Peace through strength: The story of Chris Affinati, a hockey warrior you probably never heard of

When Chris Affinati played for a junior team called the Orlando Fury in the now defunct Southern Elite Hockey League back in 1999-2000, it was just the beginning of a career that would span for more than two decades. And although Affinati never won the Stanley Cup, or played even a single shift in the National Hockey League, he is considered by many to be a proven winner, and the epitome of what it means to be a strong and effective leader.

Currently, Affinati is recovering from a surgical operation in which both of his hip joints were replaced after years of overexertion on the ice, and in the gym. In addition, Affinati’s passion for Mixed Martial Arts and kickboxing almost certainly contributed in one form or another to the deterioration of his hips, which were already deformed as a kid.

“Hockey can be really tough on the hips. It’s not really a natural motion for the body, plus I had some deformation as I was growing, so I had certain things that were off with my hips growing up,” said Affinati, whose life is dedicated to hockey, and passing on knowledge to the game’s next generation.

“I played professional hockey for close to 18 years. I played college hockey, I played junior hockey, plus I was a mixed martial arts fighter and my specialty was kickboxing. So I was always using my hips,” said the Highland Park, Illinois native Affinati, whose commitment to the sport he loves is closely linked to the physical sacrifices he made as a fearless competitor over the years.

Now a coach and mentor to many young players, including high-end NHL prospects like Alex Turcotte of the Los Angeles Kings, Affinati struggled last summer with hips that were no longer functional enough to demonstrate drills as an instructor. In 2020, Affinati became a Director at High Performance Training in Lincolnwood, Illinois.

“Over the summer I had some cortisone shots just to kind of deal with the pain a little bit, but it just got worse and it was tough. It was mentally tough because when I teach, I like to demonstrate and show, and I couldn’t do any of this stuff. I was having to use videos, and stuff like that,” Affinati said. 

“So I went to the Doc, and he said the arthritis was so bad that we would have to do a hip replacement. What I got is called resurfacing, where they basically shave the femoral head to like almost nothing, they put a prosthetic ball on the end of it, and then they put something in your hip socket so it can be bone on bone. But the Doc said I’ll probably have more mobility than I ever had in my life, and that I’ll be able to skate, run, jump, and do all this stuff. They said I’ll be back skating and playing and stuff like that before I know it. So I’m pretty excited about that,” added the always glass-half-full Affinati, who does not intend to live in fear after his rehabilitation process.

Instead, the 42-year-old Affinati believes his experience in dealing with injuries will give him an extra layer of knowledge that he can pass on to younger players.

“It was always go go go, train harder, lift harder, push yourself, and I have such a good system now with my athletes as far as mixing the strength between strength training, and therapy stuff for recovering. I have a lot of athletes that deal with injuries, and I never want them to take their health for granted. So it’s about making sure you’re doing what you need to do in order to stay healthy,” said Affinati.

“I’ve now done so much research on recovering from hip replacements, that I really understand how to strengthen the hips and the core in terms of mobility, which will make you a better hockey player and lower the risk of an injury,” he added.

Although Chris Affinati was not born with the sort of skill set that guys like Patrick Kane or Connor McDavid possess, which can only be described as God-given, it’s Affinati’s passion, fearlessness, and his commitment to hard work that ultimately enabled him to play as a professional for as long as he has.

“If I wanted to just be a goal scorer, I would’ve never lasted. I didn’t always love the role I was given, but I wanted to play hockey, and that’s what the team needs from me right now. I’m just a piece to a puzzle. And the more you help your team, the more ice you get,” Affinati explained.

As a member of the Danville Dashers, Chris Affinati rides his team’s bus in the middle of the night after their driver decided to quit. Affinati was not just a leader on the ice, but off the ice as well.

“My path was not a direct one. I played house league in high school hockey, and I wasn’t a top guy. I was kind of a late bloomer, so I really enjoy helping those kids that are the diamonds in the rough,” said Affinati, who fell in love with hockey at an early age.

It was only after playing hockey at Deerfield High School in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago though, that Chris Affinati began discovering his passion for the sport was growing deeper and deeper.

“Right out of high school, I went to Marquette University, and I was in their biomedical engineering program. There, I got to play Division 1 club hockey, which at the time played against schools like Illinois, Penn State, Iowa State, etc. And that’s when I started to become serious about hockey,” he said. 

While Chris’ mother Sharon was a speed skater during her youth, his late father Victor was an engineer who taught at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois until his passing in 2004. And together, Chris’ parents always prioritized education, until their son made it clear to them that he wanted to leave Marquette University after his freshman year, so he could pursue hockey as his life’s primary occupation.

“I finally told my dad that I wasn’t going back to Marquette. I told him I was going to play hockey, and he didn’t know anything about juniors, so he really wasn’t happy with it, but I told him that it’s what I want to do,” Affinati recalled.

“I took a year off, played for the junior team down in Orlando in the Southern Elite Hockey League. My nickname ended up becoming ‘Bulldog’ because I ended up fighting a lot when I was in juniors. I literally fought my way onto this junior team, and by Christmas time I got named the assistant captain, and I did really well point-wise as well,” Affinati said.

“My dad was like a guy who had to research things. He was a professor at Northwestern University, and he was an engineer. But once he researched it, he said ‘Oh! This is what juniors are,’ and then he actually became my best recruiter. He helped me send my resumé to all the college teams,” he added.

Affinati got several looks from Division 3 college hockey programs, but Sacred Heart University was one of the only Division 1 programs that expressed interest in the five-foot-eight forward who proved he was willing to do whatever it took to play despite his diminutive physical stature.

“The tryouts came and I did really well on all the off-ice stuff. The coach Shaun Hanna really liked me, and I was able to make it as a walk-on that first year. Even though I didn’t get to play a ton of games, it was still such a great experience. Especially playing against schools like Cornell, Miami of Ohio, Maine and others. There’s just something different about college hockey that you don’t have once you get to the pros,” said Affinati, who greatly cherishes the three years he spent playing college hockey at Sacred Heart.

It was his experience playing at the junior level, and as a collegiate athlete in the NCAA that laid a strong foundation for Affinati’s longevity as a professional from 2003-2020, where he played for various organisations and leagues in the professional ranks in the United States.

Following his college hockey days, Affinati was well-aware that he needed to find ways of contributing positively to the teams he was on if he wanted to be rewarded with playing time. This did not always mean chipping in on the scoresheet, or helping to kill off a penalty late in a close game. Oftentimes, it would mean getting into a fight, and receiving a black eye, a busted nose or lip, or worse.

Affinati built his reputation as a protector, and always took it upon himself to ensure that opponents would not take liberties against his teammates. If they did, Affinati was always around to respond with strength and unwavering tenacity, regardless of how much bigger the adversaries were.

“He was tough as nails. He would fight anybody. You knew that if you got hit the wrong way, he was ready to drop the gloves. Didn’t matter how big the guy was. He even liked it if the guy was bigger,” said Affinati’s friend and former teammate Aaron Schwartz, the Carolina Hurricanes Director of Hockey Operations.

“This guy loves hockey more than anyone I’ve ever known, and he’s a phenomenal teacher. And nobody’s face would light up more when a guy like me would chip in on the scoreboard, or if I had a fight. He always loved to see the guys he worked with have success. I’ve told him this before, but I don’t think my hockey career would’ve gone anywhere without him,” said Schwartz, who played with Affinati during the 2009-2010 season in the All American Hockey League for the Battle Creek Revolution.

“I don’t think there was a better captain in the league. I’ve never had a better captain. He taught me how to fight. He taught me what it took to be a pro. Coming out of club hockey, he showed me what I had to do to earn a roster spot at the next level,” said Schwartz, who is not just an NHL executive, but also an attorney with extensive knowledge of the collective bargaining agreement that players and teams alike in the world’s top hockey league are bound by.

Before Affinati and Schwartz knew each other as teammates, they were inseparable friends who grew up in close proximity to one another.

“He really taught me the pro game. Phenomenal leader. He would show up to practice, the gym, and the bar. He wanted everyone to get stronger and better, and to be in a group atmosphere to get chemistry flowing,” added Schwartz.

Among the strongest opponents that Affinati fought during his career, was Collingwood, Ontario’s Chase Tippin, a six-foot-three, 280-pound enforcer who has spent more than a decade as a professional. Affinati and Tippin were never officially teammates, however, their relationship grew as the two became regular ‘dance partners’ over the years. And although they might’ve been fierce combattants on the ice, the strength of their friendship is evidence of the respect each one has for the other.

“For me and Chris, and I always tell people, this is a straight up guy. There is nothing fake about him. He showed who he was, and was never worried about his size or anything like that. Chris is a great guy, he’s a standup guy, and the work he puts in as a player, people look at enforcers and think all they do is fight,” Tippin said.

Chase Tippin on the gentleman’s agreement he had with Chris Affinati.

“Chris is sneaky, because he always somehow finds a way to get on the scoresheet,” said Tippin, who will play next season for the Port Huron Prowlers of the Federal Prospects Hockey League. In 2021-2022, Tippin played Senior AA for the Cremore Coyotes where he suited up for eight games and racked up 118 penalty minutes.

“I give him a lot of credit for the stuff that he does to not just improve himself, but just to help his team. I will never speak negatively about Chris, and he’s probably the toughest guy pound for pound that I ever fought. He’s a straight-up warrior,” added Tippin.

Chris Affinati of the Danville Dashers fights Chase Tippin of the Watertown Wolves. It is the first of three fights in less than 72 hours during Tippin’s farewell tour prior to his retirement. Tippin has since come out of retirement, and plans to play for Port Huron in 2022-2023.

Tipin may look like a member of the Hells Angels if he were to sit on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, but it would be a mistake to label him a thug simply on the basis of his outward appearance. Even if his beard, massive biceps and tattoos promote physical strength, there is far more to Tippin than what his job requires him to do on the ice.

Chase Tippin immediately stops throwing punches during a fight in which Chris Affinati fell to the ice, highlighting the respect and empathy that hockey’s “tough guys” do exhibit.

“A lot of people look at being an enforcer a little weirdly, where they say you’re trying to be this aggressive and violent guy, but I always looked at it as my job. It was never anything personal, and Chris was the same way,” said Tippin, who studied accounting and business in university while balancing hockey.

“With Chris, he’s a ride or die type of guy. He’s very technical, and the guy can take a punch better than anyone I’ve ever seen. He will always try to figure out ways to get around how I fought, and it’s weird for two people who fought against each other like 20 times or something, we’d always ask each other questions either on Facebook, or before and after games,” said Tippin.

Chris Affinati on his approach vs heavyweights like Chase Tippin.

But while it has become increasingly fashionable in the mainstream to denounce and belittle the role of fighting in men’s hockey, this virtue-signalling stance is hardly ever spoken by people who’ve played the sport at a high level.

By labelling fighting in hockey a form of “toxic masculinity,” or simply mocking it altogether for concerns over safety, many are wholeheartedly misinterpreting the motives of players who drop the gloves with an opponent to engage in a physical battle.

For the same reason we support our brave men and women who become police officers because they are willing to risk their safety in order to protect and defend the civilians that make up our communities, traditional hockey fans admire the bravery and selflessness of those who are willing to protect and defend their teammates at all costs.

“I loved going to battle with Affi. He may be smaller in stature but I’m not sure I’ve played with anyone who has more heart. Guy played like he was six-foot-six. Great leader, and never afraid to mix it up. They don’t call him the ‘Bulldog’ for nothing! Never had to worry about the other team taking liberties because you always knew he would have your back. He could put the puck in the net as well, especially when he would play with me,” said Justin Barr, who played alongside Affinati both in Battle Creek, and in Danville.

Chris Affinati celebrates a goal as a member of the FPHL‘s Danville Dashers.

Unlike the Academy Awards, hockey is a physical sport, and the absence of strength on a team’s roster undoubtedly leads to vulnerability from within. It also empowers opponents who don’t see a deterrent to taking advantage. 

And if team sports are viewed as a microcosm of life, especially in the lessons we can learn about human behaviour during the heat of competition, it should hardly surprise anyone that Vladimir Putin invaded a sovereign country at a time when there were no meaningful deterring factors standing in his way. 

History surely won’t forget the horrific war crimes that Putin has committed against the Ukrainians, nor will it disregard the strength and resiliency shown by those individuals who are risking it all to save their country.

Led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainians have not backed down against a much larger and more powerful military. And without this display of strength, and their refusal to submit, the whole country would likely be in Putin’s full possession by now.

Although Chris Affinati may not know what it’s like to fight in a warzone, he definitely knows what it’s like to be an underdog, having fought many guys in his career like Chase Tippin, who were well above his weight class. And it’s because he never quit on himself or his teammates that Affinati earned the reputation of a respected leader.

Chris Affinati skates on April 3rd, 2022 for the first time following his double hip replacement.

Chris Affinati isn’t just strong physically; he is strong mentally, and if there’s a hockey player out there who can return stronger than ever from such a vigorous surgical procedure, it’s Chris Affinati.

Society itself could surely use more people like Chris Affinati in it today.


2 thoughts on “Peace through strength: The story of Chris Affinati, a hockey warrior you probably never heard of”

  1. Chris…
    Loved reading this article!
    You sure have been in a lot of different places during your hockey experiences!
    So proud of you and hoping for a quick recovery!!! Say hi to mom!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris, I loved reading this article about your amazing dedication to a sport our family has also loved and supported for many seasons. I am proud of you and proud to know you. I wish you success with your hip replacement surgery and feel confident you will come back stronger and with a renewed lease on your ability to help others and yourself for many more years to come! It’s the greatest sport in the world and hockey needs Captains like you to encourage others!

    Liked by 1 person

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