Former pro wrestler & current UFC star CM Punk has much in common with NHL players: he’s performed in hockey arenas much of his life; he’s played through agonizing pain to perform his job; & he absolutely loves hockey – especially his hometown Chicago Blackhawks.
You’ve got to understand this about Phil Brooks, professionally known as
CM Punk: he was never handed anything as a blue-collar kid coming out of Chicago, as a student, as a pro wrestler who rose to the pinnacle of the industry or in his current line of work as a nascent mixed martial arts fighter. Punk, 36, has had to grind and scrape for everything he’s earned, and he’s plied his trade (often injured) in hockey arenas across North America and around the world. No wonder Punk has a love for the NHL, and no wonder he’s come to be acquaintances with many NHL players. There’s a camaraderie at play here, an understanding of serious and constant physical sacrifice and a respect for performing through pain that both parties endure on the regular. “A lot of the physicality is the same, and I was always drawn to hockey because of that physicality,” Punk said. “There’s definitely similarities between what I did, what I’m currently doing, and what hockey players do. And there’s an appreciation there that goes both ways.”
He’s right. After Chicago’s 2013 Stanley Cup win, friend and NHLer Sheldon Souray offered to introduce Punk to a number of Hawks players, including Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, and now-former Hawks tough guy Brandon Bollig. Once Punk was convinced he wasn’t being pranked, there was no way he was turning down that offer, even though he lives a “straight-edge” lifestyle that makes sobriety a priority. So he met the team at a local bar, and as the celebrations continued through the night, he quietly soaked it all in, counted his lucky stars and marvelled at how welcome the Hawks made him feel. “Those players are the nicest, most down-to-earth sweethearts,” Punk said. “To share that night with them as they celebrated their hard work, I was like a fly on the wall. I’m forever in their debt.” For Keith, a lifelong wrestling fan who had (and, thanks to his parents, still has) the action figurines of famous WWE stars such as Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker and The Bushwhackers, getting to know Punk and understand the legitimate rigors of the business he was in was just as much of a thrill as it was for Punk to meet his hockey idols. “A really easygoing guy,” Keith said. “I wanted him to know I knew and appreciated what he did and the athleticism wrestlers have. And I learned that the whole industry, it’s very tough. We talked about what I’d do if I had a broken rib – would I play with one? I don’t know if I could, but he’s had to do that and get thrown through tables. “It’s entertainment, and like with us, the show goes on even if you’re not feeling 100 percent.” Before making a controversial decision to leave the WWE in January of 2014 (and eventually deciding to sign a multi-fight contract with Ultimate Fighting Championship), Punk had won that company’s heavyweight title multiple times and was known as a voice of candor in a business famous for artifice. So it should come as no surprise his hockey fandom isn’t a carefully crafted, consultant-managed part of his image, but rather as genuine as he is. The sport is deeply ingrained in him, dating back to his days with his father in Chicago’s South Side. Punk counts himself fortunate enough to have seen a few games at the old Chicago Stadium and to watch legends such as Denis Savard and Chris Chelios skate. He fell in love with hockey and the Blackhawks then, and although that affection would be diluted through the franchise’s lean years and Punk’s focus on his craft in the wrestling ring, the love affair began again when Chicago returned to prominence under players such as Keith and won two Stanley Cups in the past five seasons. In those years between the days nobody knew him and his status today as a pop culture phenomenon and the UFC’s hottest new property, Punk cultivated an image that has afforded him other special hockey experiences, and he proudly talks about numerous geek-out moments in the hockey world (including being interviewed by THN).
His Twitter account’s image is of Paul Newman in the iconic film Slap Shot. He’s had a friendly feud with
L.A. Kings mascot Bailey that continues to this day, and that equally confounds hockey fans who aren’t wrestling fans and wrestling aficionados who aren’t into hockey. As a kid, Punk was a Montreal Canadiens and Patrick Roy fan, and recently paid his respects to Jean Beliveau on Twitter after the late Habs icon’s passing. Punk puts attending a game in Montreal (along with visiting the Hall of Fame in Toronto) on his must-do list. He’s not the greatest skater, but he played street hockey (usually as a goalie) and would jump at the opportunity to play in a celebrity game. You believe Punk loves the sport because you hear the reverence in his voice when he talks about Beliveau’s impact as one of the game’s greatest ambassadors (“I don’t think enough Americans, whether they’re hockey fans or not, realize what an awesome representative of hockey he was”), and when he discusses another bucket-list experience he’s ran out of time on: “I want to get to Nassau Coliseum for an Islanders game. I’ve performed there hundreds of times. It’s one of my favorite buildings because of the hockey history. I’d be in those locker rooms and (wrestlers) backstage would treat it like it’s a regular locker room. I’d be like, ‘No, dude, do not disrespect this house.’ I’d wander the halls with the blue and orange stripes and stare at the Mike Bossy plaque. It’s a dump and the ceiling leaks, but I just love that building.”
This is an updated feature that appeared in the 2015 Playoff Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.