Lee Chin amazed by drinking and fighting in National Hockey League
Wexford hurler says fighting part of the game while drinking culture is tolerated
Lee Chin features in The Toughest Trade this Friday at 10:35pm on RTÉ2. Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Not everything about Lee Chin’s week in the life of professional sport felt like a contradiction. The openly flaunted drinking culture, possibly, and the levels of infield indiscipline which resembled a drunken punch-up at a wedding reception.
This was professional ice hockey, after all, which doesn’t readily compare to any other game, amateur or professional. What possibly felt more contradictory is that Lee’s so-called amateur game, hurling, is becoming increasingly professional, in both theory and practice.
Expect of course Lee doesn’t get paid for it – although the Wexford hurler is effectively living the life of a full-time amateur, given he’s currently unemployed.
“I’d definitely use the word ‘envy’, but I wouldn’t say I have regrets,” says Lee, speaking ahead of the latest series in the AIB-backed The Toughest Trade, which saw him spend a week Vancouver Canucks last month, one of the top teams in the professional NHL.
“When I came home, there was a sense of frustration there, in terms of the lifestyles. I wasn’t living like a professional, but living in the presence of them, and you would be very envious of how their life is set up, at such a young age. And the money they earn through what they do.
“But I love hurling for Wexford, and the game. It’s what their game provides, and it’s the way it always was. And our game is the way it always was. But you do sit back and wonder what could have been.”
Part of that wonder is how hurling has allowed itself lose some of its physicality; also how amateur players act more like professionals when it comes to their accepted levels of alcohol.
Because the last thing Chin expected to find in this temporary trade to a professional game was ice hockey’s tolerated fighting and drinking culture, more so than any superior level of fitness and commitment. The fighting obviously occurs during matches only, the drinking is seemingly acceptable the day before a competitive game.
Lee Chin talks about his NHL experience
“When I told them I didn’t get paid they couldn’t believe it,” says Chin. “They were looking at me as if I had two heads at times, as if to say ‘why are you so stupid, why do you do it’. Like one of the guys, Erik Gudbranson, is my age, 24, and he’s on $4 million a year. “I also picked a lot of brains, asked a lot of lads, what was the fighting about. What fascinated me was the player power, the whole running that allows players throw off the gloves and fight. I thought at first this was so barbaric, allowed to go on in sport, it’s crazy like.
“Literally players police that ruling, and there’s nothing in the rule book to say you can’t do it. It’s there for the players to protect them. If a guy is acting the maggot with another player on the ice, he has to pay for it, and that’s the way it’s done.
Lee is not advocating a similar rule in hurling, yet it seemed to work fine in ice hockey: “I know that rule would never work in hurling. Again, it’s a player-power thing, they were in control. The game I went to watch with the Canucks and San Jose, there were two fights.
“There was actually a dose of the mumps going over there and seven or eight of the Canucks team were on lockdown and they had to bring in some younger guys and they wanted to prove themselves and try and earn the love of the fans. And one or two of them had to throw off the gloves to do that.
“They feel if that rule ever went out of the game, if there was no more fighting, the game would get so much dirtier. That’s what the rule is there for. Basically a two-minute sin bin. You get two minutes rest then come back.
“There are certain rulings coming into hurling, and for the fans, it might lose some of the excitement. The game isn’t as physical anymore. So many games I watch and play in, there are so many questionable frees, things I wouldn’t be happy with, as a player.
“As hurling is, you train so much together, bond, that when you see one of your team-mates on the floor the first instinct is to get in and help. The rules don’t allow that, and I don’t agree with it.”
The drinking culture surprised him even more, something Lee admitted he wouldn’t dare do sitting at home, let alone in front of Wexford hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald.
“The drinking culture they have, I couldn’t believe it. They were lowering pints the day before a game. And that was sitting at lunch. It was after we played a game on a Sunday, and there was a lunch with the alumni team on the Monday. I was invited, with Erik [Gudbranson], and one of his team-mates beside him. I had a glass of water. Erik was injured, but I asked his team-mate if he was playing tomorrow and he said ‘’yeah, what’s the big deal?’
“And managers and coaches and everyone sitting around. And I was thinking ‘I wouldn’t do this sitting in front of Davy. I wouldn’t do it if I was at home on my own, never mind in front of Davy’.
“And they have this thing called a ‘change up’, when a player is not on form, not scoring. The manager will call a ‘change up’, and basically that player has to go out and ruin himself for the night, then come back the next day, with the attitude of you just don’t care.
“So they send him out, drink 20 pints, go off with a couple of women, whatever he wants. And come back the next day. That’s the way they live. It’s the culture, what they believe in, letting off steam like that.”
Chin swapped places with former Vancouver Canucks goalkeeper Alex Auld, who also spent a week in Wexford hurling with Lee’s club, Faythe Harriers.
The Toughest Trade airs on RTÉ at 10.35 on Friday night.