Interview with Mike Payne: CHL Journeyman & Enforcer

There’s no better person to tell this story than journeyman Mike “House of” Payne. A kid who grew to love the game of hockey so much, he knew he wanted to play everyday of the week–as a kid, throughout high school and college, and long after, Mike was willing to do whatever it took to get there. A full-time, blue collar worker who pulled long days and exhausting overtime shifts while playing nights and weekends, Mike’s determination and love for the game exemplifies the true hockey player to the bone.

Pure Hockey (PH): Let’s start from the beginning: when did you start playing hockey?

Mike Payne (MP): I started playing at about four-years-old. My cousin, Kyle Meek, also from Burlington, was a great hockey player and I wanted to be just like him. It started off with one of my parents taking my brother Scott and I to the Burlington Ice Palace for hockey clinics. The kids would get a letter put on their helmets for every station they completed (skating forward, backwards, crossovers, etc); thus spelling BURLINGTON.

Through hard work and for the love of the game, I became a pretty good player. I wanted to play 24 hours a day! I played mites, squirts, pee-wees, bantams and independent teams like The Mass Bay Chiefs and St. Moritz, the Islanders. I was also selected for the Mass All-Stars, along with guys like Hal Gill and the Boston Jr. Braves (the best in Massachusetts), where we traveled to Canada and played teams from around the world.

(PH) I was a couple of years behind, but I remember those great seasons at BHS. What was one of your more memorable moments?

MP: Yeah, I went on and played four years of varsity hockey at Burlington High with some pretty damn good players like Eric Peterson and two-time Stanley Cup winner Jay Pandolfo as well as a host of others. Through my 4 years, I loved every one of my teammates; I can’t think of bad thing about any of them. I remember in a playoff game against Billerica, Coach Concesion (Mr. C) moved me back to defense because we lost one of our top D-men, Brett Souza. I was actually a pretty good defenseman as well as a center; I played D several times while playing in the minors. I was rushing the puck up the ice and made a pass over to Peterson and their D threw a dirty hit and bashed my knee in. I remember Pandolfo picking me up off the ice.

The doctors said my knee was messed up, but if I could strengthen it to 80% of my other knee, then they would give me the okay play again. Our next game was in the original Boston Garden against Everett, and I had no intentions of missing it. At first, Mr. C said, “Mike, I’m very sorry, but there’s no way you can play.” I was on crutches and couldn’t walk, but as that Boston Garden found out, I sure as hell was going to skate! I begged him, and was crying every night because the pain was bad, but not being able to play in that game was a worse feeling. When I was at therapy, I didn’t give it all with my healthy knee so it looked like the other one was just as strong… ha!

After icing my knee and attending therapy for two hours a day, Mr. C. finally gave me the okay to play. Right before the game he told me, “I probably shouldn’t be playing you and would you please get off the ice if the knee is bad?” I said, “absolutely” though I was still in pain. As soon as the puck dropped, one of the Rotundo brothers of Everett dumped it in my corner. I started hobbling backwards trying to get the puck (knowing damn well I was about to be leveled, but I went in that corner anyway). I took the hit and basically played the rest of the game on one leg. Mr. C and I still talk about it and laugh to this day, but he said his heart dropped when he watched that first play of the game, a dump-in and crushing check. But he stuck right by me and let me play knowing it was the love of my life. Mr. C always stuck right by me even when I did some really dumb things in my life!

PH: After high school, did you go right into college hockey?

MP: After my senior year, I was getting calls from some colleges, but I decided to try a different route; I wanted to work and make some money and my father was informed about a Junior League that I could play in while I worked. It was a tough junior league that has produced some NHL players, like Billy Guerin, Dan LaCouture, as well as many college athletes and many minor league professionals.

I started by playing for Charlestown MA with the Matty O’Neil Club. I worked construction from 6:30am to 4:00pm and got some overtime every day.  I knew I was getting a workout at 17-years-old from lugging wooden beams, wheel-barrowing, paving, carrying shingles, and whatnot six days a week – welcome to the real world! Afterwards I would practice in Charlestown three times a week at night and two games on the weekends (either in Niagra Falls, Rhode Island or Springfield MA,). Working on game days was real tough, but oh well, that was life.

PH: Was there a turning point at this juncture in your career that helped get you to the next level?

MP: I was playing for Charlestown and during a game in Lake Placid, NY against a loaded Jr. Bruins team (Billy Tibbets and several others) one of their players and I got into a fight.

Later on that evening, one of my assistant coaches was giving me a problem and I never had any problems with any of my coaches throughout my career, I respected them all. But he finally got to me so I asked him if he wanted to go while a couple of us (like my good friend and Charlestown teammate, Jimmy Palermo) were hanging in the hotel room. We got up, squared off, and started throwing. It should have been squashed right there like all of us said it should be, but the guy kept on whining about the fight so one of the guys in the front office wanted me gone. To most people, this would be a bad thing but for me it was the best move ever.

One of our rivals, the Tyngsboro Huskies, wanted to trade for me because they heard my team wasn’t going to play me but still had my rights. So they gave the Matty O’Neil Club a bunch of money for my rights and I was shipped to the Huskies, coached by Jean Guy Gagnon. They had some of my one-time rivals like Jimmy and Tommy Gordon, and John Duggan, who later became my linemate at Salem State and a good friend to this day. These players all enlightened the coach how I would be an asset to their team. What a great bunch of guys!

PH: It sounds like the trade and change of scenery really did you good.

MP: Well, the coach put me at center and I started lighting it up. I started having fun again while playing hockey, and I had a coach, as well as a GM in Leo Gould, that had all the confidence in the world in me and believed I really had a professional hockey career in my future. That year I made the all-star team and was on a line with Danny LaCouture and Jeff Farkus. I scored two goals and an assist and threw about 20 checks that set the tempo for one of the toughest, grittiest all-star games the ECJL has ever seen!

I remember Jimmy Duran, a phenomenal all-around athlete from Woburn that excelled in hockey and now the Head Coach at Woburn High, recruiting me for Plattsburgh State and saying to me, “Man, you started that f***ing game off with one of the hardest hits I’ve ever seen…and it’s an all-star game! I’d love to have you come and play at Plattsburgh with Bob Emery.”

But instead I chose to go to Salem State; my buddy Jimmy Palermo was there along with Jimmy Gordon and Jason Cook. Coach O’Neil had me convinced that I wanted to be part of the Salem State Vikings, where I ended meeting some great people and teammates, like Andrew Pearsall and Tom Fields. It was close to home so I could see my parents and friends.

PH: So working full-time and playing for Charlestown and Tynsgboro (versus going to college right out of high school) seemed to be the introduction to your many future fights?

MP: Well, while growing up in my neighborhood there were a lot of kids. And somehow or another while playing street hockey or any other games, a fight usually managed to break out. There just seemed to be a lot of fights and I seemed to be in many of them. In my neighborhood, there were mostly older kids, so I had to fight all the older kids, including one of my brothers who stands about 6-foot-5. I have another brother who stands about 6-foot-4. I always had a knack for sticking up for the younger or smaller guy and I was a pretty good street fighter while growing up.

When I played Juniors for Charlestown and Tyngsboro, fighting was not supposed to be permitted, but I got into plenty of tilts. Both coaches loved tough hockey players and they didn’t mind if you dropped the gloves so I got pretty good at it. Plus I got into some good tilts in the no-check (shinny) hockey games we played for fun at night.

While playing at Salem State there was no fighting, but I still played a tough game. If you came across the center of the ice, I let you know about it. I’d do it clean, but I would try and make sure you knew who the Salem State Vikings were and that you were going to be in for a tough night every time you played us. I killed every penalty while at college and I had a job to shut down any of the other team’s top players.

PH: When did not only dropping of the gloves start more regularly, but your Pro career? 

MP: So it was my senior year at college and the season just ended. Out of nowhere I get a call from Coach Jack Capuano (now the coach of the New York Islanders) asking me if I’d like to come play for the Pee Dee Pride in the ECHL. One of my Salem State teammates and roommates Tom Fields was already down there playing and had given them my name as a tough defensive player and a good set-up man. I was like, “sure!”

So I put a hold on college and flew down to South Carolina to join a first place team that I believe set a record for the most wins in the ECHL. It was my first game against the Jacksonville Lizards and in my very first shift I get a tap from their guy Joel “The Animal” Theriault and he says, “Hey kid, you wanna go?” Just off of instinct I say, “yea, let’s go!” And away we went.

I stayed in close on the bigger guy (6-foot-4, 240 lbs.) and was able to throw a bunch of lefts and rights in him and I heard my bench yelling, “That a boy Payner, keep staying in close!” But after a minute or so I went back and was ready to exchange bombs with him. He knocked me a good one and I went to a knee. The refs broke us up and Theriault said, “Nice job, kid!” My teammates loved it and I got instant respect. Later on in that game, I threw a big hit on someone and knocked them silly; blood everywhere.

PH: Your first shift in your very first ECHL game and you fought The Animal? And not only hung in there, but seemed to fare pretty well. This must have boosted your confidence to fight more…

MP: The very next game we played in Florida against the Everglades and in the first period, Steve Tardif asked me if wanted to go. I was hitting everything and our team was laying a beating on them and I said, “Sure, let’s go!” It’s another fight I did really well in and my teammates were over the boards clapping their sticks and saying, “Great job, Payner!” But after the game, Cappy (Coach Capuano) took me in the office and said, “Payner, you don’t want to get involved in the fighting part of the game, you’re a good player and don’t need to be fighting every night. These guys grew up on the farms fighting, they’re animals!” I told him he was right and went on to play the next game.

During that next game, though, I saw a kid from the Mississippi Sea Wolves who stuck one of our players and I took exception. The next face off, I was playing center, the puck was dropped and I gave him a shove. He punched me right in my face and said, “Let’s go!” The gloves were off! We started pounding each other; he had about three inches on me and was feeding me until I got mad and got a grip of his shirt and was able to rifle off some rights and bloody him while breaking my finger. The fans inside the Florence hockey rink went insane, chanting “Bring the Payne” and “House of Payne” echoing throughout the arena!

PH: So it’s like all three fights were all situational. In the first game you answer to their tough guy in your first shift. Then the next game someone wants a crack at you for being physical and you answer the call (again). This time you took it upon yourself to police the ice. 

MP: Yeah, so I guess I just started dropping my gloves because I didn’t like any of my teammates being taking advantage of and it’s just in my blood to stick up for my teammates. I certainly wasn’t recruited to go to the ECHL as a fighter from college. I just played the game tough and refused to back down from anyone. It doesn’t mean I wanted to do it. Although after a while, it was sometimes fun! I believe it is needed in the game of hockey. It’s always been that way and if I have a say, it always will. There is so much more about the toughness aspect about this great sport that only those who appreciate hockey will ever know!

PH: Perfect segue into my next question: It seems like every year we hear a new hockey analyst sounding off about fighting in hockey and the need to get rid of it (and the ‘goons’) – most notably Mike Milbury (of all people) this year. Do you think fighting will ever go away – and if so, what do you think would happen to not only the star players, but the league in general?

MP: Fighting and hitting has been and always should be a part of hockey at the pro level. Players must be held accountable for their actions. If someone can slash Sidney Crosby and break his ankle and his accountability is to serve two minutes in the penalty box, then why not do it? Yeah, the team with the power play might score a goal, but Crosby might be gone for up to six weeks or more. If a player doesn’t have to worry about answering the call, then you are taking out an aspect of the game that has always policed itself. Yes, some nights you’re going to get your ass kicked, while other nights you’re going to do the ass kicking. That’s the way our game goes.

Hockey players (at least the ones I know) pride themselves on being the toughest men in all of sports. When you have that camaraderie with your teammates and you go through the ups-and-downs with these guys whom you spend mostly every day with during the season and you see your team getting their asses handed to them or one of your guys just got ran with a dirty hit or a two-hander, you’re damn right the gloves are coming off.

Our sport has always policed itself. It’s an integral part of the game. A fight or hard hit can change the momentum of a game. For those that don’t know that, then you don’t know hockey. Mike Milbury should shut his mouth about taking fighting out of the game. This sport is for the toughest, most talented men out there. Can you imagine a hockey game with minimal hits, and no one having accountability for breaking someone’s arm with a slash?!

As players, we’re grown men at a young age. We know what we’re getting ourselves into. For those that don’t play, try getting up close to that ice-surface sometime and watch and listen to the glass banging, the sound of those skates digging in the ice and the talking that goes on. The guys are trying to catch their breath because they put their head down and got buried and then in the heat of the moment you expect guys to stop just stop and put their guard down and walk away? Bull ****. It’s an intense game that polices itself and I’m willing to bet the MAJORITY of players will agree: fighting is necessary.

PH: There’s no doubt that the fighting and physicality that is involved in hockey is often sought-after by the fans. It would be hard to imagine a game without it. 

MP: If the physical aspect leaves the game, then the game will lose its edge and hockey will suck! It amazes me that some people are saying we should take fighting out of the game. Don’t play if you’re scared of getting hurt. It’s hockey. Plan on it.

Have you ever seen a game where the fans sit down and stop cheering when a fight occurs or a big hit is thrown? No way! They love it! They love the passion! They respect those that have no fear! Trust me, your teammates appreciate you and love you.

PH: A ‘minor’ deal the Bruins made at the deadline was bringing in hard-nosed veteran, Max Talbot. From the moment I heard it, it sounded to me like they were missing and filling the void of Shawn Thornton. For people who have never played at a high-level before, tell us what players like Thornton and Talbot bring on-ice and to a team’s locker room.

MP: You’re right on! The Bruins do miss a guy like Shawn Thornton. I believe it was an awful move to let a guy like that go. A character hockey player that does fight – and he does it well – but he brings so much more to a team than just that.

His presence alone makes his teammates play with an edge they might not play with when guys like himself, Chara or McQuaid aren’t in the lineup. It’s the truth, and anyone who plays the game knows it. That’s part of what hockey is about, no doubt about it, about being a tough team that has opposing players either fighting back as a team, or getting their asses kicked all over the ice as a team.

You better believe I remember the nights we (Macon Whoopee) had to play against the Memphis River Kings. Our heavyweight, Phil Valk, was injured for most of the year and another one of our tougher guys, Shaun Peat, was injured for a bit and then called up.

So, here I was, a heavyweight by no means (but I still fought all the heavies), getting challenged every night by Kevin Holliday, Greg Lakovic, Jason Simon, Curtis Voth, etc. (along with others from their team that were tough — like Derek Landmasser and Brian Tucker). I answered the call whenever I, or my team, was challenged. I believe my teammates knew I had their backs at all times. Even with a broken orbital bone, broken ribs, or broken hands, I was there to back them up and make sure no one was going to push us around. But I played a regular shift, as many of the tough guys I played against (and with) did. When I played for the Asheville Smoke, I centered Chad Wagner and Kris Schultz (two tough Canadian boys) and was always killing the penalties (when I wasn’t in the box myself). It’s the truth. It sounds funny, but it’s true.

When I played in Fresno CA for the Fresno Falcons, I played both forward and D. I was a stingy, hard-hitting player that usually made sure you were going to pay the price if you came near my net or my goalie. I also played D and forward while I was in Macon.

PH NOTE: Here’s a fight where Mike broke his orbital bone. It’s against a record-setting heavyweight, Kevin Holliday.

“The guy’s an honest fighter and he came out and fought me ya know. He’s not big as me and he loses most times I fight him, but he comes out anyways with his team down and gets in a fight and I do something cheap at the end like that. I don’t feel too god about myself, dumb.     -Kevin Holliday, post fight.

PH: So circling back to a player like Thornton, it sounds like you picked up a lot of the grunt work when your heavyweights were out. When they came back from injury, or when you were on a team who had another Thronton-like player on the roster, were you able to play a different way?

MP: Yes. I had the privilege while playing for the New Mexico Scorpions to have Craig ‘The Chief’ Stahl as teammate and line-mate. And you want to talk about tough! It was like when I had Chad Wagner as a line-mate with the Asheville Smoke. I could play the game the way I like to play, tough and gritty, and not worry about being jumped. Not that it happens often, but when you throw some big hits, which I did, guys can come out of nowhere for you. I’d always be accountable and answer the call by dropping the gloves but sometimes there’s other guys coming for you, too. That’s why it’s called a team-tough sport. That’s also when it’s nice to have more than just one “tough guy” on the team. When you have a couple of guys that are super tough, as well as other guys that are willing to mix it up, you can play the game the way you want.

I remember playing against Columbus (while with Macon) and one of their star players, Mike Martens, gave me a two hander in the back of the leg. I was chasing him down asking him to drop the gloves. He didn’t, so I two handed him back, knowing damn well someone was going to have to fight me. Out of nowhere comes Craig Stahl, sticking up for his teammate. It was awesome, we had a little toe-to-toe slugfest and calmed the game back down. We were rivals; both teams hated each other — but still respected each other.

And yes, I like the Max Talbot pick up. But it would still be nice to see Thornton and Johnny Boychuck in a Black & Gold Boston Bruins Uniform. Those guys play the style of play that fans and teammates in Massachusetts and around the hockey world love. We appreciate the hard working, blue collar, tough hockey players. Guys like Terry O’Reilly, Cam Neely, Stan Jonathan, Derek Sanderson, Wayne Cashman, and the toughest player to ever play the game, No. 4, Bobby Orr… hands down.

PH: If you were playing in the NHL today, which tough guy would you want to fight the most? And which ones would you rather not?

MP: Well, I wouldn’t want to fight Zdeno Chara, Brian McGratton, or John Scott. To me, Chara is the toughest guy in the NHL. He’s a pure leader. He plays the game tough, he has his teammates’ back (no matter what the cause), he’s involved in any altercation if an opponent taking advantage of any of his teammates and he’s a damn good hockey player. I would say I wouldn’t fight Shawn Thornton, but he’s so honest that I could go down or be defenseless and he wouldn’t go for the kill. But he’s still as tough as they come and would love to have a guy like that on any team on.

If I could fight one guy in the NHL right now it would be Tom Sestito. Not that I’d have any chance of beating him, but he runs around a lot and I’d go right for him if he threw one of his borderline hits on any of my teammates.

If you want more old school hockey stories, videos, pictures and more, be sure to follow Mike on Facebook at The House of Payne.

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