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Other side of the penalty box: Sheriff's deputy spent six seasons in NHL
Other side of the penalty box: Sheriff's deputy spent six seasons in NHL

The way Jim Agnew sees it, life boils down to a single principle - teamwork.

Whether that entails patrolling Missoula's streets as a sheriff's deputy, charging down the ice as a defenseman for the Vancouver Canucks, or raising his family in Montana, the idea of functioning as a single unit has always appealed to the Canadian-born retired hockey player.

In 1984, Agnew was drafted by the Canucks during the eighth round of the National Hockey League entry draft. He played parts of six seasons for Vancouver, wearing four different jersey numbers, though a string of incapacitating knee injuries ultimately cut his career short.

"I grew up playing team sports, and working in the sheriff's office has been a great way to get that camaraderie back. It's really filled the void for me," said Agnew, 41. "The thing is, I always wanted to either be an NHL hockey player or be in law enforcement, so to me this is great."

Growing up in a small town in Manitoba, Agnew was not unlike many young Canadian boys. He took to skating early on, around age 3, and started getting really organized in kindergarten. By the time he was 11 or 12, Agnew had grown accustomed to playing 80 games in a season.

"I'm lucky I had supportive parents and a rink that was never locked," he said. "They used to say, 'You want to go outside and play? Go get your shoes.' "

It soon became apparent that Agnew's strength would steer him toward the role of an enforcer.

Although in recent years the sport has toned down its signature fighting, teams have always valued their enforcers, players who can protect a more skilled teammate from cheap shots while wreaking havoc around the corners.

It's one of the sport's toughest jobs, and Agnew accepted it.

Ever the gentle giant, Agnew nevertheless racked up 257 penalty minutes in the 81 NHL games he played over parts of six seasons, recording one career assist.

"I was a victim of bad judgment," Agnew said of his career as a scrapper.

But turning pro at the age of 20 isn't all bad, and Agnew's is a career filled with all the razzle-dazzle memories of brightly lit ice rinks one might expect.

"It's overwhelming for a 20-year-old kid to walk into a place like the Boston Garden and see a Bruins banner hanging there," Agnew said. "Or to head into L.A. thinking, 'I'm going up against Gretzky.' "

In fact, Agnew remembers the time his coach delivered some startling instructions just before starting him in a game against the Los Angeles Kings.

"The coach says 'Jimmy, we're going to start you out. But right off the hop, I want you to run Gretzky,' " Agnew recalls. "So I decide I'm really going to run Gretzky first shift, I'm going to hammer Gretzky, because I wanted to please the coach.

"A few seconds into the game and the puck's behind the net, and there's Gretzky. I'm tearing down the ice right at him, and he does one of these between-the-legs spin maneuvers and I go flying by like NASCAR," he said. "It was less than a minute into the game and I was sitting down. The coach just leaned over to me and said, 'Forget about what I told you.' "

While playing for the Canucks in March 1990, Agnew injured his left knee for the first time, requiring surgery and marking the beginning of a chronic knee problem.

He was released by the Canucks two years later and signed on as a free agent with the Hartford Whalers. After injuring his knee again during an exhibition game at the Whalers' 1993 training camp, Agnew decided to retire.

Agnew came to Missoula in 1995 and enrolled as a student at the University of Montana, where he studied exercise science for a couple of years before returning to Canada.

He was still plugged into the NHL's network of alums, and played a number of 3-on-3 Pond Hockey tournaments with some of the great players from before his era.

"I got to play against guys whose posters I'd hung on my wall," he recalls.

In 2000, Agnew decided to try his hand in UM's geography department and continued to work toward earning his green card.

Last July, albeit just two semesters shy of his degree, Agnew received his citizenship and passed his final interview at the Missoula County Sheriff's Department just one day apart.

While Agnew's three children have all played sports, his 11-year-old daughter Madison has perhaps showed the most enthusiasm in the hockey rink.

"Have you seen 'Slap Shot'?" Agnew asks. "Remember the Hanson brothers, with all the hair? Maddy looks exactly like one of those guys coming down the ice, the hair and everything."

Agnew still hopes to finish his degree at UM some day, but for now he's just content being a team player, both personally and professionally.

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