Former Baltimore Skipjacks' player in the 1980s Bennett Wolf talks about his life after ice hockey as well as the honors he received while playing. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
He is poised and soft-spoken, with a jolly countenance and winsome eyes that crinkle when he smiles. Meet Bennett Wolf, hard-checking defenseman for the Baltimore Skipjacks' bygone hockey team.
Wolf's looks belie his rowdy past. He was the team's enforcer, its goon, its intimidator. Asked once to define his role, he said, "If a guy gets chippy with one of our forwards, I just skate over to him and say, 'Do that again and I'll cut your eyes out.'"
Tough and tenacious, he thrived on slamming rivals into the boards and delivering punishing body checks to those who harassed his teammates. He paid a price, losing four teeth, part of an ear and twice leading the American Hockey League in penalty minutes. But for three years, Wolf's fierce play spurred the Skipjacks and helped carry them to a Southern Division title in 1983-84 and the Calder Cup finals the following year.
Fisticuffs were his forte. Once, 15 seconds after entering a game, Wolf had managed to get into two brawls and amass 17 minutes of penalties. Another time, while sidelined by injuries, he took umbrage with a rival who'd blindsided a Skipjacks player and lit into the guy when he came out of the game. Though wearing street clothes, Wolf received a game misconduct penalty.
His reputation preceded him. At home, when he skated onto the ice, the organist played "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"
During one fight, he bit an opponent in the forehead. The reason?
"When he's biting you, you return the favor," said Wolf, 57, of Westminster. "I wouldn't fight dirty unless the other team started it."
His combativeness cowed opponents, juiced Civic Center crowds and painted a bullseye on Wolf's back.
"Rookies who came into the league to make names for themselves would fight me. It was like being a gunslinger in the Old West," he said. Wiser players steered clear of Wolf's bone-jarring hits and fearsome threats.
"A large part of the game is being able to get into the other team's head," he said. "You jaw back and forth and talk smack, like a baseball pitcher telling a batter, 'The next one is coming at your head.' It's all trash; I never maimed anyone. But if they think you've got a screw loose, the guy with the puck might look over his shoulder. I wouldn't say people were petrified of me, but they knew I was there — and it might have affected their play."
Reviled on the road, Wolf shrugged off the taunts of fans, who'd scream obscenities and try to douse the 6-foot-3, 220-pound defenseman with beer.
"They hated me, so I figured I must be doing my job," he said. "Once, while I was in the penalty box, a fan in Erie, Pa. reached over and started throwing punches at me. He was charged with assault; the guy had imbibed too much."
Leaving those enemy rinks posed no personal threat, he said.
"After games, fans were always respectful. Those who hated you never showed their faces later."
From Kitchener, Ontario, Wolf joined the Skipjacks in 1982-83 after two stints with their parent club, the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. The following year, the Skipjacks set a franchise record for victories (46-24-10) and reached the Calder Cup semifinals. In 1984-85, they won 45 games — including 16 straight — and made the finals before losing, four games to two, to the Sherbrooke Canadiens and their goalie, Patrick Roy, a budding Hall of Famer.
The victory streak that season still resonates with Wolf.
"We went a month — nearly one-quarter of the season — without a loss or tie," he said. "As the wins piled up, it got contagious. Once, we trailed, 5-0 in the third period and won, 6-5. The streak carried us right into the playoffs where we beat two teams before losing to Sherbrooke. We had the better team; they had the better goalie."
It was the only brush with fame for the Skipjacks who, in 1993, moved to Portland, Maine.
Though only 26, Wolf retired after that Calder Cup run.
"I thought long and hard about it," he said. "But with no job experience, it's a lot easier finding work at that age than in your mid-30s."
Nowadays, he's a senior engineering tech specialist for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., for whom Wolf has worked for 30 years. Married 25 years, he lives in Carroll County "on a little piece of paradise." There, surrounded by keepsakes from his days with the Skipjacks and Penguins, he'll watch as Pittsburgh starts its Stanley Cup playoff run this week.
"Hockey afforded me the chance to see the country and to play the sport I love," he said. "Do I miss the banging around? No. Did I thoroughly enjoy my career? Yes. But I don't dwell on it. I was at the big dance, and I wear that as a badge of honor — but I'd rather people befriend me for who I am than for what I did."