Keith Jones knew that he would become Craig Berube’s best friend, that he had to become Craig Berube’s best friend, the instant he saw him take out his teeth.
It was in the Washington Capitals’ locker room on the first day of training camp in 1993. The Capitals had acquired Berube in a June trade with the Calgary Flames. Jones had witnessed the trade go down. He had been home, watching the NHL draft on television, when the cameras caught Washington general manager David Poile mouthing the words Craig Berube. Jones was ecstatic. He had just finished his rookie season, scoring 12 goals and piling up 124 penalty minutes in 71 games, establishing himself as one of the league’s great irritants. That was how he had earned playing time — by jabbing opponents in the belly with his stick or talking smack to them, by drawing penalties, by trying to swing the momentum of a game in his team’s favor. With that style of play, without being much of a fighter, he needed a bodyguard.
“I knew the trade would be a great thing for me,” Jones said. “I had a lot of guys who wanted to kill me. In the brief time I played against him, he was one of them.”
Berube wanted to kill a lot of guys back then, and he tried to. Over his first six years in the NHL, four of them with the Flyers, he already had fought 116 times. His final dropped-gloves tally, after 17 years in the league, would be 241. Jones had 23 fights in his nine-year career. Berube had 23 fights in a season twice. He had a reputation, and he served a valuable purpose in that era of hockey, and he gave everyone an indication of the cost of serving that purpose by standing there in the center of the locker room, popping out the partial denture that he wore where his six top middle teeth had been, and letting his naked gums speak for themselves.
Wow, he’s the real deal, Jones thought. And he introduced himself to his new teammate. And what is now the National Hockey League’s most powerful friendship was born.
Does it go too far to say that — that theirs is the most powerful friendship in the NHL? You wouldn’t think it was a stretch if you were in Boston that night last June, when the St. Louis Blues beat the Bruins, 4-1, in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and Berube wrapped his right arm around Jones’ shoulders and Jones weaved the fingers on his left hand through two blue bottles of Bud Light and they posed for a photo, beaming, each bestriding the mountaintop of his profession.
Four years after the Flyers fired him as their head coach, Berube, 54, had shepherded the Blues through one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NHL history, leading them on a six-month charge from having the league’s worst record to winning the Cup for the first time in their 52 years of existence. Jones, 51, had just finished his 14th year as the top studio analyst for the NHL’s flagship network in the United States, NBC, and his 19th in his other two jobs, as the Flyers’ primary TV color analyst and as the resident jokester on WIP-FM’s morning show. Their profiles are high enough that they’re recognizable just from their nicknames: Jonesy and Chief.
They sound like a mismatched pair of sitcom buddies, an odd couple, and it would be understandable if you wondered how they grew so close in the first place: Jonesy with that affable, get-along-with-anybody personality and that quick, dry wit, content to take life just seriously enough; Chief intimidating then and intimidating now, with the public countenance of a moody bouncer on Dollar Drink night, whether he’s glowering at his players from behind their bench or at the media from behind a lectern, saying only as much as he needs to say to anyone, even when he sprayed the TD Garden locker room with F-bombs during an unforgettable speech to the Blues before Game 7 — unforgettable, yet only 11 seconds long.
Acquaintances? Sure. Linemates? A fit. Indispensable to each other, though? Through three-plus years in Washington, two more as teammates with the Flyers in the early 2000s, nearly two full seasons while Berube was coaching the Flyers and Jones was calling their games, all the years in between and since? A steady stream of texts and phone calls throughout a season? Summer afternoons with their families beside the pool on Jonesy’s South Jersey farm? How did that happen, and why?
“He’s a lot of fun to be around,” Berube said. “I don’t know if there’s too many funner guys or funnier guys to be around. His sense of humor is so attracting. He’s a great guy, and I think he’s really honorable and loyal. I’d trust him with anything. He’s always been there.”
Their bond formed while they were with the Capitals, when they were members of a small clique of third-and fourth-line guys — led by the team’s captain, Dale Hunter — who made a pact among themselves: If a scrum broke out, you had two seconds to get in there and defend your teammates. Berube relished his role as the heavy, knowing that doing his job allowed others to do theirs, and eager wouldn’t quite do justice in describing his willingness to protect Jones or any other Capital.
Jones wore No. 26. Berube wore No. 27. A player who challenged Jones to a fight often got a surprising and unwelcome answer: You’re one number off, buddy, but I’ll go get him for ya. “I’ve had tough guys on my own team get upset with me,” Jones said. “They didn’t want to clean up my mess. Chief, I swear, would start drooling. He fought them all, no matter what.”
Eventually, Berube started calling Jones “Don King.” After all, he set up and promoted the bouts. One night at Madison Square Garden, with Jones and Berube awaiting their next shift, Rangers forward Nick Kypreos subtly stuck out his leg to deliver a borderline-dirty check on Capitals star Peter Bondra. Mimicking the voice of Caps head coach Jim Schoenfeld, Jones said, “Berube, you’re up.” Berube jumped over the boards, skated across the rink, and punched out Kypreos. He got a 10-game suspension from the NHL. Schoenfeld got five games, even though he hadn’t been the one who sent Berube on the seek-and-destroy mission. Jones got a few chuckles.
As players, the two were easy to stereotype. One was a pest; the other was a goon. As people, pigeonholing them wasn’t so simple. “There are a lot of guys who don’t watch the game when they’re not playing,” Jones said. “We watched it.” They discussed it. They debated it. They looked for ways to improve, to extend their careers, by being smarter about hockey. Jones had been the 141st pick in the 1988 draft. Berube had not been drafted at all. They figured they were guaranteed nothing in the league, and they didn’t want the ride to end. “We’d still put our last dime on the ice if we knew we could play one more shift,” Jones said.
But Berube didn’t want to spend all night, every night, on hockey talk, or even small talk. He’d invite Jones and several other players to his house for dinner and tell them, Don’t feel like you have to hang out once the meal’s done. It was less a polite reminder than it was a firm request to leave as soon as they’d swallowed their last bites. At a restaurant, he’d tell a waiter or waitress, Hey, we’re here to eat, not dine. Bring the food as we order it. Then, when no one was looking, he’d show a puckish side to his personality by removing his teeth again — and dropping them in a teammate’s glass of beer. “Did that a few times,” he said.
In 1996, the Capitals traded Jones to the Colorado Avalanche, who traded him to the Flyers in 1998. Four months after Jones joined them, the Flyers reacquired Berube, at the March 1999 trade deadline. The friends were together again, much to Jones’ relief. In his first game with the Avalanche, against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, he had spent the whole night having Ken Baumgartner, the Ducks enforcer, chase him around the ice, warning him, No Berube here... “So when I got to Philly and Chief came,” Jones said, “I was like, ‘Yeah, Berube’s here now.’ ”
Their relationship resumed, with its familiar ball-busting dynamic. When Berube, who scored just 61 goals in 1,054 regular-season games in the NHL, deflected a shot past the Devils’ Martin Brodeur late in the third period of Game 4 of the 2000 Eastern Conference final, propelling the Flyers to a 3-1 victory and a three-games-to-one lead in the series, Jones turned to Rick Tocchet, who was sitting next to him on the bench, and laughed.
“What the f--- was he doing on the ice?” Jones said.
Their transitions to their post-playing-career careers were immediate and seamless. Jones suited up in his last game in 2001, then went right into television and radio. Berube bounced back to the Capitals, then to the Islanders and Flames, before returning to Philadelphia as a player-coach for the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Phantoms, in 2003. The climb was slower for him. He became the Phantoms’ head coach in 2007 but didn’t get his shot in the NHL until the Flyers fired Peter Laviolette and hired him in October 2013. The Flyers reached the playoffs in Berube’s first season, and in his second, with a roster full of still-developing youngsters and bloated contracts, they finished sixth in the eight-team Metropolitan Division, 14 points out of a playoff spot. General manager Ron Hextall fired him — prematurely, Jones believed.
“It did bother me, yeah,” he said. “That wasn’t a great thing, and my biggest concern was that he wasn’t going to get another chance. It wouldn’t have bothered me at all if I felt he was in a secure spot.”
The two had taken care to maintain a professional distance between them while they worked for the Flyers. Their roles and responsibilities had been different, coach and analyst, total insider and slight outsider — separate realms, no more dinners together. But after Berube was fired, Jones and his wife, Laura, let him stay with them for a few months while he looked for jobs. Berube called one head coach after another around the NHL and AHL, asking if there were any openings available. He didn’t want to be out of the game too long, to be forgotten. Jones reached out to coaches on his friend’s behalf. One night, Berube even traveled to NBC Sports’ studio in Stamford, Conn., and worked alongside Jones as a guest analyst. “Scared everybody in the building,” Jones said.
The Blues hired him in June 2016 to coach their AHL team, the Chicago Wolves. A year later, they made him an assistant under Mike Yeo. A year-and-a-half after that, they fired Yeo and promoted Berube, then went 30-10-5 over their final 45 regular-season games and won the Cup. At 31-14-8, they’ve been the best team in the Western Conference this season. They have the personnel and depth to play the style that Berube wants — rugged, jagged-edge hockey at a go-go-go pace — and they’ve been so good since he took over that he hasn’t really put Jones in the awkward position of having to criticize him. Suppose Berube had made a dumb coaching decision that cost the Blues the Stanley Cup. His best friend would have to point it out, right?
“And he should point it out,” Berube said. “It’s his job, and I wouldn’t have an issue with it because that’s his job. I don’t think it really gets too sticky. It’s a pretty open friendship that way.”
Here’s how open it is: After the Blues won Game 7, Jones did something he had never done before. He left NBC’s set and went down for the celebration. It was as close as he’d ever been to the Stanley Cup, and he stood there, in a black suit and dress shoes, staring at it. “It was important to be there,” he said. “I was there to celebrate my friend winning the ultimate goal. I wasn’t a broadcaster at that time.” He was just Jonesy, and his friend was just Chief, smiles big, arm in arm, beers in hand, teeth in place, both of them laughing and wondering, after all these years, what the f--- they were doing on that ice.