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Monday, November 6, 2006
Alex Has A New Best Friend

By Lindsay Berra

It was not something the Caps wanted to see. Alexander Ovechkin was on the wrong end of a TKO this past September, when Flyers center Mike Richards ripped off the young Russian's helmet, landed a few shots to his head and flipped him to the ice. It was only the second fight of Ovechkin's life, his first in the NHL. "I don't like to fight," the second-year wing said afterward. "I don't know how to fight." Adding insult to injury, Donald Brashear wasn't dressed for the game.

The Caps won't make that mistake again.

It's a hockey tradition—employing a player with the hardest of fists to protect one with the softest of hands. Wayne Gretzky skated relatively unscathed under the protection of iron-pawed Dave Semenko for nine seasons in Edmonton. Steve Yzerman thrived with the knowledge that Bob Probert was watching the 19 on his back for nine years in Detroit. Even gap-toothed Flyers legend Bobby Clarke needed Broad Street bully help from Dave Schultz every now and then.

In the old NHL, they were called goons. In the new NHL, where there's less room on the ice (and more in the penalty box) for thugs, enforcers are referred to sideways, in sentences like "He plays with grit" and phrases like "team toughness." But if the crackdown on fighting has driven many of the rough-and-tumble crowd back to the minors, the services of some tough guys—at least those who can play a little—are still necessary. "We're not running a Sunday school," Caps GM George McPhee said in July when he signed Brashear, who is by all estimations (and his own admission) a top enforcer. He's averaged only 12:23 of playing time per game over the past six seasons. And in his nomadic, 12-season NHL career (Montreal, Vancouver, Philly, DC), he's racked up 2,173 penalty minutes, including 830 from fives-for-fighting.

Lately, though, Brashear has slowed his headbusting pace, posting fewer than 12 fighting majors in five of the past six years. That's a long way from the 26 he served during the 1997-98 season. "I'd run around like a chicken with no head, trying to hit guys because that's what they wanted me to do," says the 34-year-old, who has a one-year, $1 million deal. "But I knew I could be a better player."

And so he is. Brashear has scored 75 goals in 773 games, more than a few of them pretty, and he's earned a deserved rep for tenacious forechecking. But now he's being asked to flex some old muscles to keep Ovechkin safe, so that more-skilled Caps forwards like Brian Sutherby and Chris Clark won't have to flex theirs. "I know I can be intimidating," Brashear says. "I see the looks on their faces. There will be fewer guys wanting to fight just because I'm around."

Not that Ovechkin is a shrinking violet. He hits often and hard and will cross half the rink to do so. His punishing checks, though, come without malice, without any desire to inflict pain. He just wants to score. But to do that he needs the puck, and to get it he'll take on any player, big or small. Not surprisingly, the recipients of his checks care little about his motives. They focus instead on his production (52 goals and 106 points last season) and the annoying way he generates it, and they will go to brutal lengths to interfere with his game. Says an understated McPhee: "There were times when some defensemen went after him a little bit."

Consider an 8-1 road loss to the Penguins last January. As the second period ticked to a close, Pittsburgh D-man Ryan Whitney, not known for nasty stickwork, speared Ovechkin in the groin. No. 8 crumpled to the ice, howling in pain. Caps wing Brian Willsie got 17 minutes in penalties for going after Whitney but it was little more than a gesture; Willsie is no pugilist. More to the point, Ovechkin—who had taken 15 shifts in the first two periods—took only four in the third.

That's when McPhee and coach Glen Hanlon started looking for a player whose presence on the bench could intimidate, but whose other skills were good enough on their own to merit giving him a spot on the roster in the new-and-improved NHL. Both recalled Brashear from their days in Vancouver, and he seemed to fit both categories.

Especially the intimidation. Brashear is a big man, 6'2" and a dense 235 pounds. His blown-up trapezius muscles lift the shoulders of his T-shirt like poles in a tent. When he's in gear, you'd never know he removes the shoulder caps from his pads for better mobility; those rounded humps are his own delts. The shy smile, the don't-wake-the-baby voice sweetened further by the French accent (he was raised by multiple sets of foster parents in Quebec), and the fact that his scarred fingers work magic on a piano do little to soften his image.

Which is just as well. McPhee did not hire Brashear for his ability to tickle the ivories. "They don't have to tell me what my role is," Brashear says. "I know what I bring to the table."