After a Life of Punches, Ex-N.H.L. Enforcer Is a Threat to Himself


Walter Peat described Stephen as a straight-A student as a child and a high-scoring defenseman for the local youth teams. Walter’s big regret was letting 15-year-old Stephen go to the rough-and-tumble Western Hockey League when he was drafted third over all in the 1995 W.H.L. bantam draft. Instead of college, Peat’s education ended before he finished high school. Peat entered the W.H.L. as a high-scoring defenseman and exited as a fist-first wing.

Drafted into the N.H.L. in 1998, 32nd over all by Anaheim, Peat eventually spent several seasons protecting star players for the Washington Capitals like Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Adam Oates and, briefly, Alex Ovechkin. He fought dozens of times against the likes of Donald Brashear, Todd Fedoruk and Jody Shelley. His 2002 fight against Boston’s P.J. Stock is still recalled as that season’s best.

The canceled N.H.L. season of 2004-5 interrupted Peat’s career, and injuries — to his pelvis, to his neck, a broken hand — knocked him out of the league a year later. Peat found odd jobs, including one as a bouncer. Headaches became a constant companion, he said.

Peat said that he was prescribed Percocet routinely by team doctors in the N.H.L., and spent years after he left the game “self-medicating” with prescription painkillers that he got from doctors or bought off the street. He admitted to cocaine use, too, and still consumes alcohol. He believes that his primary problem is not addiction, but pain.

After the deaths of Boogaard, Belak and Rypien, followed closely by the death of his mother to liver failure after years of cancer, Peat said he contacted the N.H.L. Players’ Association.

“You start to feel like everyone I touch is dying,” Peat said. “My mom died, the guys I played hockey with are dying. And then I start looking in the mirror, being like: ‘What did I do last night? Is something wrong with me? Are my headaches leading to something worse? Am I getting better? Am I getting worse?’ ”

That call led Peat into rehabilitation through the league’s substance abuse and behavioral health program overseen jointly by the N.H.L. and the players’ union. The N.H.L.’s Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund, meant as temporary relief for struggling former players, provided a few monthly payments, Peat said.

He returned to rehabilitation in 2015 after he was charged with arson.

“Why are you sending me to rehab again?” he said of his reaction last year. “I was just trying to find an answer to my pain.”

Photo

Peat following up on an employment opportunity at a Harley-Davidson showroom. He recently found work as a landscaper.

Credit
Rafal Gerszak for The New York Times

His father cut in.

“They need to figure out the root cause of his pain, not just try to get him off of the pills,” Walter said.

Stephen Peat said he viewed prescription pills as a last resort. (“I know I can go grab five Percocets and sit around all day,” he said. “That’s just lazy. I know there are better ways.”) He finds temporary relief in saunas and hot tubs, massages and acupuncture, but he struggles to regularly afford them. He has studied natural remedies and diets. When he feels the headaches surging, he reaches for a Coke. He keeps Oh Henry! candy bars in the refrigerator.

(“I actually hate to admit but have had to take pills again,” he wrote in a follow-up to the in-person interviews, saying headaches had been “awful” since. “Just extra strength Tylenol and Advil 400s. But it still scares me. Cause that’s how it starts again.”)

While some former enforcers who have died in recent years took their own lives, Peat said he would not, at least not intentionally.

“I don’t think I’m the kind of person who could pull that trigger,” he said. “But I’m the type of person who could drive a car 200 miles per hour and lose control and end it that way. I get reckless with my life. I think that points to the fact that I fought for my teammates, and I was reckless with my own body. I had to self-sacrifice for my teammates, right?”

Anxiety is another frequent visitor. Peat prefers to drive his GMC pickup everywhere, rather than sharing a ride, because he wants the freedom to leave at any time. Waiting for his father to meet him at a restaurant, he called him several times within an hour to check on his progress, even though the meeting time had not passed. (“Hey, Buddy? Where are you?” he asked, calling his father either Buddy or Wally.)

He admitted to sometimes waking up in tears. He often thinks that nearby parked cars are occupied by people watching him.

“I’ve been studying concussions, and some of the symptoms are things like anxiety and recklessness,” Peat said. “I’m like, ‘Wait — I have all these symptoms.’ I just wonder if I could get rid of the headaches, if all those other things will go away.”

On a warm spring afternoon, the sun made long shadows on the construction site. Workers had left for the day. Walter and Stephen walked the plywood floors, discussing everything from plumbing to window placements. Somehow, the burning down of the family house had brought the father and son closer together.

The two said that Walter was upstairs in bed after 10 p.m. on March 17, 2015. Stephen was in the garage, which was unusually packed with furniture and boxes because the Peats had cleared a spare downstairs room to rent. Stephen said that he had pulled stereo equipment from his truck, parked on the street, to fix on the workbench.

Unable to find a soldering gun, he used a blowtorch, he said, and set it down as he walked back outside, unaware that it was still lit. It burned a hole in a nearby mattress, Stephen said, and when he tried to pat it out with a blanket, flames erupted. They quickly filled the garage and engulfed much of the house.

Standing in the reconstructed garage together recently, Walter and Stephen had contradicting memories of what happened next. It was as if they had never talked it through.

Walter recalled waking up to an explosion (perhaps the gas tank of an A.T.V. destroyed in the garage) and seeing a glow out the window; Stephen said that he ran upstairs and alerted his father of the fire. Walter remembered finding the family dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Dawson, under the bed, then carrying him downstairs, but said he never saw Stephen; Stephen said that the two talked in the driveway, with Walter screaming at him.

“What did you do now, Stephen?” Stephen recalled his father shouting.

They both dismissed early news reports that said the two were heard by neighbors arguing earlier in the day. (The Peats said that Stephen was out of town all day and arrived home that night after Walter was in bed.) Stephen disputed the account of a witness who said he saw Stephen intentionally setting the fire. Walter sided with his son.

Stephen left the scene on foot — stopping to direct a fire engine unsuccessfully navigating the knot of suburban streets, he said — and went to a friend’s house. When he turned himself in a couple of days later, he was placed in custody and charged with two counts of arson. Walter and Stephen were placed under a no-contact order, and did not communicate for weeks. Stephen Peat went off to rehabilitation for 10 weeks.

The house was uninhabitable. The tenant, gone at the time of the fire, lost his belongings, including a truck in the driveway, and later sued Stephen Peat in civil court. He was awarded 17,455 Canadian dollars, or $13,343, but Peat said he does not have the money to pay. The tenant did not respond to a message seeking comment.

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