Some NHL fighters start younger than others

The fighting skills of many players are well-honed long before they step into the NHL ring.

Updated: January 18, 2004, 10:04 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

In his ninth NHL season, Washington Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt doesn't fight much anymore. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Witt still plays with a nasty edge, but like a lot of other physical defenders around the league, he leaves the fighting to the fighters. At this level, he's too valuable to his team to be spending long stretches in the penalty box.

A dozen years ago, however, when a 16-year-old Witt was a rookie with Seattle of the Western Hockey League, he did a lot of fighting -- in 67 games, he racked up 212 penalty minutes.

"In junior, guys are trying to get exposed to scouts and get noticed," Witt said. "I was a big kid, so it seemed that guys would come and pick fights. In junior hockey, if you're a big individual and you play a physical game, you're going to have the opportunity to fight."

FIGHTING WORDS
Kelley: Fighting for a change
Berra: A bunch of Boy Scouts
Debate: Does fighting belong?
Buccigross: Talking to kids

Kelley: Rob Ray's rule
Notes: Fighting etiquette
Ferraro: Clearing the benches
Burnside: A perfect role model

Frei: Two seasons of bad blood
Hradek: Learning the ropes
Frei: A college kid's education Frei: The beginning of an end?

SportsNation Poll: Decide fighting's fate
Before that first year in Seattle, Witt -- like most kids entering junior hockey -- had never fought before. He remembers learning fast.

"You didn't have a choice," said Witt, whose PIMs-per-game dropped from 3.55 in junior to 1.56 in the NHL. "I think you're either one of those guys who can fight or you're one of those guys who ends up falling all over the ice.

"You learn how to fight in junior. You take those experiences and try to learn from guys who are pretty good fighters."

One of those pretty good fighters was junior teammate Turner Stevenson, now a winger with the New Jersey Devils. Nearly three years older than Witt, Stevenson was a hardened veteran of the junior hockey wars when Witt arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Like Witt, Stevenson believes junior hockey serves as a training school for future NHL tough guys.

"I think that's where you learn," said Stevenson, who piled up 846 PIMs in 246 WHL games over four seasons. "There are very few guys who learn before they get there. I think some guys get revved up to show that they can do that or play that kind of game when they get there.

"Some guys find that they are good at it and they see it's a way they can get to the NHL. You have to respect that. It's a good way, but a hard way, to make a living."

These days, there is a ritual to fights in junior hockey league games, partly because of mandated visors. A pair of combatants will drop their gloves, unstrap their helmets and sometimes yank off their elbow pads before throwing the first punch. During this prep time, the linesmen watch and wait for the fight to commence.

"I think it's more of a show in junior," Witt said. "Guys want to get noticed. If it's their draft year, they want to get their PIMs up. I know in the Western League, the scouts would look at your numbers to see what type of player you were. They wanted to see if you were a soft player or if you were willing to drop the gloves."

Like many others, Witt was more than willing during his junior career. He compiled 474 penalty minutes in his final two junior seasons.

"I always got bugged in school by the other kids who wanted to know why my hands were so swollen," Witt said. "That's just the way it is in junior."

Witt, who has 61 PIMs in 37 games this season, feels that coaches use fighting differently at the junior level.

"In the NHL, tough guys fight tough guys," Witt said. "In junior hockey, if you worked hard and you stirred things up, you were rewarded with ice time. The kids realize it was a way to get a spot in the game."

A dozen years and hundreds of fights removed from his first junior season in Seattle, Witt doesn't need to fight to secure his ice time with the Capitals.

"At this level, the teams have one or two guys who have the role of the tough guys," Witt said. "Tough guys fight tough guys, sometimes grinders fight grinders and, once in a while, skill guys go at each other. Up here, there's more of a code of respect. In junior, anyone is fair game."

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.