Fogarty: Golden glide, sad slide

Had it all gone according to plan, Bryan Fogarty right about now would be on a boat somewhere, able to reflect on a solid career as a point-producing NHL defenceman.
Bryan Fogarty, right, showed flashes of his promise in two seasons with the Quebec Nordiques, but he was dogged by off-ice issues. ((Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images))

Had it all gone according to plan, Bryan Fogarty would be on a fishing boat somewhere right about now, looking back and reflecting on a solid career as a point-producing NHL defenceman.

Some even had visions of the next Paul Coffey when they saw him play in the Ontario Hockey League. Fogarty, after all, was selected ninth overall by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1987 NHL entry draft. The Nordiques then selected Joe Sakic at No. 15.

"The one thing I remember that stands out so clear is how well he skated," said New York Islanders coach Scott Gordon, who spent two pro seasons with Fogarty in the Quebec organization.

Fogarty, who would have turned 40 on June 11, wouldn't even have been the oldest player still active in the NHL today.

The 1989 Canadian junior hockey league player of the year never made it that far of course, dead at 32 of cardiac arrest on a leisure trip to South Carolina after a battle with alcoholism that lasted nearly half his life.

Musician and author Dave Bidini sings on his new album about the dichotomy of Fogarty's life, a subject he first tackled in his The Best Game You Can Name book a few years ago.

Like several songs from Bidini's legendary Canadian band The Rheostatics, The Land is Wild is poignant yet unflinching in some of the more distressing episodes of its subject's life.

Why does hockey devour its young?

Is it the curse of the cold,

Or the promise of what winter kills?

"I think he was one of those kids the only reason he played hockey was because he was good at it," said Bidini. "[From what I was told] There were other things he loved to do more, but he was so gifted."

The sentiment, expressed in the song as well, calls to mind lyrics from Bob Dylan's classic Hurricane — "Rubin [Carter] could take a man out with just one punch, but he never did like to talk about it all that much."

The gift of the "golden glide" is Bidini's more poetic description of what Gordon and others in the hockey world marvelled over. Fogarty had a remarkable career in a couple of respects.

Heady company

After playing 40-45 games in each of his first two seasons with Quebec, he never played more than 35 consecutive games with any pro team. Nearly every season in his career he was shuffled around like a hot potato, playing for two or three different teams in the minors, with the occasional call-up to the NHL.

But despite such short stays in the NHL, with only 175 games played overall, he was able to share a dressing room at points along the way with Hall of Famers Guy Lafleur, Patrick Roy, Peter Stastny and Mario Lemieux, and future greats such as Sakic, Jaromir Jagr and Mats Sundin.

Some guys play hundreds of games without ever rubbing shoulders with that kind of talent. But ultimately he would have more in common with others from the sport who lived on the edge and died young, including John Kordic, a buddy of Fogarty's mentioned in Bidini’s song.

By the time of his death, he had been arrested several times for alcohol-related incidents.

"I don't know if his personality suited the pressure that comes with being a top player like that," said Jeff Jackson, a former pro teammate who grew up a few years ahead of Fogarty in Brantford, Ont.

The drinking started from an innocent enough place like it does for a lot of teen boys, but the relative lack of supervision didn't help. As well, Fogarty was a bit of an eternal teen, counting fishing, professional wrestling and heavy metal among his favourite things in life.

When the gulf was wide between his talent and other players, Fogarty was able to thrive on the ice like few have.

The first special player from Brantford after Wayne Gretzky, Fogarty broke Bobby Orr's two-decades old record for most goals by an OHL defenceman with the Niagara Falls Thunder in his final junior season. He scored 47 goals and 108 assists.

Niagara Falls teammate Keith Primeau said it was already known that Fogarty — who spent three previous seasons with the Kingston Canadians — hadn't always been able to stay focused.

"His issues were deeper than just drinking," said Primeau. "We were aware of his history, his troubles and we were all pulling for him."

"He was a great guy, everyone in the locker room liked him, and he had this deep-barrelled chuckle that everybody was kind of drawn to," the longtime NHLer added.

The chuckles were increasingly rare in Fogarty's eventful pro career, as time went on.

"A lot of guys in the NHL now and when I played — it sounds funny, but they at some point in their career lacked confidence  when they got to the NHL," said Jackson. "They got there and it's a constant battle to re-prove yourself." 
Fogarty joined the Canadiens the season after they won their last Stanley Cup, but played just 34 games over two seasons for the club. ((Glen Cratty/Getty Images))

Within a span of weeks in his second season, Fogarty scored a hat trick in a game against Buffalo, signed a three-year deal with the Nordiques and, at the age of 21, took a leave of absence and entered a rehab facility.

Final flourish

There were few mood swings or discipline issues on the ice, and players had more time away from the rink to go out to bars back then. 

"He wasn’t a loud guy in the room, [he was] very reserved and very low-key," said Gordon. "I never looked at him as a guy who was living on the edge. I don’t think you would have expected it to come from him, but it did."

Fogarty departed the NHL with a final flourish, scoring two goals in an April, 1995, game for Montreal in a victory over Quebec.

It would be one of the final games for the Nordiques, too. Sakic would go on to win a Stanley Cup when the team moved to Colorado, while Fogarty became a vagabond player who suited up in such varied hockey locales as Las Vegas, Milan, Hannover, Germany and Baton Rouge, far from the NHL.

A 1999 arrest for possession of a controlled substance was particularly ignominious.

The end of his life less than three years later came not in a period of tumult, according to those who knew him, but one of relative calm and sobriety.

Fogarty, sadly, won't likely be the last of his kind, but players are wanted at the rinks longer these days. The demands of the sport have blurred into the off-season months as well, making it a bit more difficult to burn both ends while resembling an NHL-caliber player.

Jackson, who helps with the cap management of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is among those who hope the greater number of counselling resources offered through the league and the players association would help more players avoid the pitfalls Fogarty faced.

"It was too bad, because he was so talented and he could have been such a great player at the highest level," he said.