Wednesday, October 11, 2006

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.

“They’ve changed the rules now,” Brashear continued. “There’s not so many fights. There’s a lot of good fighters out there … or there used to be. Now fights only happen when two guys fight for the puck. Now the fights are between good players. Before it was the tough guys fighting each other, putting on a show. Now if you’re a tough guy and if you can’t play the game, you won’t be able to play. I proved over the years that I can play the game and still hit people, intimidate them. That’s my role. I can still intimidate guys, but I can score goals, too.”

Brashear has the reputation of a hard worker, constantly trying to improve his game to better his chances of staying in the league. His work habits have caught the attention of others, another reason he is with the Caps.

“He’s always been a hard worker, very hard,” said coach Glen Hanlon, who first met Brashear when he and general manager George McPhee were with the Canucks. “He spends so much time at the rink, you know he’s trying to improve. You got to respect that. He’s always one of the last guys off the ice because he’s doing something extra.”

Brashear has played in 771 NHL games with 75 goals and 179 points, not Gretzky-like figures but substantial nonetheless considering his calling.

“Fighting got him into the NHL, but his skills kept him here,” Hanlon said. “A lot of players get in that way but don’t work on their game, and they’re soon gone. But not Donald. I’ve watched him. He’s a motivated guy who works on his game to be better. You can’t fault that.”

Nor can anyone fault his motivation. He came from nothing, or as close to it as an NHL player can get.

Brashear’s mother moved him and two siblings from Indiana to Montreal when he was 3 to escape an abusive relationship. Two years later she put Donald, her youngest at the time, up for adoption. He spent the next 13 years in three foster homes, a black child in an almost all-white Canadian province where everybody spoke French, not his native language. He was singled out at home and at school, abused and teased. He rebelled, but hockey saved him.

But at least three times in his past he has been charged with battery, once for defending the woman who is the mother of his two sons. Still, it says something about the man when friends know the circumstances and remain allegiant to him.

“Don’s a good person,” Flyers general manager Bob Clarke said. “To his credit he came in as a fighter, and he’s made himself into a hockey player. You like those guys to make it. He doesn’t have to fight to make a living any more. It’s part of his arsenal but not the main part. He’s worked every single day to make himself a better player.”

And a better classical pianist?

“That’s too much,” Brashear protested, a smile creeping across a face that is surprisingly unscarred. “I think that got blown way out of proportion. I took one year of lessons in school, then I learned I could teach myself. I’m not a classical pianist; I don’t even consider myself a piano player. I just know how to play a little bit. I play it to relax. I like music, that’s all.”

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