NHL tough guys salute UFC fighters
Riley Cote was a long way from home and even further from the NHL.
He had landed a job with the Memphis Riverkings in the Central Hockey League after going undrafted out of junior and was about to make a decision that would change his life. He turned himself into a fighter.
Soon Cote climbed the ranks to the ECHL and American Hockey League, dropping the gloves as often as possible along the way. But he needed to do something more to take the next step. So he added to his off-season training regimen.
“I dabbled with mixed martial arts and Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” said Cote, a native of Winnipeg. “I did that for training and conditioning, getting my hands going.
“I'm just trying to get an edge. I'm going to do the most I can to keep my job and be the best at my job.”
Cote ended up earning a spot in the Philadelphia Flyers lineup last fall. He fought 24 times during his first full NHL season, second in the league.
Cote put in the hard work last summer at New Jersey Martial Arts in Maple Shade, N.J. He'll be back there again in the coming months trying to improve his stamina and strength. Training with mixed martial artists has given him a deep appreciation for the sport.
“If you step into a cage, you've got some serious balls,” said Cote. “That's a whole new level. Those guys are serious athletes in tremendous shape. You've got to give all the props in the world to those guys.”
It's a sentiment shared by many of the toughest players in the NHL.
The growth of the UFC has earned the sport many fans in dressing rooms around the league. It's also earned MMA fighters a lot of respect from NHLers.
“Even the worst UFC fighter that there is would beat me because of their training,” said Pittsburgh Penguins enforcer Georges Laraque. “It's so much harder than anything I've ever seen.
“I'm a fighter, so I know how hard they work and I know how hard it is to go against someone.”
Laraque counts Montreal's Georges St. Pierre among his good friends, although busy work schedules often limit their contact to phone conversations. He watches fights on pay per view.
The UFC makes its Canadian debut at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Saturday night when St. Pierre looks to reclaim his welterweight title from Matt Serra at UFC 83. The Canadian will have several NHLers pulling for him.
One big GSP fan is Boston Bruins winger Milan Lucic, who fought 13 times in his rookie year. The 19-year-old from Vancouver was introduced to the UFC by his buddies back home and relies on them to keep him updated on it during the hockey season.
“You've got to be pretty crazy to get in an Octagon,” said Lucic. “It's fun to see, it's entertaining for me. I love the UFC.”
He didn't hesitate when asked what he likes best.
“For me, knockouts are a big thing,” said Lucic. “When you see them landing those punches and taking each other down, that's exactly what you want to see in a fight. I think my generation is more and more interested in that freestyle kind of fighting and I think it's going to be popular for a long time.”
Some hockey players will miss out on being part of the record Bell Centre crowd at UFC 83 because of the playoffs. Kris Newbury of the Toronto Maple Leafs had tickets bought for him by a friend but won't be able to go after being assigned to the AHL Marlies for the post-season.
At five foot 10 and 200 pounds, Newbury is small by NHL standards for fighters. That's part of what draws him to mixed martial arts.
“In the UFC, you see a lot of small guys that don't weigh a lot,” said Newbury. “A lot of times the smaller you are the quicker you are. It's just becoming as strong as you can and as bright as you can in the fight so that you don't get hurt.”
One place the sport isn't very popular is in the Montreal Canadiens locker-room.
The only Habs player who follows the UFC closely is defenceman Josh Gorges, who has just three fights to his credit in 165 career NHL games. The 23-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., has done some sparring as part of his off-ice training but would never consider getting in the cage.
“The fact that these guys are willing to go in there and fight like that takes a lot of courage, a lot of guts,” said Gorges. “That's something I could never do.”
Montreal has a 3-1 lead in its playoff series with Boston and will have a chance to eliminate the Bruins in Game 5 on Thursday. Winning that game might allow Gorges to attend UFC 83.
“With the UFC coming to Montreal and Georges St. Pierre fighting, I'm hoping that I'm around because I want to watch that big time,” he said. “If it's on TV, I'll watch it. I'd love to go see it live.
“I think it's awesome watching all that stuff.”
Columbus Blue Jackets agitator Jared Boll led the NHL with 27 fights this season and is another player who enjoys the UFC.
His favourite fight of the year came against Aaron Downey of the Detroit Red Wings during a game back in November. It lasted about 75 seconds before both players became too tired to punch anymore and skated away from each other.
He can't imagine how UFC fighters can go at it for several minutes at a time.
“I can't believe how good of shape those guys have to be in,” said Boll. “I'm completely gassed after throwing them for 30 seconds on the ice. And look how long some of those fights go.”
There aren't very many similarities between hockey fights and those that occur in the Octagon. Mixed martial artists tend to employ more technique while hockey tough guys “just grab on and start punching,” according to Cote.
He's started to notice more gyms sprouting up that offer MMA training and can't believe how much fighting is now on television. He tunes in whenever he can.
“The UFC's the real deal,” said Cote. “That's real fighting. It's not just standing there punching.
“These guys step into a ring and the fight's not over until someone taps out or gets knocked out. If you ever see some of the training these guys do, it's ridiculous. It's in a league of its own.”
Cote said he just has a foot in the door with the Flyers and will continue working hard at his craft to hold onto a roster spot. The 26-year-old would like to have a long career and become the top fighter in the league, but knows that tough guys often become expendable.
Fighting is responsible for allowing him to realize his dream of playing in the NHL and he won't rule out continuing to do it when he's done with hockey. He thinks that his mixed martial arts training could one day lead to his next profession.
“I don't plan on doing that until my (hockey) career's over,” said Cote. “But I'd consider doing it.”
One hockey enforcer who has already made the transition is Steve Bosse, who played for the St-Jean Chiefs most recently in Quebec's rough-and-tumble LNAH. As a heavyweight, Bosse is 2-1 in MMA.