Long after he had played his final no-holds-barred hockey game at Long Island Arena in Commack, John Brophy said, “Once you’re a Duck, you’re a Duck for the rest of your life.” He might have underestimated. The determined defenseman and coach is likely to be remembered as the heart and soul of the Long Island Ducks forever.
Brophy died Monday at 83 in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he began playing hockey at the age of 6 and where he spent his final years in a retirement home. But his reputation was created as a Duck in the 1960s with a colorful career that is said to have been the inspiration for Paul Newman’s character in the cult film hit, “Slap Shot.”
“It’s a sad loss for hockey. Never is there anybody on Long Island that I talk to about hockey who doesn’t mention John Brophy,” said Buzz Deschamps a teammate in some of Brophy’s nine seasons as a Duck. “He was definitely a legend.”
The legend was built on rugged play in the rough-and-tumble Eastern Hockey League. Brophy was assessed 3,900 penalty minutes in his 18 seasons.He once was suspended for bumping a referee, then appeared in a beer commercial as a referee. “Basically, I played for 10 years and sat for 10 years,” he said in a 1997 Newsday interview.
But Deschamps, who settled on Long Island and became an equipment company executive and college coach, said yesterday, “I know he was known as a fighter, but he was more than that. He was a hard worker. He was the ultimate teammate and a great person. I don’t think he has ever gotten his due from the hockey world. By that I mean, he was never nominated for the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
Deschamps cited a statistic circulated Monday on NHL.com and various media outlets: that Brophy’s 1,027 victories as a professional coach—starting as player-coach of the Ducks in 1967-68—are second only to Scotty Bowman.
Brophy ultimately made it to the National Hockey League as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1986 to 1989. After that, he coached 11 seasons for the Hampton Roads Admirals of the ECHL and won three titles. The league’s coach of the year award is named for Brophy. His former assistant coach Al MacIsaac, now vice president of hockey operations for the Chicago Blackhawks, brought the Stanley Cup to Brophy’s nursing home in 2013 and last year.
Still, it is as a player and as a Duck that Brophy was best identified. He was a year-round fixture on Long Island, spending summers as an iron worker, building many Suffolk schools that went up in the baby boom. He was on the Ducks’ 1965 championship team. In a Newsday story on the 50th anniversary last year, he said, “We didn’t have any trouble celebrating.”
When reflecting on that title, teammate Wayne Kitchen said, “I loved John. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”
Brophy also would take the teeth out of an opponent’s mouth. Deschamps recalled having bruises on his back and legs after scoring a hat trick against the Philadelphia Ramblers, when Brophy was their top defenseman. Two days later, the Ducks acquired him. “He told me, ‘You just put the puck in the net and I’ll take care of the rest,’ ” the former forward said.
There never was an official acknowledgment that Newman’s screen role was inspired by Brophy, but the fiery former player said years later, “They did a lot of research on me.”
Asked what he thought of the film, Brophy said in the 1997 interview: “Funny as hell. Probably the best movie made of any sport.”