Commentary

Volpatti, Fraser doing what it takes

Updated: December 4, 2013, 12:25 PM ET
By Dhiren Mahiban | Special to ESPN.com

Aaron Volpatti and Colin Fraser took separate routes to the NHL, but they both agree their willingness to fight is what got them noticed and onto an NHL roster.

Volpatti, now with the Washington Capitals, and Fraser, of the Los Angeles Kings, also admit, even with fighting on the decline, it will always be a part of the NHL game.

A graduate of Brown University, Volpatti is one of the better educated fighters in the league, joining the likes of Montreal Canadiens heavyweight George Parros (Princeton) and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Tanner Glass (Dartmouth). A background in boxing is what initially made Volpatti comfortable dropping the gloves. Prior to attending college, Volpatti played junior hockey in the British Columbia Hockey League, in which fighting and line brawls were a regular occurrence. Following three seasons in the BCHL, in which Volpatti racked up 279 penalty minutes and 37 points with the Vernon Vipers, he picked up 239 penalty minutes over four years as captain of the Brown Bears while scoring 32 goals and totaling 62 points.

"A lot of people ask the Ivy League question because there's quite a few other guys," Volpatti said, trying to explain why one with such smarts is willing to fight. "I don't know. Sometimes, you got to do what it takes to stay in the league."

At Brown, where he completed his degree in human biology, Volpatti said he took a four-year break from fighting. Stiff penalties in college hockey deter players from fighting. Currently, anyone who fights is automatically ejected from the game and suspended for the next game as well. As a result of the rules, Volpatti was forced to focus on being a better all-around player. In his final season with the Bears, Volpatti averaged nearly a point per game while refraining from fighting.

However, in the spring of 2010, the Vancouver Canucks signed Volpatti as a free agent, and he spent the end of the season in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose, with whom he would score just once and add an assist in eight regular-season games. Volpatti added a goal in five playoff games with the Moose. With the scoring drying up and having to get used to new, tighter checking, Volpatti had to fall back on the old mantra of doing anything to get noticed. Volpatti dropped the gloves four times in 13 games with the Moose to conclude the 2009-10 season, according to hockeyfights.com.

His willingness to do whatever it takes enabled him to make his NHL debut on Dec. 18, 2010, with the Canucks.

"For me, breaking into the league, that was just kind of another thing I could add to my game," he said. "I'm a physical guy, and it's just one extra thing to help you play more and stay in the league." Since his debut, the 6-foot, 215-pound winger is averaging just more than three fights per season.

Fraser, 28, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks and then Los Angeles, went the Canadian Hockey League route, spending four seasons with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. Fraser says he learned to fight in the WHL.

"In junior, I used to fight just to fight," he said of his 62 fights with the Rebels. "If some guy asked me, I'd almost never say no. I'd be like, 'Alright, let's go.' We're winning 5-0 and I'm fighting, which is pointless."

Under the tutelage of head coach Brent Sutter, Fraser amassed 640 penalty minutes in 269 regular-season games in Red Deer. Sutter, a two-time Stanley Cup champion as a player with the New York Islanders, says Fraser fought because of his playing style.

"It was part of his game because of the way he played. That came with it," Sutter said. "That's why he was a very good junior, and he was a very respected player in our league because he came every night to play."

Added Fraser: "I was always kind of a physical player, kind of a little rat, so I kind of had to stick up for myself sometimes, too; with that obviously came fighting."

Originally a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2003, Fraser turned pro with the Norfolk Admirals during the 2004-05 season.

"For me, at least as a professional, I wasn't a goal-scoring player," Fraser said. "If you're not scoring goals or making plays, do something to get noticed, whether it's hitting somebody or fighting somebody. Whatever. Just get noticed."

In parts of eight NHL seasons spent with the Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers and Kings, Fraser has 29 fighting majors.

"Nowadays, if I have to stick up for a teammate -- if we're trying to change momentum -- I'm certainly not afraid to fight," he says. "I'm just not going to fight just to fight anymore."

Don't violate the code

As physical and emotionally charged as fighting is, both players acknowledge there's a code when it comes to fighting in hockey, and it all boils down to respect. A good example occurred during Volpatti's fight with Flyers forward Steve Downie on Nov. 1. Downie suffered a blow to his eye midfight and signaled to Volpatti that he could no longer go.

"[Fighting] is not an easy thing to do," Volpatti said. "I think most guys realize that. For the most part, when guys are in venerable positions, you lay off, and guys respect that. Guys respect each other. I think that's what it literally comes down to."

Added Fraser: "They're not literally there to hurt each other. They're there because they're working, and that's their job. Everybody knows their role, and if those two guys saw each other after a game, they're shaking hands and saying 'Good job.'"

Wearing a visor is generally regarded as a no-no when it comes to fighters as well. Volpatti doesn't wear one despite having done so in junior and then wearing a full cage in college. Fraser played without a visor; however, a couple close calls during his first season with the Kings prompted him to put one on. Code violation?

"It's definitely a little bit of the code still, but not like it used to be, I don't think," he said. "Guys don't even really think twice about a guy wearing a visor anymore. I don't. Seventy or 80 percent of guys wear them now."

Fraser added that fighting an unsuspecting opponent, throwing punches once a player is down on the ice and fighting a player at the end of his shift are frowned upon under the fighters' code.

Get off the stage

Many have called for the NHL to remove staged fights from the game, the fights that don't occur as a result of an emotional situation within the game but rather seem arranged before the puck drops. Rules such as 46.6, which penalizes a player for removing his helmet before the fight starts, have been put in place to deter staged fights. However, Fraser doesn't think these kinds of fights are common.

"I don't believe they're set up before the game," he said. "I think when there's two tough guys, there's obviously a good chance you're going to fight tonight."

Fraser, who has two fights in 12 games with the Kings this season, added, "I think if you're both on the ice together, depending on the flow of the game or if one team is maybe not playing as well as it should, that player is going to out there and try to fight."

As for what is said before two willing combatants drop the mitts, Fraser says it's a quick conversation.

"It's not a pre-made conversation," he said. "I think it's just the old 'Hey, you want to fight? No? OK, see you later' or 'Yup, OK, let's go.'

"It's not like in the morning at pregame skate guys are saying 'Hey, tonight, you want to go?' It's not like that."

Where to from here?

Both Fraser and Volpatti acknowledge the frequency of fights and number of fighters is certainly on the decline in the NHL and elsewhere. The BCHL, in which Volpatti played 137 games, has adopted a one-fight rule, by which players receive a game misconduct along with a major penalty for fighting.

"They're slowly kind of weeding it out of the game a little bit," Volpatti said. "It would kill some jobs, for sure, but I think most of the guys in the league now can play, too."

Last season, the WHL adopted a rule to remove staged fighting, adding a game misconduct to any player who engages in a staged fight.

"I don't think they can take it out. Obviously, it's clear with the way the game is going -- it's faster, more skilled, the heavyweight -- there's still guys around, but they're slowly weeding them out," Fraser said. "There'd be maybe more stick work or guys taking more liberties on the star players if there wasn't fighting."

Fraser believes most guys who fight these days are also skilled enough that they can contribute to their team without dropping the gloves.

"Guys like Kyle Clifford in L.A. here, the guy can still play hockey, and he's tough as nails," Fraser said. "Everyone likes being able to stick up for a teammate. Jordan Nolan, too, or Chris Stewart in St. Louis -- these guys are all guys that can play hockey and play hockey really well.

"They're not just out there gooning it up. They're honest players. They're good players, clean players."

Sutter, who played more than 1,000 NHL games before coaching the New Jersey Devils (2007-09) and Calgary Flames (2009-12), says the league can control fighting, but removing it would be impossible.

"The players have to be able to police the game somewhat themselves," he said. "It's a contact game. It's a physical game, and emotions are running high. It's been a part of the game forever.

"It's part of our game. It's part of our culture."

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