Ice hockey: Glasgow Clan's Zack Fitzgerald on life as an enforcer

Zack Fitzgerald
Zack Fitzgerald is now head coach of Glasgow Clan in the EIHL

"There were loads of sleepless nights as I knew there was a big boy on the other team and it was more than likely going to happen."

It's far from obvious from his friendly manner, his towering frame or even the faint scar on his cheek.

But Zack Fitzgerald is a tough guy. You know it because as an enforcer in ice hockey, you just have to be.

"For me once I learned how to hit and I was allowed to hit at a certain age, it's all I wanted to do. I loved it," he says.

After retiring as a player at the end of last season, Fitzgerald has been installed as EIHL side Glasgow Clan's new head coach, having captained the club following his return from Sheffield, were he won the 2015/16 EIHL league title, and play-off championship a year later.

With the new season just under way, Fitzgerald, 34, talks to BBC Scotland about the mental strain of being his side's guardian and his hopes of delivering a trophy for the club he loves.

'It's somewhere between Muay Thai and boxing'

Fitzgerald was a defensemen who had a career spanning the USA, Canada and the UK, and one who relished the physical brutality of the sport, even from a young age. He could play too, of course, but his ascent to the AHL and NHL was aided by his strength.

The title of an enforcer is an accepted, if slightly controversial, part of ice hockey. While referees regulate the game, unofficial law men on each team dish out physical pain to those who step out of line, often ending in a bare knuckle scrap - "somewhere between Muay Thai and boxing" - in front of thousands. If it sounds a little unedifying, there is a somewhat noble aim to it.

"It came naturally because I wanted to be the one in fighting rather than my team-mate," Fitzgerald says. "I would rather be the one who maybe gets hurt or stands up for his team-mate or goes into battle, I guess it's just kind of part of my nature.

"For me, the enforcer means some players have in the back of their minds that 'okay, if I hit a guy from behind I'm going to have to answer to this guy'."

A 15-year career doing the gig is not without its sacrifices, though. It takes a physical toll.

Fitzgerald has had the lot when it comes to injuries - shoulder, knee, teeth knocked out, concussion, and the worst, a broken jaw. "I had kind of leaned over to assess the situation and he just came 'WHAM' with a hook," he explains, while insisting he has been "pretty lucky" with injuries.

Fitzgerald playing for Sheffield Steelers
Zack Fitzgerald has played for Glasgow Clan and Sheffield Steelers in the EIHL

'It's like being hit by a car going very fast'

In the USA and Canada there have been growing calls for fighting to be taken out of the game. Hundreds of former players sued the NHL last year for failing to protect them from severe head injuries including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In the last decade there have been high-profile deaths associated with the mental strain of the enforcer role

Though the evidence of a direct link between CTE and destructive mental health is still inconclusive, it has made Fitzgerald consider his own fragility.

"I mean there's been times when I've been like 'wow this could really be life-damning'. My wife she loved it, it was exciting at first, but as she went along she was scared, she didn't want to watch anymore," he said.

"You'd be searching for these guys on the internet and you'd know about them from previous experience. I can remember some incidents from junior when I was wronged in a dirty, cheat way and I didn't sleep for two weeks because I knew we were playing that team again and for me it was like I needed to set the record straight."

He added: "It's literally like being hit by a car going very fast. There's definitely a lot of negative aspects to it for general life and wellness, 100%. You're putting yourself at risk every single time.

"Right now in my life I feel like I'm okay, I've had a long career and I came out pretty well on the other end. I've seen other guys that are the complete opposite."

Fitzgerald admits he feels "okay" after retiring from the game

'I want to bring a trophy to Glasgow'

As ever with many of sport's tough guys, there is a conflict between the testosterone-fuelled, competitive beast while in action, and the person in day-to-day life. Fitzgerald is no different.

Warm and refreshingly honest, he has become a father to daughter Finley in the last year, which he describes as "amazing," and "life-changing."

"I would've liked her to see daddy doing a wee bit more but there's plenty of videos on YouTube, she's going to hear from one of her class mates 'you know your dad did this'.

"The jerseys will be up in the man cave and she'll understand what daddy used to do, but that's young daddy and we'll probably have a good laugh about it and watch some videos some day.

"I definitely miss it. It's different because I'm not putting on the gear, putting on the pads and getting in the trenches and sweating and bleeding with these guys, I'll miss that."

Alongside being a dad, Fitzgerald is having to quickly get to grips with being Clan's head coach. A rookie in the role, it's been a frantic summer for the American after being brought back to lead his former club after the surprise departure of Pete Russell.

"I want to bring some kind of trophy home to Glasgow," he says. "The city and club deserve it. At its inception there wasn't a lot of expectation but I'm a competitive person and I put pressure on myself. I think we have a team that can do something special. The bare minimum for me this year is to make the play-off weekend."

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