Naylor: Meet one of hockey's most prolific fighters

Dave Naylor
10/13/2011 10:23:25 PM
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There is something singularly fascinating and unsettling about hockey fighters.
And Darren Kramer is no exception.
The man who had more hockey fights than anyone on Earth last season comes across as a polite, articulate teenager with a youthful look in his eye and yet still somehow mature for his age.
He's had the same girlfriend since he was 14 years old, is adored by his mother and father, his teammates and his coaches. His current one, Don Nachbaur of the Spokane Chiefs, calls him a role model.
Last season, Darren Kramer dropped the gloves 47 times for the Chiefs in the Western Hockey League (46 regular season, one playoffs), more than 50 if you count his handful of fights in the Alberta Junior league before his call to Spokane. He's managed to go from being a scrappy player in a Tier II junior league to an Ottawa Senators draft pick in the span of about nine months.

Kramer says he loves the adrenaline that comes with a hockey fight, the roar of the crowd, the rush he gives his teammates by going a round with an opponent - be it right off the faceoff or in the heat of battle.
To put his 46 regular season fights in perspective, consider that it's 19 more than anyone in the NHL had last season, five short of the most anyone in junior hockey has ever had, and is twice as many as any other player in the WHL had last season.

By comparison, no NHL player has had 40 in a season. Ever.
"It's amazing as a raw quantity," says David Singer, who operates the popular website hockeyfights.com. "He is a kid who was clearly looking for scouts to notice what he is willing to bring to a team. A lot of guys bring that for a while but they fade out. But he just kept bringing the same thing night after night."

Kramer's fight card seems more than a little incongruous when you listen to his parents  Hans and Hanna describe 19-year-old Darren as the perfect son - the kid who loves hockey like nothing else, who will stop at nothing to keep his dream alive, but has never been in a fight outside of an arena.

It's then that you start to understand that while Darren Kramer's story is all about fighting, it also has very little to do with fighting, or violence, or wanting to hurt another human being.
Fighting to Darren Kramer is simply a tool, the thing he decided he must use to buy the time necessary to keep his hockey dream alive.
If he was a baseball player, he might try to steal 100 bases. If he played basketball, he'd probably try to master the art of three-point shooting. And if he played football, he might be a kicker, or a punter or a practice long snapping 500 times a day.
It's anything to get noticed - to set him apart. Find a job that not everyone is willing to do and do it better - or at least more willingly - than anyone else.
It's no coincidence that Darren Kramer is also hobby inventor.
He will happily describe his patent for a peanut butter jar that allows you to get to the bottom of the jar without messing up your hands, and has several other ideas in the works.
And so when Kramer needed a way to prolong his hockey career as he moved into his mid-teens, he decided to reinvent himself, as a hockey fighter.

He accepted the risks that many would not. It's not unlike the way race car drivers, or ski jumpers or any of those in a host of professions accept significant physical risk as part of the deal.
How great those risks exactly are is the starting point of an emotional debate in hockey these days. We know that getting punched in the head can lead to concussions and brain damage, and we know that hockey fighters are prone to bare fists landing on skulls. We know that at least some former hockey fighters claim they developed anxiety rationalizing who they had to be on the ice with who they truly were off of it.
We know there have been fighters who've had long careers and happy lives after hockey. And we've known some who've met tragic consequences and left behind some troubling unanswered questions.
Darren Kramer knows all of that, has mulled it over, and then put it to the back of his mind, without dismissing it altogether.
He wants to be a hockey player not a fighter. But that will depend on whether he can develop those other aspects of his game - his skating, his scoring touch, and whether he can prove he's hard to play against even when the gloves are on.

Kramer is the Chiefs' captain this season with five goals in five games - almost as many as he had all of last season.
After you've met him, you want to root for him. To one day be able to say you, ‘knew him when.' And you try not to think about the potential impact of all those fights.

But you also fear for him. You worry about the potential toll on his body and soul, and that it isn't always going to be so easy for him to separate his on and off-ice personas.
Using fighting to get to where you want to go in hockey is tough. Transforming yourself into a different kind of player, one who'll be known for more than a mind-boggling fight card, is even tougher.

And no matter how often you tell yourself that Darren Kramer isn't a street fighter, that this simply part of the game of hockey, you also know the consequences can be very real.
Fascinating. Unsettling. Indeed.

Darren Kramer (Photo: Gary Peterson/Action Sports Image)


(Photo: Gary Peterson/Action Sports Image)

By The Numbers

Darren Kramer has the distinction of being in more hockey fights in a season than any NHL player has in a season. See how his season in junior compares to other 40-plus fight players from other junior and minor leagues over the last 15 years. Courtesy: Hockeyfights.com

40-plus fight players by comparison

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