Andre Payette turned 39 this summer, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down when it comes to the rough and tumble of his role as an ‘enforcer’. For those uninitiated with ice hockey jargon, an enforcer is effectively the team’s hard man or fighter. Enforcers in America and Canada’s National Hockey League (NHL) have been known to go to extreme lengths to improve their fighting prowess, including taking up boxing lessons.
Payette’s reputation as a fearsome enforcer is well deserved; the Canadian’s spent an eye-watering 2,902 minutes and counting in the penalty box for misdemeanours in the UK alone, with 369 of those minutes coming in his first season with Coventry Blaze. He explains that although he’s in the twilight of his career he’s as fired up as ever. ‘A lot of guys get more relaxed as they get older and a lot of people don’t want to do it anymore, but I’ll be completely honest, I enjoy it more now than I did as a kid,’ he laughs. ‘I think I’m just as mean as I was when I was younger. I pride myself on helping the team with my play, if anybody wants to pick on one of my teammates or have a fight I’m always happy to help out.’
Quite a way of helping out. His list of injuries is as impressive as his distinguished career; he says he’s broken his nose three times, injured his hand eight times, dislocated a shoulder and an elbow, and cracked several front teeth. But he’s not just about brawn.
Together with ex-Whitley Warriors player and former Newcastle Vipers teammate David Longstaff, who’s returned to coach at the club where it all started, Payette is attempting to put ice hockey in the North East back on the proverbial map after the Vipers and Durham Wasps folded. Whitley Warriors are now one of the last remaining clubs in the North East, and Payette is keen to give his all for this last bastion of ice hockey in the region.
‘David and I coming back has brought a lot of the old Vipers fans back and the style of play is in line with the North East mentality to be quite physical. Everybody works hard and everybody’s accountable, that’s credit to David, but it’s been fantastic to see so many people back in the rink. Our crowds have been great and the atmosphere at Whitley Bay is amazing right now. It’s fun to play in and it’s fun to be a part of, it’s a mean old hockey rink.’
Andre spends half of his week living in Sheffield and half in Newcastle, but he speaks with warm enthusiasm about the region. ‘I love it. Being away from the North East I forgot how much the people here love their ice hockey and love their physical players. It’s been absolutely awesome to be back, seeing how good the fans are and being a part of it all again.’
He cites his time in the North East with the Vipers as one of his career highlights. ‘I won the Calder Cup in the NHL (with the Philadelphia Phantoms) which is probably the best trophy you can win, that was a great feeling. But the year we won the play offs with the Newcastle Vipers was one of my favourite moments because we were such a great group of guys, and it was fantastic to win with those guys.’
Whitley Warriors currently play in the third tier NIHL North North Division 1, but this belies their history, with the club having played at a high level for the majority of their existence. Andre has certainly reignited a spark in the region that threatened to die out after the Vipers folded in 2011 – he estimates that the average crowd at home games is over a 1,000. ‘The team this year has really got people excited again and talking about the glory days of Whitley Bay, if we can get some of that back that would be fantastic.’
Andre has come through serious adversity in his career, and he tells me of his near death experience after a quad bike crash left him stranded in the middle of a forest in the wilds of Quebec, Canada. That he managed to crawl for miles to get help shows his physical and mental toughness, but he speaks with disarming modesty about his bravery. ‘I had no way out and it was a pretty close thing, I punctured a lung and broke eight ribs. I was two hours from the nearest hospital and it was pretty bad, I was pretty lucky I think.’
Having been told that he would never play ice hockey again, Andre defied medical predictions and returned to action with Sheffield Icedogs in the English Premier Ice Hockey League where he enjoyed a distinguished five-year spell before linking up with Whitley Warriors this season. He’s philosophical about what was essentially a life-changing experience. ‘You really grow to love the game a lot more when it’s almost taken from you, it’s been a fantastic time.’
Andre doesn’t plan on hanging up his skates just yet, but hopes that when the time comes he’ll stay in the sport as a coach. ‘I’ve been involved now for too long to do something else, it’s in my blood and I’d love to be able to give back everything I’ve learned. I love coaching children and we’ve started our own hockey school up here. Myself, David Longstaff and former Warriors coach Simon Leach are coaching the kids, and being part of that is fantastic as well.’
For now he has a few tips for ice hockey enthusiasts and up and coming youngsters: ‘Always try your hardest and give everything, the more you practise and love the sport the better you’ll be.’
Andre is keen to get people supporting ice hockey and other sports at Whitley Bay such as figure skating by buying space on the rink’s advertising boards. Please email him at email@example.com for more information.