By Brian D’Ambrosio
Jay Wells selflessly battled numerous enforcers of substantial note: Bob Probert, Jay Miller, Dave Brown (a few times) and Marty McSorley, among the list. One of the game’s exemplary teammates, his career spanned from 1979 to 1997, a period in which Wells stood up to the roughest individuals to ever to patrol the ice.
Wells played with a prickly edge, night after night providing the roster with a necessary dose of grit, selflessness, and reliability. Whether his team was up by nine goals in the third period or down by a pair with a minute left, Wells hit, prodded, and swiped at anyone lurking in front of his goaltender. Not a goon by any stretch of the term – he had a season high of 11 fights in his rookie year and only tied that mark once more in 1985-1986 – in 1,098 regular season games, Wells scrappily mixed it up with hockey’s most memorable characters.
Recalling Bob Probert
Perhaps no one in the past 25 years in the NHL epitomized the role of brawler better than Bob Probert in his prime. No player punched better than Probert and few carried more demons away from the rink, including substance abuse. In a notorious career with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks, Bob Probert racked up points, penalty minutes, suspensions and arrests, establishing himself as one of the NHL’s baddest hombres.
“I fought Bob Probert twice,” says Wells. “My first year in the league, I met up with him at the blue line, and we dropped them. He was getting ready to throw, slipped, and went down without even throwing a single punch. He lost his balance. Thank goodness. Years later, when I was on the Rangers, we met up in front of the bench. I knew I was in trouble, but I tossed a few punches and kept his punching arm tied up. I played it smart enough.”
“If you go toe-to-toe and beat someone like Probert, they will come back to beat you. You are never free of fighting those guys. I was feisty and I wasn’t scared. But fighting Probert was not my mission. I would’ve gotten killed. He was bigger, stronger, with longer arms. Probert wasn’t somebody who was ever looking to hurt somebody. He made himself a player, and he had skills. I can admire a guy like that.”
Wells was on the ice December 2, 1992, when Probert fought New York Rangers teammate Tie Domi in the second round of their much storied grudge match. Domi anointed himself champion after their first encounter, and Probert couldn’t wait for the Detroit Red Wings to return to Madison Square Garden so he could instigate round two. Probert unleashed a snappy barrage of punches on Domi; Domi took every strike in stride and battled back with all of his might.
“You know,” says Wells, “Tie hung in there pretty well. But Probert must have hit him four-to-one. I remember seeing the many bumps on Tie’s head after the fight. Tie didn’t practice the next day; he had so many huge welts, he couldn’t even put his helmet on. The hype to the fight was amazing, punch counts, all the different stats.”
Wells picked up 2,359 penalty minutes and more than 100 fighting majors in his NHL career. “You know what’s funny?” asked Wells. “My 16-year-old daughter was doing a project recently and she found one of my fights with Jeff Brubaker. She asked me about it, and I told her that I could recall fighting any person, where on the ice we were at the time, and how it ended up.”
Rookie Year 1979
As far as fisticuffs, the game today is nearly unrecognizable from the more dangerous, less lawful days that Jay Wells encountered as a rookie in 1979. Upon entry, he was young, cocky, and eager to show the fans and his teammates how tough he thought he was. He says that his orientation into the NHL came with a redden nose and bruised ego.
“In my first years, I thought I could come in and dominate,” says Wells. “I don’t mean this to brag, but, in junior hockey I don’t think I ever lost a fight. So, naturally, I thought I was going to eat up the league. My first 10 fights were all lessons – lesson after lesson. Al Secord knocked me out twice. Bob Nystrom knocked me down right out the penalty box. But the more I fought, the better I got. I learned how to manage the fight and to throw as many as fast as I could. I learned that you never want to go at it with an angry player, but grapple and tie up, wait for the moment to unload or battle in the future.”
“Another memorable fight was as a rookie I watched a couple of guys, Ron Delorme (Vancouver Canucks) and Joe Patterson (Los Angeles Kings) go at it. They were both lefties. I stood there watching, toe to toe; bomb after bomb, two swinging lefties, any punch could have been a knockout. That’s fighting. That’s hockey. Holy smokes.”
Verse Brad May, Dave Brown
A pair of opponents Wells remembers vividly include legendary Philadelphia Flyers tough guy Dave Brown and young Buffalo Sabres scrapper Brad May.
“Brown just kept coming back,” says Wells. “He came back a third time against me and did well. The May fight I took a standing eight count in the first fight. It was more of a grudge. He came out after a line change, I just hit Barnaby, hit him into the boards, and there was a skirmish. May challenged me right away.”
In the second period, May stunned Wells with a sharp right hand that landed flush. But Wells wasn’t going to let the next period go by without initiating a rematch.
“I sat in the dressing room in the intermission and Joey Kocur said to the team, ‘Wells is the warhorse. We need to go out and take care of May. I said ‘nobody touch him’. I went looking for it. I had a mission to accomplish. I was fired up. I went back out and proved my point. My point was that in hockey you need to keep coming back.”
Part and parcel of the discussion about fighting in the NHL is the grim roll of pugilists debilitated or destroyed by addiction and mental health problems: Probert, Wade Belak, John Kordic, Marc Potvin, to name a few. Fighting seems to take such an emotional toll on some and not others. Fortunately, for Wells, he played a well-rounded game, the fisticuffs only a small portion of what he had to offer, and he never had to drop the mitts to stay in the lineup.
When Bob Probert died a few years ago unexpectedly at the age of 45, some of the men he combated tirelessly were the pallbearers at his funeral. What better honor could be bestowed on a man who left all he had on the ice?
“If he were a dirty player, that wouldn’t have happened,” says Wells. “He was a good person, a good guy, who cared for people. I respect what he accomplished and did. You know, every rookie every year was looking for him, and he had a target on his sweater. Yeah, he had some demons and problems; then again, as a person off the ice or after the game was over with, he was just another guy, not an animal.”
Tough Guy Code
Wells explained that there does exist something of an unspoken, unwritten, respectful bond among tough guys.
“Dave Semenko and I got tied up in Los Angeles one night, not more than a wrestling match, no punches landed. That night, I walked into a bar in LA, pulled up beside him and had a nice conversation for 90 minutes. I dropped him off at his hotel after leaving the bar. We both had a job to do. Once it’s over with, it’s over with.”
Wells says he occasionally regretted things that happened on the ice, and once incident that happened in the line of battle still gnaws at him.
“Yes, you say things or do things you shouldn’t have,” says Wells. “One incident I regret was with Doug Lidster. There was mayhem going on, Doug was the first one coming at me, and I sent him to the ice. I remember him lying there helpless and there was a big crowd around, and being worried that he could cut a hand or finger off from a skate. Him getting injured by that punch affected me for a little while.
“Doug Lidster was to become my partner when I was on the Rangers years later. When we were going to London for training camp, I walked up to him and shamefully apologized for the punch. I said I was sorry, and he said ‘Jay, that’s water under the bridge, but you need to settle it with my wife’. I apologized to her a hundred times in a month.”
Another incident that sticks out in Wells’ mind is the sucker-punch he received in the postseason in 1994 by New York Islanders’ so-called tough guy Mick Vukota. Vukota had earned the reputation as a guy whose toughness was overstated and stood on dubious foundation.
“Vukota was a hard-nosed player,” says Wells. “I saw it on the TV after, how he reached over and clobbered me. It was at their bench and it stunned me. We’d beaten them on the scoreboard and those types of punches show no respect. I always played to the last whistle, and was never one to give a player a free ride in the last few minutes. But to haul and punch a guy who is tied up is cowardly. It shouldn’t be done or tolerated.”
Stanley Cup 1994
Jay Wells and the New York Rangers had the ultimate laugh, knocking off their hated rivals on the way to winning the Stanley Cup. On June 14, 1994, heartbreak melted away as the organization won its first championship in 53 years. That iconic roof at Madison Square Garden felt as if it could have blown off from the collective outpour evoked by 18,200 fans.
“The joy of the interview I gave after holding the cup says it all,” says Wells. “I’ve been blessed my whole life, I have three healthy, smart girls. As far as life in general, I’ve been blessed. As far as my career, there is no nicer feeling. It took 15 years of blood, sweat, tears, and disappointments to win it. It was the most amazing moment in hockey career. This good fortune often leaves me sad for guys like Mike Gartner and Marcel Dionne, great hockey players who never had a chance to be there.”
Content as Role Player
Many hockey players, especially several of the tougher ones, have been to hell and back in their personal lives. Some have lost everything that was of great consequence to them, been humbled by drugs, alcohol or gambling, been forced into bankruptcy, and have found themselves broke and without a game plan. Wells is not in that category of story. He is the coach of the Barrie Colts of the OHL, owns a small business in Barrie, Ontario, Canada, and enjoys the company of his family. After suffering a heart attack in 2008, he began to spend his free time raising awareness for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
Jay Wells was the epitome of the ‘role player’, a proud participant who never quit or groused, a reliable, solid defensive defenseman. He was comfortable enough in his own skin; he didn’t need cameras or press. He was a guy teammates respected, and he took pride in that position.
“In 18 years in the NHL, there were not all that many pats on the back,” says Wells. “The hard-working guys don’t get the stars of the game; it’s the goal scorers and net minders who do. But every team has role players and respects them and can’t survive without them. I was happy being that type.”
Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana. He is in the process of completing a book about the life, times, and fights of Bob Probert, titled ‘Blood on Ice’.
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About the Author: Lifelong hockey fan Brian D'Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana. His latest book about the life of Montana boxer "Indian" Marvin Camel is due out in mid-2013. D'Ambrosio writes widely for multiple publications. D'Ambrosio has worked as a marketing and media consultant to newspapers, businesses, and magazines, as a social media manager and instructor, and as a journalist. D'Ambrosio's book about the lives, fights, and careers of some of the toughest guys in the NHL, titled 'Warriors on the Ice,' will be available in December 2013.