By Mark Zwolinski
Niagara Falls Thunder coach Bill Laforge, who admits to having enjoyed a good barroom brawl in his time, hopes he never has to tangle with the likes of Trevor Renkers.
Well, now he doesn't have to worry.
Renkers, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound 17-year-old who earned a reputation as a jaw-bone crusher and penalty king in the Western Hockey League, was placed under the guardianship of Laforge this month and will make his debut in the Ontario Hockey League when his release is secured from the WHL.
"He can curl 200 pounds 25 times without a grunt." Laforge boasted last week before a junior game with London "I'm proud as punch of him."
Laforge, who has managed a family life that includes three daughters and a son while coaching in the NHL and junior hockey the past 10 years, responded to a request by Renkers' father to assume responsibility for Trevor's future.
"We've known his parents for quite a few years, when they split up. Trevor had a rough time adjusting to a single-parent family," Laforge said. "His father asked me if I'd be interested in taking him on as my project . . if we could do some good for him.
"I asked my wife and she agreed, as long as he knew he would be living in a Catholic household and live by Catholic traditions. So far, he's been excellent."
Laforge added that while he has assumed legal guardian status for Renkers, he is proceeding to make Renkers his legally adopted son.
Laforge is anticipating Renkers' OHL debut tomorrow night at home against Peterborough. Renkers, who played in Tier II last year and whose rights are owned by the WHL's Tri City Americans, must be released by the Americans and waived through the league before he can join the Thunder.
"All it will take is a phone call from Ron Dixon (Americans owner)," assured Laforge, who has been waiting the past two days for the call.
Dixon and general manager Al Patterson were on the road with the team yesterday and could not be reached for comment.
OHL commissioner Dave Branch confirmed Renkers will not be permitted to play in the league until his release and waivers from the WHL are completed.
Renkers began last season with the Americans, but was assigned to Tier II. He produced 15 goals and 20 assists in 50 games, and sat 350 minutes in the penalty box. He appeared briefly in two Tier II games this year.
Branch said he isn't aware of Renkers' past conduct on the ice, but issued a warning should the player attempt to terrorize the OHL.
"The rules tend to look after individuals who play the game that way," Branch said. "We have several players in our league who by their physical size are very intimidating individuals. But they play the game . . that's the only way to survive in the industry. Anyone who thinks they're going to fight their way to the top should think again.
"And that's not what our league is about. Our league has made its position well known: we'll deal with those incidents when they come up. But I've heard from several individuals in the Western league that Trevor Renkers is a very skilled hockey player."
While Laforge has been praised for turning around the careers of several other players, including last year's record-breaking defenceman Bryan Fogarty (now with Quebec), he is continually criticized about the number of fights and penalty minutes his players pile up.
As of Nov. 6 the Thunder ranked first over-all in the OHL with an average of 39.1 minutes per game after 18 games. The next closest team was Windsor at 29.8. The Thunder's average stems from 704 team penalty minutes, which easily places them on top of the leage over Sault Ste Marie's 535 minutes (after 19 games).
So will we see Renkers taking penalties, or mentioned in a coaches' poll as the league's best puckhandler?