CSILLAG email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2002-12-07 published
He was too violent for hockey
By Ron CSILLAG Special to The Globe and Mail Saturday, December 7, 2002 -- Page F9
The screenwriters of Requiem For a Heavyweight would have been hard-pressed to pen a more sorrowful tale than that of Steve DURBANO, described by one hockey columnist as a goofy thug who made the goons in the movie Slap Shot look like monks.
There weren't many other epithets Mr. DURBANO didn't endure in his short but brutal professional hockey career, and the tumultuous times following: Super-goon, pimp, druggie, out-of-control. Even his own teammates feared the hard, hulking defenceman, whose playing statistics show notable numbers in just one category: penalty minutes.
After Mr. DURBANO played parts of six seasons with four National Hockey League teams, his life spiralled downward in a haze of drugs, odd jobs, prison and pathos until he died last month of liver cancer in Yellowknife, where had gone to escape the demons that haunted him for all his 50 years.
In 220 National Hockey League games, he scored 13 goals, tallied 60 assists and piled up 1,127 penalty minutes, or better than five minutes a game. Throughout his pro and junior career, including three seasons with the Toronto Marlboros, he left a trail of suspensions, fighting, stick-swinging and attacks on officials. His mayhem was no secret; one banner in the arena in Ottawa said, "Kill Durbano and win a Free Trip to Hull."
In 1978, after storming off the players' bench and famously attacking Bobby HULL in Mr. DURBANO's one season with the Birmingham Bulls of the now-defunct World Hockey Association, he was banned for 12 games and threatened with a lifetime suspension for his next overtly violent infraction. The ruling gave him the dubious distinction of being too violent for hockey.
"He was the most raucous player I've ever seen," former teammate Mike MURPHY was quoted as saying recently. "He scared me when he played with me and when he played against me. He was very likable, funny, friendly and genuine. But he used his stick in vile ways."
Harry Steven DURBANO was born in Toronto, the son of Nick DURBANO, a Toronto real-estate broker and former owner of the Hamilton Red Wings of the Ontario Hockey Association.
"He was three years old when he laced up his first pair of skates," said Nick DURBANO, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., semi-retired from managing golf courses. "At 7, he was playing with nine-year-olds. At 13, he was playing Junior A, and the [Toronto] Marlies were already interested in him."
Armed with a Grade 10 education, Mr. DURBANO stormed into his role as an enforcer for the Marlboros beginning in 1968 and attained notoriety as the most penalized junior player in the history of the Ontario Hockey Association.
"The big thing with Steve," recalled Frank BONELLO, his coach with the Marlies for two seasons, "was that he had tremendous potential. The scouts all thought he could become a heck of a pro. But every once in a while, he would get frustrated and go off the deep end.
"And then you'd meet him after the game and you'd never know it was the same person," Bonello said in 1983. "I think he had the skills, but sometimes he didn't make the best use of them. You never knew what he'd do."
While still a junior, Mr. DURBANO was twice charged with assault for off-ice behaviour, including a gloved swipe at a police officer, but charges were dropped. His part-time job, mopping up around Maple Leaf Gardens while the Leafs practised, stoked his dreams of the big leagues.
His most productive year came in the 1971-72 season with the Omaha Knights of the Central Hockey League: seven goals and 34 assists -- but also 402 minutes spent in the box.
The New York Rangers thought enough of Mr. DURBANO to select him in the first round of the 1971 amateur draft, the 13th player chosen overall. He signed for a $10,000 bonus and a $9,000 salary. Before he could don a Rangers jersey, he was traded to St. Louis, beginning a cycle of transfers that would see the 6-foot, 1-inch, 175-pound defenceman shunted from the Blues to Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Colorado, with brief stints in the World Hockey Association and the Central and American leagues, and finally back to St. Louis, where he finished his career in 1979, missing most of that season because of hepatitis and a mangled hand.
Along the way, he was suspended as many as four times in one season; threw his gloves at referee Ron WICKS; and was fined and suspended for shooting the puck at an official.
He was a prototype of the bruiser soon sought by all professional teams, "the beginning of a breed," as one teammate said, most notably manifested in the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers.
He knew it too. "If I just went on talent alone, I never would have made the National Hockey League," he said in a jailhouse interview 20 years ago.
Mr. DURBANO's post-hockey life began to unravel in 1981, when, after a trip to Peru and Bolivia, he was arrested with $11 in his pocket and a quantity of cocaine concealed in the false heels of his shoes. He was sentenced to seven years for his part in a scheme to smuggle $568,000 worth of cocaine into Canada, partly to feed his own $1,000-a-day habit. He served 28 months, and caused a huge stink when he told a newspaper columnist that he had lied at his trial, and that drug use was widespread in the National Hockey League.
In 1998, living on welfare and a $300-a-month hockey pension, he was sentenced to three months in jail for offering an undercover police officer a job with an escort service he was operating from a Welland, Ontario, hotel room. In between, he had jobs at a slaughterhouse, as a bartender and an assistant manager of a Toronto restaurant. It was a time of heavy boozing and a divorce.
Where did all that rage come from? His mother, Doreen JORDAN, explained while choking back tears. "He was a quiet child. But when he was 5, we noticed something wasn't right with him."
Six years ago, Mr. DURBANO attempted suicide, and the secret came spilling forth: During the summer of 1956, he had been molested by a male acquaintance at a family resort. She said the incident was corroborated by Mr. DURBANO's older brother, John.
"That's why he rejected all authority from men," his mother sobbed, "but never from women. He has two teenaged daughters he loved. Gordie HOWE told me he wished his sons had half the guts Steve had.
"He was a good kid, and he loved his Mom."
Steve DURBANO, athlete, born in Toronto on Dec. 12, 1951; died in Yellowknife on Nov. 16, 2002.
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