Dennis Vial laughs easily, fondly remembering his days as one of the NHL’s toughest players.
He’s proud of scratching and clawing — but mostly fighting — his way through hockey’s minor leagues to enjoy a 242-game NHL career, the bulk of that spent with the Ottawa Senators from 1993-98. He had some glory moments, including going toe-to-toe with with Buffalo’s Rob Ray for more than two minutes in one notable fight. He had some Slapshot moments, serving a one-game suspension for shooting a puck at then Buffalo Sabres coach John Muckler.
Vial, now settling into a post-hockey life as a businessman 45 minutes west of Halifax, carries a happy-go-lucky attitude.
Except, that is, when it comes to the hot topic of fighting in the NHL. Vial says he’s “frustrated” when he hears some of his former fighting peers looking back at their careers with regret. He believes Don Cherry was trying to express that point but that the message “came across the wrong way” or was “misunderstood”, landing him in a hornet’s nest of trouble.
“I know there are issues there, but whatever happens to me in my life, I’m not going to go back and say, ‘it was when I played that tough guy role in Ottawa’,” said Vial, who registered three goals, 15 assists and 625 penalty minutes in 176 games with the Senators.
“I’m not going to do that. I get frustrated when people say, ‘what’s the NHL going to do (about fighting)’. What do you want the NHL to do? The NHL is a business. Their job is to put the 700 best players on the ice. It’s an entertainment business. But at the same time, you want to win. In turn, you’re compensated well if you’re one of the 700 best.
“If you’re not one of the 700 best and you have personal issues down the road, don’t blame the NHL.”
Vial knows it’s a touchy subject, but he was never afraid of a fight. And he hardly took the easy road during his hockey travels.
He played in the Ontario, American, International, East Coast and United Hockey Leagues. He skated for two seasons in England and for two games in the Quebec Senior Professional Hockey League. He didn’t call it quits until 2004-05, when at the age of 34, he was still playing professionally with the Richmond Riverdogs and the Missouri River Otters, a pair of UHL outfits. All along, he served as support for his more skilled teammates.
“Was it stresssful for me? Well, a lot of anxiety was built up for me when I played in that role,” he said. “Let’s be honest. It’s not as much fun as scoring goals. If you give me the option, I want to score goals. But on the flip side, goal scorers like to have guys like me around. They get that little comfort if things are getting out of hand.”
The highlights of his NHL career included being part of the latter day Senators rebuilding movement, dressing for a “blue collar” Senators team which emerged from laughingstock status into a playoff squad for the first time in 1996-97.
Stepping back into Scotiabank Place Tuesday, he says there are similarities between then and now.
“I understand that Ottawa is s going to the youth movement, getting young and rebuilding,” he said. “Ottawa had that window of opportunity for about 4-5 years there, they had a great, great team, but if you miss it, at some point, I guess you stop chasing it because it’s not going to happen. You start building again. A lot of franchises have to do that.”