When Ken Daneyko was a seven-year-old boy growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, he told his mother that he would someday play in the National Hockey League. Having been on the ice since he was four, it was already obvious that the youngster was a skating prodigy.
“Hockey is like a religion in Canada,” said Daneyko. “It was something I was passionate about right away.”
Daneyko would go on to play 18 full seasons with the New Jersey Devils. Known as an extremely physical player, he led the Devils in penalty minutes six times.
“I got my foot in the door by being physical,” said Daneyko. “If you’re playing hockey, you better know how to fight.”
From the ages of 18 to 25, Daneyko trained in the off-season as a boxer, for both conditioning and knowledge. If he knew how to punch properly, there would be less likelihood of him hurting his hands.
Most importantly, he says, the conditioning he garnered from boxing was unparalleled.
“The conditioning is second to none,” said Daneyko, who received over 200 facial stitches and lost many teeth during his playing days. “I’ve always been a boxing fan, so it was natural that I give it a try. But as much as I loved boxing, hockey was my thing. It was my first love.”
Daneyko says the toughest fighting opponents he faced on the ice were Bob Probert of the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Black Hawks and Dave Brown of the Philadelphia Flyers and the Edmonton Oilers.
“Bob was the best on-ice fighter,” he said. “And when I got into it with Dave, I used to be grateful to come out of it alive. He was a lefty.”
He also played against Nick Fotiu, the former New York City Golden Gloves fighter who played for the New York Rangers and the Calgary Flames.
“I never got into it with him, but he was tough as nails,” said Daneyko. “He was around a long time. After a while no one messed with him.”
Today, says Daneyko, bygones are bygones. He never took any of his hockey fights personally and says he is good friends with all of his onetime rivals on ice.
During his illustrious playing career, Daneyko, who is now 42, won three Stanley Cups, the last of which was in 2003, the year he retired.
“It was great to go out on top,” he said. “I left the game on a high.”
In the latter years of his playing career, Daneyko, who resides in New Jersey with his wife and two children, became friends with former heavyweight title challenger Gerry Cooney.
Daneyko is involved with Cooney’s FIST organization and they regularly play together at charitable golf tournaments.
As much as Daneyko loved Cooney’s sheer physical power, if he had to compare any fighters to himself as a hockey player, the first two that come to mind are former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and top contender George Chuvalo, the latter of who is a fellow Canadian.
“Both were lunch-pail type fighters, hardnosed, determined guys like myself,” he explained.
Not surprisingly, his favorite current fighter is Arturo Gatti. “There is no one more exciting than him,” said Daneyko. “When he fought Floyd Mayweather, I was hoarse from screaming so loud. Everyone in Atlantic City was cheering so hard for him.”
The first fight that Daneyko ever attended live was also one of the best fights he has ever seen. He had great seats for the first Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns bout in Las Vegas.
“The fight was great, but I actually enjoyed the atmosphere more,” he said. “It was better than the fight.”
He has nothing but respect for Lennox Lewis, who he says “danced to his own beat and never got caught up in the hype.” Moreover, he adds, “Lennox is his own man. He’s the last of the real good ones (heavyweights).”
Daneyko can’t even begin to imagine the pressure a championship fighter experiences in the hours before a title bout.
“I’ve been in many Stanley Cup final games,” he said. “The pressure is insurmountable. It has got to be equally or even more intense before a big fight.”
The refreshingly candid Daneyko was one of the first hockey players to go public about his substance abuse problems, and he temporarily left the game in 1997 to enter rehab.
“Hockey was everything to me, but I was drinking too much to be my best,” he said. “Fortunately I didn’t get into [legal] trouble. I took control of my problem before it made the newspapers.”
Daneyko credits Cooney, who is also a recovering alcoholic, with helping him through that rocky period of his life.
“Gerry had some tough times too, and he proved to be a great friend,” he said. “I am very grateful for the help he gave me.”
Daneyko is very happy at the choices he has made and the way his life turned out. He has scores of joyous memories, a wonderful family, good friends, and business interests in the mortgage industry and in a developmental company. He still does work for the Devils organization.
“Life has been good,” he said. “I might not have been the most naturally gifted hockey player, but I was the guy that was needed in the trenches. I did what it took to get the job done, and I’m very proud of what I accomplished.”