Donald Brashear grew up wanting to be a boxer. Then a hockey career broke out.
“When I was a kid, I thought about boxing because it was, like, you could fight, and you were allowed,” says Brashear, who was signed by the Washington Capitals during the off-season. “That was everything I wanted to do.”
As it turned out, Brashear earned his money throwing punches on ice instead of on canvas. He was brought here to put shock into a lineup that already had enough awe.
The Caps are Brashear’s fourth NHL team in a 14-year career during which he’s become better known for his man-handling than his puck-handling. As a Vancouver Canuck in 1997–1998, for example, he broke the franchise record for penalty minutes in a season with 372. With the Philadelphia Flyers in 2004, he started an all-hands donnybrook with the Ottawa Senators by pounding Rob Ray into a bloody mess. By game’s end, the two teams had been hit with 419 penalty minutes, still an NHL record.
His player card shows totals of 75 goals and 2,169 penalty minutes. When the NHL owners locked out players for the entire 2004–2005 season, Brashear signed on with Radio X, a Quebec-based franchise in the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH). That’s a tiny semipro confederation known as the roughest hockey league on the planet. One report on the LNAH said players are paid not by the game but by the fight. As it turned out, Brashear was too rough even for the LNAH. He was banished halfway through his only season in the league for continuing to pound on opponent Glen Kjernisted of Le Prolab de Thetford Mines after Brashear had decked him to the ice.
After that suspension, he went on a sort of busman’s holiday and finally took up boxing, going 2-1 in three amateur bouts.
With the retirement last week of Toronto’s Tie Domi, Brashear, at 34, becomes the unofficial elder statesman of NHL enforcers, guys whose fists are more important than their skating ability. (In fairness to Brashear, he skates like Brian Boitano compared to Domi.) By all accounts, it’s a dying breed.
“I hear what everybody is saying,” says Brashear. “Players like me and Tie Domi are going away, that there aren’t going to be fighters anymore. I can’t pay attention to that. I’m just glad to be able to still play.”
In a previous era, players of this type were called goons. The heyday of the hockey goon came in the mid-’70s, what with Stanley Cups being won by the Philadelphia Flyers, a team nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies for its brawl-friendly leanings, and the box-office success of Slap Shot, a feature film starring Paul Newman that is the hockey fan’s Caddyshack. Back then, players who racked up penalty minutes were as famous as the top goal scorers. Dave Schultz, the Flyers’ enforcer during the Bullies’ heyday and a prototypical hockey goon, was as beloved as any of his teammates among the 17,077 fans that showed up at the Spectrum game after game after game. The Ashburn Ice House, where the Caps are currently holding their training camp, was formerly managed by Paul Mulvey, an NHL player who was actually released by the Los Angeles Kings in 1982 after refusing a coach’s order to beat up an opponent.
But over time, the NHL has enacted new rule after new rule to do away with the goon. First came the third-man-in penalty, which called for the automatic ejection of any player who got involved in a teammate’s scrap. Then any player who jumped on the ice during a fight earned an immediate 10-game suspension. There’s also the instigator rule, which added a two-minute minor penalty and a 10-minute misconduct penalty to the player deemed to have started a fight. And last year, that rule was toughened to where anybody who gets an instigator penalty in the last five minutes of a game—rush hour for bench-clearing brawls back in the day—gets hit with a one-game suspension. Also, as the league has become increasingly populated with Euro speedsters like Caps phenom Alexander Ovechkin, who Brashear will now be protecting, referees these days are intolerant of almost any player-on-player contact away from the puck.
Yet Brashear is still in the game.
“It’s incredibly impressive that he’s still at it,” says David Singer, founder of hockeyfights.com, a Web site devoted to the glorification of the goon that named Brashear Fighter of the Year in 2002. (Along with its daily listing of upcoming NHL games, the site lists probable fighting matchups for each contest.) “It takes a little while to establish a real reputation as an enforcer, and by the time you do, there are young guys trying to take that from you. Guys like him got to the league because of fighting, and players come up usually at their peak [as tough guys]. So it’s amazing how long Tie Domi lasted, and how long Donald Brashear’s [been] going strong.”
Brashear knows he’s the kind of guy the league wants to go away. But, as a tough guy would, he admits without a trace of political correctness that he doesn’t like the direction the game is going.
“Now, the game isn’t tough,” says Brashear, whose physique and aura are such that he exudes macho despite the French accent left over from his Quebec upbringing. “When I was with Vancouver, I played with [speedy goal scorer] Pavel Bure. If somebody touched him, we’d go jump the guy, just punch him in the face. Everybody knew that was what would happen if they touched Pavel. That’s how the game was. If the team needed momentum, I’d go out there and do something to try to get momentum. But now, it’s all about rules. They’ve decided they have to change the rules to help with speed. These kids with speed, they’re naturals; everything comes to them. I’m a self-made player...I’ve worked very hard at my game, to make the changes, to do what’s necessary to keep up. But it makes me sad, too. Last year, at times I felt useless out there on the ice. I was thinking about the rules too much and not just playing hockey.”
But when he wasn’t dropping the gloves or heading to the penalty box, Brashear showed that, if he really wanted to, he could play the game any way the league wants him to play it.
Though he scored just four goals in 76 games with the Flyers last year, one of those scores, which came against the Capitals in a February game during which he also dropped the gloves and served a five-minute fighting major, was positively Ovechkinian.
After stealing the puck at center ice, Brashear faked a slap shot, then pulled the puck in, swept past a Capitals defenseman and lifted a wrist shot over backup goalie Brent Johnson’s left shoulder into the top of the net. Considering the source, the move stunned teammates, the home crowd, and the announcers in Philly.
“Ovechkin jumped into Donald Brashear’s body on that one, I tell you what! What a move!” screamed the Flyers’ play-by-play man. “Who was that guy? Who did that? Oh my gosh!”
Asked last weekend during Capitals training camp if he remembered scoring against his current teammates, Brashear cracks the sort of smile that enforcers wouldn’t dare crack on the ice.
“That’s a move I’ve tried so many times in games, practiced all my life, but then I never did it,” says Brashear. “I thought about scoring a goal like that so much. And then to have it happen, just like I’d practiced and pictured, was fantastic. I remember everything about it, like it just happened.”
Does that mean he’s learning to favor the speed game over goon hockey?
“Oh, I would like the game to go back to the way it was,” he says, still grinning. “If it was still like that, I could play another seven years.”—Dave McKenna