There are very few names to play for the NY Islanders that strike fear into the eyes of opponents like Mick Vukota.
The Isles' all-time leader in penalty minutes with 1879 in 509 career games, Vukota was one of the league's top enforcers in his day. The former tough guy recently appeared on an episode of the Spittin' Chiclets podcast, discussing his younger days playing hockey and his time with the Islanders (appears on the podcast around the 01:57:00 mark)
Growing up to Serbian parents in Saskatoon, SK, Vukota had to practice playing the accordion for 30 minutes every day before he could play outside.
He would play in the street with the kids up across the street, but a neighborhood bully didn't allow Vukota to play. One day, when the bully was away, Vukota began to play with the other neighborhood kids. When the bully returned and confronted Vukota with a shove, he began what was essentially the start of his fighting career in hockey.
“I hit him across the head with my hockey stick,” said Vukota. “Sliced his ear wide open. My mom had to take him to the ER while my dad was throwing me from room to room.”
Aside from now being part of the daily street hockey game with the neighborhood kids, Vukota learned a lesson he'd carry with him for the rest of his career. “At a young age, I figured out if you want something, you’re going to have to fight for it. And there's nothing wrong with that.”
Vukota played six years under the great Al Arbour after his return to coaching. Disappointed about the departure of his former coach Terry Simpson, Vukota quickly warmed up to his new bench boss.
"“Al was arguably the most influential person in my adult life,” Vukota said. “Because he wasn’t just a great coach, but because he was a great person. He cared about family. He cared about church…. He wanted you to be the best person you could be. I loved playing for him.”"- Mick Vukota
While Arbour was incredible for Vukota's career aside from being one of the most successful head coaches in NHL history, later on, he played under what Isles fans would consider the antithesis of Arbour. When the name Mike Millbury was mentioned on the podcast, Vukota's demeanor suddenly changed as he didn't see face-to-face with his new coach.
Vukota describes times when he had issues with Millbury, like asking him to fight three times in a pre-season game, taking away pre-game meals from the team, and telling Dan Plante, a young call-up from the minors, to jump Wayne Gretzky off the face-off.
“Mike hates Gretzky probably because of when the Oilers beat the Bruins when he was the coach," Vukota said. "He tells Danny Plante to jump Gretz off the faceoff. Danny Plante looks at me and I’m like ‘No buddy, you're ruining your career. You just got called up from the minors, you’re like a third-line winger, grinder, mucker, PK guy, and you’re going to jump Wayne Gretzky?’ You will be done.”
After leaving the Isles organization, Vukota played one more season split between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens. Still a fan favorite, you'll occasionally see a Vukota jersey at UBS Arena.