NHL fighters motivated by fear

Tough guys, enforcers, thugs, goons, call them whatever you like.

But don't forget big softies and scaredy-cats, because really, that's what most of them are.

The fighter in the National Hockey League strikes an intimidating pose. The biggest is probably Zdeno Chara of the Ottawa Senators at 6-foot-9 and 261 pounds. Average is about 6-4, 225. Even the smaller ones, like 5-10 Tie Domi of the Toronto Maple Leafs, are fearsome -- an NHL analyst once described Domi as a bowling ball with teeth. But for all their armor and machismo, the NHL fighter knows his job is as perilous as it is necessary, and he operates, every day, with the nagging voice of fear in his head.

"There is always fear when you fight," said NHL pugilist Craig Berube, now with the American Hockey League's Philadelphia Phantoms. "Don't believe anyone who says there isn't."

So, the NHL fighter cloaks himself in preparation, just like a Boy Scout. He knows the ins and outs of every sort-of, would-be and bona fide brawler in the league.

Domi, he just stands in there and punches. Don't be thrown off by his small stature. He'll swing you around and spin you off balance and try to throw some big lefts, too. Montreal's Darren Langdon is just plain smart. He's hard to hit, he holds on, and he can go forever. Edmonton's Georges Laraque, Philadelphia's Donald Brashear, the Rangers' Chris Simon, they're all just plain big, and they're all lefties. If you're a righty, the toughest thing about fighting a southpaw is you're definitely going to get hit, but you've got just as much of a chance of hitting him as he does of hitting you. Laraque is so strong, he manhandles all of the other heavyweights. Long-time Sabre Rob Ray threw all rights. Blue Jacket Jody Shelley is big and strong and he'll go toe-to-toe with just about anybody. And Vancouver's Brad May, he tries to hurt you with every punch. He never throws a set-up. Every toss is a haymaker from his feet and if it lands, lights-out for that unfortunate son.

Fighters talk amongst themselves, with teammates, with coaches, with their buddy from junior in the other conference and find out who's bringing what. They know who is the smartest, who is the most patient, who is the nastiest and who has the most stamina. They know who favors uppercuts, who has the deadliest left, who likes to clutch and grab, who is all bark and no bite. They watch videotape of their own fights and others to pick up on subtleties in another guy's stance, or those who have a tendency to leave an opening for an overhand right. They monitor games, taking note of the score, the physical tempo, who is on the ice when and with whom. They know who will respond to the simple taunt, "Wanna go?" and who requires an extra shove or butt-end.

"I can't stand when a guy comes out and says 'Let's fight.' What for?" said the 38-year-old Berube, who made his NHL debut 18 seasons ago and has amassed 3,149 career penalty minutes. "There's got to be a reason. Be physical, make a tough guy come after you. Don't just ask."

Most fighters first dropped the gloves before they reached the NHL. Guts give the not-so-talented players a chance to make it. Gutsy players fight. And, when they're afraid that their particular skill set won't be enough to secure a job, guts are what they want coaches to see.

"I took a beating from Sylvain Lefebvre's brother, Guy," said pesky Ranger Matthew Barnaby, who has eight fighting majors this year. "I was 150 pounds and he was about 240. I absolutely got pummeled. I just wanted to make junior and I didn't think I was talented enough, so I had to find something else to do." In Barnaby's last year of junior with the Victoriaville Tigres, his penchant for "something else" had him leading the league with 448 penalty minutes. Barnaby also had 111 points in 65 games -- hardly a sign of inadequate offensive skill.

Shelley had the same fears in Halifax, so he challenged the team's tough guy in a training-camp scrimmage. "Geez, I was scared," he says. "But what a great way to make an impression. I didn't think it was going to lead to a role, but it definitely did." The 6-4, 225-pound Shelly had been the Columbus Blue Jackets' resident enforcer three years running and has 17 fighting majors this year.

Of course, there is the obvious fear of taking a beating, of suffering concussions, split knuckles, black eyes, fractured bones and broken teeth. But there is a more intangible fear, too.

"I was afraid every time I did it. Every single time," said Stu Grimson, who amassed 2,113 PIMs before post-concussion syndrome forced him to retire in 2002, and who, according to Barnaby, "used to string you out at the end of his long reach and just start throwing."

"I was afraid of being hit, but I was more afraid of being humiliated than anything," Grimson said. "That was my greatest fear, and it was a very motivating factor. You're in a building with 18,000 people and everything stops and the focus turns to you and your combatant. If you don't accomplish what you set out to do, it can be a huge blow to your ego and a letdown for your team."

A letdown because a lost fight can shift momentum toward the victor. An entire team can hang its collective head when its enforcer, its defender, the toughest among them, is beaten and bloodied. But whether each individual battle is won or lost, the war is necessary and ongoing. Fighters protect the skill players. They stand up for teammates who are being abused. They provide a much-needed spark when their team is trailing and send don't-mess-with-us messages when they're not. "Sometimes, you just don't feel like fighting," Grimson said. "But you know it's the right thing to do."

Of course, there are still those who pave their way to the NHL by simply throwing punches. Steve McLaren, a 28-year-old left winger, was called up to the St. Louis Blues for six games in December. He registered no points and 25 PIMs in fights with Jody Shelley, Ryan VandenBussche, Johnathan Aitken and Peter Worrell before heading back to Worcester. And Doug Doull, a 29-year-old who has played for eight minor-league teams in the past 12 years, has averaged 2:24 of ice time in 11 visits with the Bruins this season. He has collected fighting majors in all of them except one, taking on the likes of Eric Boulton, Eric Cairns, Wade Belak, Jesse Boulerice, Chris Neil (twice), Dwayne Zinger, Langdon, Krzysztof Oliwa and Andrew Peters. Doull is afraid that if he stops, all that awaits is a bus back to Providence and the AHL.

"I'm just happy to get to the next function," Doull told The Boston Globe. "I look at the next skate, the next practice, the next pregame warmup, the next game. That's it. I'm not looking very far ahead. And as for the job, hey, it is what it is. I think of myself as being part of a company, and being a company guy."

Nowadays, the fighters who stick around score goals. They crash the net, force turnovers, play defense and work the corners because, as the game has evolved, there is no longer room for the one-trick-fighter who is a liability in every other aspect of the game.

"I think I add more than just fighting to the lineup," said Cairns, the Islanders' 6-6, 230-pound defenseman who has nine fighting majors this year and averages over 12 minutes of ice time. "I can play defense. I have to play real minutes and play physical against the other team's better players and get the puck out of my own end."

Barnaby currently has 20 points for the Rangers. In 2001, his most productive season, Laraque scored 13 goals for the Oilers and had 148 PIMs. Last season, Brashear had 25 points and 161 PIMs for the Flyers and Domi had 29 points and 171 PIMs for the Leafs. In 2000, Simon had 29 goals and 49 points for the Capitals, along with 149 PIMs.

After games, fighters go home to their wives and kids like every other player on the ice. Rarely do they ever think back and second-guess a fight -- what's done is done. They ice their hands and try to heal the cuts that open over and over again and go to sleep, knowing that they've done the job that they're paid to do, prepared to do it again.

"As nice as we are as people, there is a time in everyone's profession when they have to make choices," Grimson said. "They do things that are not necessarily easy to do, but the competitive instinct comes out, and we can all be very fierce out there. I've locked horns with some of my best friends, and there's no animosity after that. As hard as that is to convey to people outside the sport, it's just the business of hockey."

"I'm a big pussycat," Cairns said.

In his spare time, Flyers thug Brashear plays the piano and visits childrens' orphanages -- Brashear is an orphan himself. Domi is a father of three who puts his kids in time-out when they fight eachother. Grimson, a born-again Christian, is now in law school at the University of Memphis.

See? Boy Scouts.

The Magazine's Lindsay Berra can be e-mailed at lindsay.berra@espnmag.com.