Jim Agnew: Ex- NHL Tough Guy Turned Missoula, Montana Sheriff


By Brian D’Ambrosio

Jim Agnew is a man in uniform who is most deeply proud of being a wholehearted team player. These days, he buttons up a beige and brown shirt before excitedly starting his work time as a deputy sheriff in Missoula, Montana. In earlier years, he wore another type of distinguishing outfit, and donned a policeman’s badge of a different variety.

Hockey has always been an unvarying part of Agnew’s viability. Indeed, he grew up in the southwestern corner of Manitoba, B.C., and began skating early on in his life, at about age three.

“Every little town back home has got a hockey rink that’s attached to a curling rink,” says Agnew. “My parents would curl and I’d play hockey––that’s how I grew up.”

Following junior hockey stints with the Western Hockey League, he was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the 8th round (157 overall) of the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. He signed with the Canucks in 1986, and saw his first action in the NHL as part of a four-game recall that season.

While the majority of his hockey days were spent in the minor-league system, Agnew saw sporadic action in the NHL, elbowing and slashing his way through the brambly and barbed trenches of the sport’s most supreme setting, even playing a season high of 24 games with Vancouver in 1991–92.

“I was one of those guys who was always on the bubble,” says Agnew. “My skill level probably wasn’t all that high. My old junior coach told me, ‘When you get the puck, just get rid of it. I don’t want to see you going more than two strides with that thing.’ I more or less bluffed my way through the NHL.”

To Agnew, it was transparent early on in his career that his toughness would direct him toward the rugged role of an enforcer. In the last three decades, the NHL and hockey at all levels have made strong strides to repair the game’s image and supply fans with a less aggressive, quicker skating, and more entertaining product.

.However, the “tough guy” presence has always been crucial to the game of hockey; and in spite of the nicer, gentler transformation the game has experienced, the need for the sport’s enforcer has remained permanent since its inception.

Dropping the mitts is perhaps the fiercest and most unpleasant job in the sport, and Agnew acquainted himself well with it.

“You do what you need to in order to play and get ice time. Today, I see myself as the victim of bad judgment.”

While not wanting to glorify his role as a tough guy, Agnew still believes that fighting is a useful and necessary part of the game––and he’s intent to allow the subject to be wrangled among fans, players, and owners.

“I’m sure it has its place. Those tussles aren’t too bad after you’ve come to the realization that the worst thing that’s going to happen to you is a cut or a bruise. You get a lot of credit with your peers and teammates just for being game.”

Agnew battled many of the game’s busy behemoths and toothless goons, such as Joey Kocur, Gord Donnelly, and Tim Hunter. (Agnew fought Hunter while nursing a broken bone in his wrist, and ended up with a badly split tongue and stitches in his mouth for the effort.) “I was the guy that wasn’t smart enough not to fight those guys who were way bigger than I was,” he admits.

There’s always been some degree of gentlemanliness to hockey fighting that may surprise some of the sport’s casual observers, says Agnew. In fact, crazed aggression and mindless vengeance are ultimately as alien to true hockey as, well, a complete set of teeth. As proof, Agnew cites a spirited donnybrook that he’d had when playing for Vancouver against buddy Alan May of the Washington Capitals, and their awkward pre- and post-fight conversation.

“Al May and I were roommates in juniors, and we had a scrap, and right before it he asked me if I wanted to go — with the loser paying the winner 50 bucks. It happened right in front of the penalty box. After it was over, Al looked at me and asked, ‘How’s your mom?’ The scorekeeper between us thought he was being derogatory and that we were going to get at it again, but we were just talking. I told him, ‘Not too bad. Does your dad still have the trucking business?’ You put the friendship aside when you step on the ice.”

Agnew’s hands bore the brunt of his pugilistic encounters, but it was another portion of his body that persistently plagued him with injuries, and which ultimately cut short his career. While playing for the Canucks in March 1990, Agnew seriously injured his left knee. The injury required surgery, which triggered the beginning of a chronic knee problem that mandated three separate operations.

In 1992, he signed on as a free agent with the Hartford Whalers after being released by Vancouver. The following year, after damaging his knee once again during the Whalers’ 1993 training camp, he decided to hang up the skates for good.

Agnew appeared in a total of 81 NHL games over parts of six seasons for Vancouver, and two for Hartford, recording one assist and racking up 257 penalty minutes. (In reality, Agnew spent more time on the trainer’s table, rehabbing that sore and chronic knee injury, than on the ice playing.)

Agnew came to Missoula in 1995 to “get away from the city stuff” and enrolled at the University of Montana, where he studied exercise science for two years. (He’s two semesters short of an associate’s liberal arts degree and hopes to complete his education sometime in the future.)

In the late 1990s, Agnew moved back to Canada. He returned to Missoula in 2004 and in July 2006, within just hours of each other, he both received his U.S. citizenship and passed his concluding interview at the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department.

Agnew’s interest in law enforcement began when he lived in Vancouver and had the opportunity to ride along with city police officers during special community outreach patrol programs. Today, a moderate mixture of glee and gratitude keeps him energized from shift to shift.

“I love it. I get home after 12 hours and it doesn’t seem like it’s been 12 hours. I’m lucky to have been able to do my two loves professionally: hockey and law enforcement.”

Indeed, teamwork is still the guiding principle that overwhelmingly influences Agnew’s outlook and attitude on life. “In my life, I’ve gone from one team to another. The team concept must be a comfort zone to me. ”

Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana

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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.

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