, and I trusted each other and we had a lot of fun.”
Kocur said that the most memorable goal of his career took place in Game One of the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals when the Wings swept the Philadelphia Flyers to win the title.
“Maltby scored the first goal in the first period, and I also scored when I intercepted a pass and put a back hand shot past Ron Hextall. Considering the circumstances, it was the most memorable goal of my career. The crowd really enjoyed seeing the Grind Line score once in a while. Scotty also had our line on the ice for the last minute when we won the Cup, and that was very special.”
A hernia suffered in the first half of the 1998-1999 season and subsequent surgery led to an attempted comeback before undergoing extensive rehabilitation while sitting out the entire 1999-2000 campaign. In October of 2000, Kocur retired but was retained as a video coordinator under Bowman. In that capacity he won another Cup as a member of the Detroit organization. The following season he served as an assistant coach to Dave Lewis.
Kocur later coached youth hockey and established a sales business: the KocuRoss Group in Auburn Hills. He serves as president of the Joe Kocur Children’s Foundation, the president of the Detroit Red Wings Alumni Association, and is an Honorary co-spokesperson for the Ted Lindsay Foundation.