NASHVILLE -- Richard Clune is trying to describe what it's like to be in an NHL fight. The description comes out in little torrents, as though in his mind he is seeing it all but can't quite get the words to match the images.
Maybe it's like climbing a mountain or surviving a car crash or skydiving. Until you've actually been there with the crowd screaming, the adrenaline rolling through your veins as flesh contacts flesh, no words will properly do it justice.
"Definitely your senses are turned on probably the most out of anything you'll do. There's not too many things you could do in life [that compare to a hockey fight]," Clune explained.
"It's the way we're designed, right? Fight or flight."
We are sitting on a couple of folding chairs not far from the locker room after a Nashville Predators practice.
The 26-year-old Toronto native is just 5-foot-10, 188 pounds, but he is built solidly. He has fought six times in 16 games this season, according to Hockeyfights.com, along with three exhibition season bouts. Last season he fought a combined 26 times between the AHL and NHL after he was acquired by the Predators on waivers from the Los Angeles Kings. The year before that he dropped the gloves 25 times between the regular season and playoffs in the AHL.
Tattoos roll down his shoulder and his hands look as if they could belong to a construction worker or an oil rig worker.
Clune's last bout was a couple of weeks ago against big Sheldon Brookbank of the Chicago Blackhawks. It wasn't something Clune was particularly looking for but frankly much of this season has gone against script, even though the Predators ended up clobbering the defending Stanley Cup champs in the game in question.
"That was my first shift of the game," Clune said.
"I've had a bunch of fights this year, but I really haven't been looking for it. It's been a bit of a struggle. We've got a lot more forwards this year. I've been in and out of the lineup and it's been a change from last year and I've really been trying to, when I get in the games, play and get some minutes under my belt ... I don't even have a point yet this year, I've been in a slump."
So the last thing he was looking for was to tangle with the 6-2, 211-pound Brookbank.
"That fight with Brookbank, if you watch the whole shift, we had some great pressure offensively and I was going after a puck in the crease and it just slipped off my stick or else I would have probably buried it. He kind of came in, I was leaning on their goalie a bit, and he came down and grabbed me. You can't hear anything from the stands, but I could hear I was saying 'no, no.' The guy just ripped my helmet off and that's when the switch went and then I just dealt with it the way I usually do. I wasn't looking for it. I think it was more he was looking for me," Clune said.
Clune didn't fight much in major junior hockey. He figures he might have thrown maybe 10 punches total in four years in the Ontario Hockey League. But he was an agitator, often starting skirmishes but rarely finishing them. When he was drafted by the Dallas Stars, he was told that if he kept up that behavior his chances of making the NHL were slim.
"One of the guys from Dallas said, 'If you start fights like you did in junior and don't finish 'em, you'll never make it, you're never even going to last in the American League.' I was, all right, I'm basically going to figure out every way how to lose a hockey fight until I stop losing. I'm going to fight until I stop losing. I still lose fights, but the only way you're going to get better at it is through experience, so it's been six years and I've pretty much figured out every way to get beat up," Clune said.
He fought Todd Fedoruk, who in his prime was one of the more ferocious fighters in the game, in his first NHL exhibition game as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.
"I thought [Kings GM] Dean Lombardi was going to have a heart attack," Clune recalled.
"I think it was my second game. We might have been up by a goal or two and I might have kind of hit someone and he kind of just came out of nowhere and grabbed me and it wasn't much of a fight. We threw like one or two punches each and kind of lost our balance and tried to maul each other on the ice basically. That was my first one," Clune said.
Another bit of advice Clune got early in his pro career? There are only three times fans stand up during a hockey game: the national anthem, a goal and a fight.
"So when you're a young guy and you hear that, I wasn't scared. I knew I could do it, so why wouldn't I? I want to play in the NHL. It's what I've wanted to do since I was a little kid," Clune said.
"And where a lot of people turned and basically quit or didn't do what it takes, I've just done the steps I thought I needed to take, took the steps I needed to take."
Not all fights are created equal, of course. Sometimes there is baggage, a score to settle or just someone who's been antagonizing, needling, trying to stir up some trouble. And the strategy from fight to fight changes, too.
"Like Brookbank's a taller guy, so I want to pull his head down to my level. That's my instant thought. I know he's tall. Or I want to punch up," Clune said.
"I've fought fights where I haven't put up any defense. You and the other guy kind of challenge each other as far as, all right who can get the better shots off. But in that instance [with Brookbank], for me it's like, OK that guy's been trying to fight me for a couple of years now and he's always basically verbally abused me on the ice. I didn't fight him last year mainly because the times he wanted to go there was no point in doing it. He never thought I would stand up to him and, in that instance, I neutralized his arms and I put him in a position where I could hit him with his head down, and I did it. He was asking for it and the stuff the guy says to me on the ice and it pisses me off, so.
"But then there's also times where you're going up against a guy you have respect for and it's just competing. A lot of people use that term 'fight', fight, fighting, fighting, fighting. I like to use the term 'competing' a lot. Because you're just competing; competing on a job. I'm competing against a guy who's trained to do it. I'm not fighting a guy that doesn't know what he's doing. I'm fighting a guy he has abilities, he knows what's going on. We're both either trying to get our team in the game -- there's some reason you fight -- and we're just competing, it's a sport.
"It's not like a fistfight in the schoolyard, you're not bullying. You're going up against a guy who's willing. You're both willing, you want to go, you want to put on a show for the fans, get the crowd into it. I mean there's nothing better than hearing the building roar."
Fighting itself is only part of the dynamic. But when to fight and how to approach the topic is also a key element in the bare-knuckle ballet.
"You don't want to take a penalty. If the guy's not going to drop his gloves and fight back, you can't just drop your gloves and start whaling on him. Then you're going to put your team down," Clune said. "It's a tough line to ride because if you're sticking up for a teammate. Say someone hits one of your teammates dirty and you want to get in there and kind of stand up for him and the guy doesn't want to fight, it's almost like do you just kind of throw the rulebook away and just kind of beat on the guy and deal with it and ask questions later?"
"Like this year for example with [Steve] Downie in Colorado, when he hit Roman [Jossi]. Shea [Weber] tried to get after him right there and he was kind of protected by the refs on that play, and then later in the game I got on against him and I was trying to fight him, and he was saying, 'no.' And I kind of chased him around the ice. He ended up taking a penalty on me because he slashed me. In that instance, we were down 2-1 and I didn't want to just drop my gloves. Because at the same time too, that's what he wants, right? He wants to get you off your game. So I knew what he was kind of doing and it was tough because you know your guy's hurt and you want to stand up for him, but at the same time, we'll play him again so it was kind of something you just got to file it your memory bank."
If there are lines to be drawn on the ice, there are also philosophical lines to be dealt with too. For instance, Clune rarely talks about fighting and does not consider himself a 'fighter' in the truest sense of the word.
"I don't really like watching my fights. I don't like talking about it much either," he said.
"I know there's guys in hockey and they go around talking about all their fights and how tough they are and it's just painful. I hate being around guys like that. They talk about all their fights in junior and all their fights last year and they're on YouTube all the time. I'm the complete opposite."
Still, he believes -- or at least wants to believe -- that fighting is an integral part of the game.
"It's part of the game as far as an entertainment factor goes and I think it deters a lot of other things that would happen as far as stick work, dirtier hits. I want to believe that it prevents a lot of stuff like that from happening. I mean we'd never know until you find out, if they banned fighting, we'd never be able to prove that it limited injuries. It's one of those things, you don't know," Clune said.
Of course, fighting brings with it a range of possible outcomes, including injury.
"Oh yeah, I'm scared," Clune said. "But it's not like a fear of death. It's not like the fear of death or the fear of cancer or some sort of disease as a human you see it all happening around you and you're like, '[Expletive], I hope that doesn't happen to me.' But it's a healthy fear, you're like, 'I could get the s--- kicked out of me. And 20,000 people are going to watch, meanwhile the thousands of people on TV are going to see it, the reruns on the Internet that people are going to run.' Plus, your health, right? You take a blow and it could hurt you. But it's like a healthy fear.
"One guy who told me, a scared fighter is the best kind of fighter. Because if you're not scared, there's something wrong with you.
"It worries me that I could get hurt, but I push through that. For lack of a better term, I try and fight a certain way where I limit blows to my head and try not to let the other guy hit me."
But the bottom line is it hurts to get punched in the face, right? And there must still be a certain amount of shock value when someone delivers a whopper?
"I've had that. I've had that where you think you're doing good and you're kind of waiting for the other guy to do something and out of nowhere you take one and you go, [expletive], that hurt," Clune said. "Basically it really shuts you down. That's happened for sure. Then there's ones where you get hit and it's almost like it wakes you up. It hits you and it doesn't hurt but you know you just got hit.
"About a month ago in Winnipeg, me and this guy [ Adam Pardy] came out of the penalty box and we knew we were coming out to fight. We got roughing penalties. We tried to fight the shift before. We were in the box and I'm like, let's go, this is B.S. He was crosschecking me all the time and I'm like, let's just fight and get this over with. He was like, OK.
"So we come out of the box. Now I'm not a big fan of the big square off and the shadow boxing. I think that's kind of stupid too. So we went at it. He was a bigger guy, 6-4, and he threw a punch. He hit me in the eye. And it cut me. So I knew I was bleeding right away, but the punch didn't hurt, so I was awake. It was like an adrenaline rush and it woke me up and I came back and kind of took it to him in the fight, and I was bleeding everywhere after and the whole rink was yelling at me. I didn't lose control, but I was on some sort of high, I don't know what you'd call it. My adrenaline was just through the roof. When you see your own blood it's hard to explain, you're definitely not in the same mode as you are when you're walking down the street chewing bubble gum, that's for sure. You're a different person."
Although most fans might assume that winning a fight means knocking out an opponent or beating him senseless, Clune insisted that's not something that he's interested in. In fact, he hopes that will be taken out of the game -- even if it does seem like an awfully fine line.
"I'm not trying to knock anybody out cold in a fight. I've never knocked a guy out cold in a fight. I'm not saying I could go out there and knock any person I fight out cold, I just don't want to do it. I have no interest in seeing another guy lying there asleep on the ice. I've never done it and I hope I never do it," Clune said.
"I've had guys in positions where I could finish them off and I've either laid off or I haven't thrown a punch as hard as I could. And I think guys have done that for me. I personally never want to see a guy face-down on the ice as a result of me punching him in the face. That's not saying I don't want to inflict some sort of pain on the guy. Yeah, I want to punch him in the head and beat him and win the fight and have my fans behind me and have my team fired up. But I don't want to knock a guy out. When a guy gets knocked out, man, the building goes dead silent.
"You want to win your fight. It's a competition. It's like any other thing. You want to win your fight. This isn't a war. This isn't a war where you're trying to kill someone. Although guys say, 'I'm a warrior and I'm going to war' and all that stuff. It's a war under the terms of the game, the rules of the game.
"Listen, it's a necessary evil in the game. If I ever heard a guy laughing about how he knocked a guy out cold, I'd probably say something to him, and I have done that. You have to have respect for your opponent.
"I run around as much as anybody else in the league. I run my mouth at the other team, I fight a lot, but at the end of the day, I've never been suspended for a hit, I've been fined, and I've never clipped a guy in the head with a hit and I've never knocked anybody out cold and I don't want to do either of those things. And they need to get that out of the game."
Sometimes it's not only about knowing when a fight is over but when to take a break.
"It's not a UFC fight," Clune said. "In the UFC, if you watch it, they wait 'til the guy can't defend himself for a TKO. They let the finish happen. And then they break it up. In hockey, I think the [linesmen], if they can get in there before a finish, they do. I know there's guys that when the jersey comes over the face they'll keep swinging. I think that's bulls---. A lot of my fights happen because guys are coming after me, so they're actually pissed off at me. So if they get the jersey over my head, I've taken some shots. But I think if a jersey's over the head, you've got to kind of wait, let the guy see, that being said some guys they want to get the win and they want to get it over with."
No doubt his chosen line of work and the manner in which he performs that line of work has made for some difficult moments for those close to Clune. But he said they have made their peace with the kind of player he is, for the most part.
"It bugs my grandparents. It bugs my parents, yeah. It doesn't bug them if they know I'm playing hard and a fight happens, a fight happens. If I'm in the lineup making plays and playing hockey and doing all that stuff. They can see the difference though when I'm frustrated and I'm going out there and looking for it and trying to pick fights with people, I think they get a little upset. They don't want to see me get in there with one of those super heavyweights," he said.
Just because a guy isn't afraid to drop the gloves doesn't mean he's prepared to drop them indiscriminately.
"I pick my spots. I'm not going to fight Colton Orr. I'm not going to fight Zdeno Chara unless there's an absolutely necessary reason like they ran over [Pekka Rinne] or Shea Weber and it was a black and white thing and I was there. But I'm not going to go out there and try and prove myself to a super heavyweight who if he catches me is probably going to knock me out cold," he said.
Speaking of Orr, the Maple Leafs' tough guy has been edging for a bout with Clune this season, but Clune has avoided that confrontation.
"I said, listen man, it's not going to happen. Don't care if the other team calls me chicken, if fans around the league, whatever. I didn't make the NHL by fighting guys like that," Clune said.
For a player like Clune, there are also the competing emotions of performing a task that is clearly defined on the team while also wanting to be more than a one-trick pony.
"I don't even like calling myself a fighter. In this game and in this world, perception's reality," Clune said. "Look at my stats this year. I have no points, I've played about half the games and I'm leading our team in fights and penalty minutes, so perception's kind of reality. That's just the way it is. I've always been a guy, I've liked to mix points and goals and assists in with that. It's not happening right now and it's pissing me off, but I just got to push through and hopefully turn it around.
"I know I've got a lot of work to do to become the player that I want to be, and right now it's just a combination of being in a slump and, if you don't play every game and you're not playing a lot of minutes, it's going to take longer to get out of it than Claude Giroux, who plays five minutes a night on the power play.
"It's a tough time right now."
Still, Clune is nothing if not self-aware. And the fact is, being a fighter is part of who he is; it does not define him but it is part of his makeup now.
"You want to be known as a guy that can hit, skate, fight, make plays, disciplined, but at the same time, it's not by accident that I'm kind of a wild card. That's what separated me from a lot of guys for me to get here. But you don't want to be known as a one-dimensional guy," Clune said. "If I'm coaching a team, why would I want one of those guys on the team, what benefit is that?"