Long before he coached the St. Louis Blues to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Championship one year ago, Craig Berube was renowned as one of hockey’s all-time great enforcers.
Berube split his 17-year NHL career between the Flyers, Maple Leafs, Flames, Capitals and Islanders and accumulated 3,149 penalty minutes, which ranks seventh-most in NHL history. His path to pugilism, however, began as a teen.
For someone with well over 200 fights in the NHL, you’d think he’d flat-out enjoy chucking knuckles but that’s not necessarily the case.
“I don’t really know if I ever liked it that much,” Berube told Pardon My Take. “I mean, I just did a lot of it. Even growing up I did a lot of it as a kid. I grew up with 15-20 cousins around me every day and what’s going to happen? You’re going to get in fights and that’s the way it was. I grew up in that mindset and as a player I needed to do that to play in the NHL, otherwise I wouldn’t have played in the NHL.”
Berube played three seasons in the Western Hockey League before moving up into the AHL then NHL, but in order to survive in the WHL in the mid-1980s you had to be able to hold your own.
That’s why, as Berube explained, the one season he spent with the Williams Lake Mustangs in the Peace-Cariboo Junior Hockey League (later named the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League) playing for a coach named John van Horlick was so influential.
“During the year I was doing a lot of boxing because he had us boxing a lot, working with fighters and things like that to learn how to handle yourself and it was actually really good — for me anyhow,” Berube said.
Prior to debuting in the WHL in the 1983-84 season, Berube spent much of that summer training at Van Horlick’s house. The coach even had Berube compete in a local tough-man competition that he ended up winning.
“I said, ‘Well, who’s gonna train me?’ He says, ‘I am. You’re gonna come over every afternoon, 4 o’clock, we’re gonna go down in the basement, put the gloves on and we’re gonna go at it for a while, then my wife will feed you dinner and you can go home.’ And I’m not lying,” Berube reminisced with a chuckle. “That’s what we did and his two boys were watching and they were young kids like seven years old or whatever. … We’d go in his basement, no headgear, no mouthpieces, no nothing, and spar for an hour or so and then I’d go up and have dinner and that was it.
“He’s a big part of why I’m here today, or why I played in the NHL, for sure. He groomed me as a young kid and got me to become that kind of a player and that’s how I was gonna play.”
Van Horlick’s influence was so important to Berube that he invited his old bench boss to the Berube family farm in Calahoo, Alta., to celebrate his day with the Cup in July of 2019.
“I had to build his confidence up a bit,” Van Horlick told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that day. “He was only 17. The Western Hockey League is really physical. A lot of real tough guys. The toughest guys in the National Hockey League come out of there. So you gotta be a little careful getting a guy into that league. Especially a guy like Craig that’s ready to fight. But a 17-year-old’s not ready to fight 19- and 20-year-olds. So we had to kind of bring him along, and show him the ropes and teach him a few things.”
Van Horlick continued: “We always wanted to have the toughest team with the least amount of penalty minutes and that’s the kind of guy Craig was. Craig was a player that never bullied anyone. But he always fought the other team’s tough guy. But he was never a dirty player. He tried to use his skill as best he could.”
Berube has passed that mindset onto his current players, as the Blues had the eighth-fewest penalty minutes in 2018-19 but would not be pushed around on the ice. Prior to the NHL suspending its season indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Blues had the sixth-fewest PIMs per game and sat in first place in the Western Conference.