Updated: Jun 28, 2021
Being tabbed as an enforcer is one of hockey's most underappreciated but equally strategic roles. Joey Tetarenko was marked as an enforcer for most of his hockey career, playing professionally from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s. Despite the enforcer being a dying breed in the league nowadays, Tetarenko made a name for himself as an enforcer during an era where that was not the case and had a solid career in that role to boot.
Tetarenko grew up in St. Louis, Saskatchewan, a town of about 415 people just south of Prince Albert, and got started in hockey from a young age. He believes the town being so athletically inclined was what made him stick with the sport.
"Hockey was probably the biggest sport in [St. Louis]," Tetarenko said. "Everyone in the town was competitive in all the school sports. I think this not only helped me stay with hockey but have a well-rounded athletic experience growing up."
While Tetarenko would be known as an enforcer as he got into juniors and professional play, it was not always that way for him. He believes that he had to adjust his game to be an enforcing style of play when the players started getting more skilled as he made his way into juniors.
"I don't think anyone envisions getting in an important fight when you're playing [hypothetical] Game 7s in the street, it's always the game-winning goal," he said. "As I got older, the talent pool got stronger as I moved up. I started as an offensive defenseman in minor hockey, transitioned into a stay-at-home defenseman, and then, as I got older, I had to find a way to stay [playing juniors]. Being a bigger, aggressive guy, I adopted fighting early on in juniors and figured out that I was good at it. It helped me stay with hockey as my career progressed."
There is a lot of strategy to fighting, especially when one is trying to gain a momentum boost or stand up for a teammate. Tetarenko believes that some of the best enforcers in the NHL were also the best at strategizing when to fight an opponent.
"Some of the best enforcers at the NHL level are also some of the most athletic," Tetarenko said. "They knew when to time their fights as well. There are good times to fight, but there are also bad times. [A good time] is when your team is down and you need a spark or defending one of your best players. If you do it at the wrong time, you can lose momentum. Knowing the temperature of the game is a big part of the enforcer role."
Tetarenko would play midget-level hockey for the North Battleford North Stars at the age of 15, moving around 140 miles away. After a year there, he moved another 1,100 miles away to play junior hockey for the Portland Winter Hawks of the WHL. While moving was tough at the beginning, Tetarenko believes the excitement level of playing junior hockey was what helped him avoid homesickness.
"It helped me out not being so far away [in North Battleford] for the first year," Tetarenko said. "The big jump was to Portland on the West Coast the next year though. I thought it was Portland, Maine when they drafted me. The excitement outweighed any apprehension I had moving away from home. I always enjoyed the adventure, so anything new that I could take on was awesome."
Tetarenko would spend 1994-98 in Portland, and in 1996, got the call of a lifetime when he was drafted in the fourth round (82nd overall) by the defending Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers. Getting drafted was a dream come true according to Tetarenko, but the process of work after to eventually get called up was even more important to him.
"It's a dream come true to hear your name called by an NHL club, especially after you dream about it playing street hockey and youth hockey growing up," he said. "The process leading to getting drafted is a lot of hard work. Once you get drafted by an NHL hockey club, the game really changes. You have to focus on the mental aspect as well as working out and staying in shape. My first training camp was amazing, I was awestruck. I was drafted in 1996, and with the Panthers coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, I went from being a fan to actually playing with those guys. It was a surreal experience."
Despite the recent trip to the Cup Finals, the Panthers were still a relatively new organization, and Tetarenko believes that this was a blessing in disguise and that it led to him being closer to a call-up than if he were in another more star-studded organization.
"I was not exactly a blue-chip prospect being drafted in the fourth round, but coming to a newer NHL organization actually benefitted anyone coming [into the organization]," Tetarenko said. "The Panthers didn't have a deep pool of prospects, and if I had been drafted in 1996 by Colorado or Detroit, I probably would not have had as much of a chance to not only make the NHL but the American Hockey League as well. A lot of those teams' later-round draft picks would have to play in the ECHL, and I was fortunate to not ever have to play in that league, only having to split time between the NHL and AHL."
While Tetarenko would finally make the jump to the NHL during the 2000-01 season for his first games, that season was not actually the first time he was called up. He recalls a story from the 1999-00 season from his first official call-up when he was playing for the Louisville Panthers.
"I got a call from Chuck Fletcher, who was the assistant GM at the time for the Panthers, and he asked if I was ready to be called up," he said. "He told me my flight was leaving in an hour and a half, and I thought nothing of it as the Louisville rink was pretty close to the airport and I could grab my equipment and go. He told me that my flight wasn't actually leaving from Louisville, it was in Cincinnati, which is a little over an hour from Louisville. I drove as fast as I could to Cincinnati and threw my car in whatever parking spot I could. I got to the ticket counter and ran as fast as I could to the gate, but the plane was already leaving, and I begged the person at the desk to turn it around, but he didn't and I missed the flight. I bet if I were Tom Hanks in a movie, I probably would have caught it, but since they could barely pronounce my name, I missed the flight."
Tetarenko was officially called up and suited up for his first game on October 27, 2000, against the Nashville Predators. He got in his first fight, a scrap with Jim McKenzie of the New Jersey Devils, three days later. He would play six games before being sent down to Louisville again until January and then sent down again after another seven games until March. Bouncing around was never too hard being on a two-way contract, but being mentally prepared for that call-up was always an interesting task.
"During my career, I always had that 'looking over my shoulder' mentality, because I could be called up one day and sent down the next," Tetarenko said. "I never had that solid one-way contract, being on a two-way contract my whole career. Looking back, it probably took its toll on my play. I don't think I really had a chance to sit back and enjoy playing until after I retired."
While he was not known for goal scoring, Tetarenko scored his first NHL goal in a wild 7-6 overtime loss to the Blue Jackets on March 9, 2001, potting the first goal of the game. He would add another in the third period, tying the game at five as it went back-and-forth. Getting the first goal out of the way was nice, and he amusingly ran through all the Calder scenarios in his head following the two-goal effort.
"I was having the week of my life [career-wise]," he said. "I picked up my first assist in the game before against the Sharks and scored two in that game against the Blue Jackets. I was on a hot streak, and I was doing the math in my head [jokingly] thinking I could win the Calder. Unfortunately, the goal-scoring well went dry after that, but I did score against Dominik Hasek a few weeks later which was even cooler. Nothing against Ron Tugnutt of the Blue Jackets, but he was probably wondering who this Tetarenko kid was. I was fortunate because my last name sounds Russian and people probably thought I was a skilled Russian player because of that."
Tetarenko would score five points in his career with four coming during that season, adding a goal the following year. He was more known for fighting, which he did quite often in his career, racking up 171 penalty minutes in 73 career games. Playing in an era with lots of enforcers such as Georges Laraque and Darren McCarty, there wasn't one enforcer who stood out amongst the rest, but multiple players he remembers that gave him a tough go of things.
"Teams were stacked so deep with toughness in that era, and we had a lot of it on the Panthers as well," Tetarenko said. "We had Peter Worrell and Paul Laus, two guys who were very good at what they did. I had the opportunity to be the third guy, so I didn't have to worry about being 'the guy' who fought against all the heavyweights. I once tangled with Zdeno Chara in juniors, who [split my eyebrow] open for 36 stitches and left me a monument for the rest of my life. Eric Cairns and George Parros were pretty tough. It doesn't matter who you were playing against, you always had to be aware of who was out on the ice at any given time."
Tetarenko would remain in the Panthers organization for another year before being traded to Ottawa in 2003 for goaltender Simon Lajeunesse, bouncing around between Binghamton and the big club before signing as a free agent with the Hurricanes for the 2003-04 season, splitting time between Lowell and Carolina. Moving was never hard, but once again being ready for the potential call-ups provided an interesting challenge.
"Being traded to Ottawa was great because at the time the Panthers were struggling and the Senators were on their way to a President's Trophy," Tetarenko said. "I was there for a few months and then they traded for Rob Ray and I was sent back down to Binghamton, and in Carolina, Jesse Boulerice was out with concussion problems, so when he came back I was the odd man out on the roster. I always had to be prepared for change."
While with Binghamton, Joey played in the Calder Cup playoffs with the Senators when the team made a run to the semifinals, and enjoyed the experience, especially with how close he became with his teammates over the season.
"Binghamton had a very balanced team, and I was able to move back to the defenseman position as a result," Tetarenko said. "I was able to do whatever the team asked me to so I could stay in the lineup and get ice time. Binghamton is not a huge city, so we spent a lot of time together both as a team [and as friends]. Guys like Dennis Bonvie, Ray Emery, Brian McGrattan, and Jeff Ulmer were there, so it was really close-knit. Unfortunately, we lost to Hamilton in the semifinals, but that experience was amazing."
Tetarenko would then spend time in the Minnesota Wild organization before hanging up the skates after the 2006-07 season. He made the transition into coaching following his time with the Wild, citing wanting to remain involved with the game after retiring.
"Whether you are a player or a coach, everyone enjoys going to the rink," he said. "Nowadays, you can't coach 'old school', you have to adapt and really learn from your players as much as you teach them. I was able to retain the competitive spirit from my playing days while coaching."
With the enforcer role dying out in hockey and the impact of concussions being more prevalent than ever, Tetarenko believes that there are benefits to both sides of the argument but knows that concussions have taken their toll on some good players.
"Fighting is like having a couple of beers," says Tetarenko. "It's okay to have one or two every once in a while, but if you're doing it all the time, it's obviously going to take its toll. I enjoyed that aspect of the game, but knowing what we know now, it's not as enjoyable with the effects concussions have had on some people."
Tetarenko now works as a technical sales and performance specialist for ProSharp, a company based out of Sweden that contours skate blades for optimal skating performance, and he likens it to finding the right curve for one's stick. He also records a podcast of his own with longtime friend and comedian Kelly "Tic" Taylor, and the podcast is known as "Tic With a Side of Tets", which you can find here. His Twitter account is @JoeyTetarenko as well.
You can listen to the full interview at any of the links found here.