Winning the fight

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Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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Several young players were roughhousing outside the Washington Capitals dressing room a few weeks ago when one jokingly assumed a fighting stance in front of Alex Ovechkin.

The superstar dropped into a pugilistic pose, thought better of it and flung open the door.

“Oh, Donald,” he called into an empty hallway as he and his friends broke down in laughter. Everyone got the point, a point that wasn’t missed by anyone in the NHL when the Caps signed Donald Brashear in July.

Brashear has no illusions about the reasons the Caps recruited him. It certainly was not for his skills as a classical pianist or as an equestrian (though he no longer owns horses).

“I have to remember what brought me here,” said Brashear, sitting on a portable table that threatened to buckle under his 6-foot-2, 235-pound frame.

What brought Brashear to the Caps is his ability to intimidate — and to persuade with his fists if glares and verbal inducements don’t do the trick. He was, after all, recruited by a hockey team, not the United Nations.

“If that’s the only thing teams expect from me, then I must do it,” he said, speaking slowly, choosing his words precisely and betraying little hint of his French Canadian background.

Brashear knows his role, always has. Growing up in Quebec City, he realized there really was only one way for him to advance into the higher spheres of junior hockey: He had to be an enforcer.

“I accepted my role and decided that’s what it would be,” he said. “I could have rebelled and said, ‘I’m not going to fight. I’m just going to try to score some goals.’ But where would that have taken me?”

Knowing his part has taken Brashear a long way from Quebec City.

Brashear, 34, entered the league in 1993 with the Montreal Canadiens, followed by stints with the Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers.

He signed with the Caps in July as a free agent for $1 million when it became apparent the team’s young skill players needed room to operate on the ice and the opposition was not going to provide it willingly. If a cop was needed to help direct traffic, Brashear was available, the price was right and so was the reputation.

That reputation is fearsome. Brashear probably is one of the two most-respected men in that calling in the NHL today, behind Georges Laraque of the Phoenix Coyotes.

The job itself is one that is vanishing from the league, slowly getting legislated out of existence by rules designed to open the game up to smaller, swifter men who are allowed to skate untouched through enemy territory. Any opponent who touches one as he flies past will end up serving a penalty, then find Mr. Brashear waiting to punch his dance card after he has been freed.

“At times it will be, and at times it won’t matter,” Brashear said when asked whether having him around would make it easier for guys like Ovechkin and Alexander Semin to play unhindered. “Obviously the fact that I’m there will make a change in some players’ heads but not others.

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