For Washington Capitals' Donald Brashear, Fighting's a Way of Life

The Washington Post's Mike Wise joins youth hockey players on the ice with Capitals' enforcer Donald Brashear in Southeast, D.C. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 2, 2009

Outside the Washington Capitals locker room, the most feared fighter in the National Hockey League stared at a sealed envelope that had just been handed to him by a reporter. On the front, in neat, cursive writing, a relative whom Donald Brashear has not seen for 18 years, had written simply, "Donald." Brashear clutched the envelope in his swollen left hand, the hand he has shaped into the cudgel of a fist in 223 fights over 15 violent seasons in the NHL. He thought hard about opening it, whether he wanted to peel back the layers of his past, because, he said, "there are some things I don't want to know, some doors I don't want to open."

When the Capitals step onto the ice at Verizon Center this afternoon for the first game of their second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Brashear will not be skating with them. In a first-round game against the New York Rangers, Brashear caught an unsuspecting Rangers forward in the face with his forearm, sending him crashing to the ice and breaking an orbital bone. The blow, and an encounter with another Rangers player before the contest, earned Brashear a six-game suspension.

For fans of professional hockey in North America, he is an imposing 6-foot-3, 235-pound forward, one of the sport's most recognizable enforcers, a black man playing a predominantly white man's sport whose skating and stick skills have been dwarfed by his ability to pummel opponents with his fists.

Brashear, 37, is known as a loner. He lives in a sparsely furnished, two-bedroom apartment in Penn Quarter. No pictures of his two boys or his friends hang on the bare walls, no awards. Nothing. He broke off an engagement to a woman he adored last month because "we want different things. It's just too hard for me to be in a relationship."

"Brash don't trust anybody," said Frederic Cyr, whom Brashear met when Cyr tended bar at Montreal's L'Action almost 20 years ago. "What he has in life is his friends and teammates, and when he leaves hockey he will miss all that."

Except for a half-brother, he does not speak to his family. For almost 30 years, he has largely cut himself off from the rest of the world because of what happened to him as a child.

On this day, Brashear walked toward his gleaming black Cadillac Escalade in the parking lot of the Capitals' training complex, opened the driver's door and put the envelope on the passenger's seat with his belongings. A connection to his childhood remained in the envelope, which sat there, unopened, on the drive home.

"I worry about opening that window because you start to care -- you start caring and sometimes you can't really help them," he said. "They're still hurting and you feel bad for them. So I don't want to feel bad for anybody. The only thing I was caring about for years was myself. And that's what I did. That's the only way I could succeed."

* * *

'I Fought When I Felt I Had To'

In his first fight on the ice, as a 17-year-old in junior hockey, Brashear knocked down an opposing player with a straight punch to the face. Then he began skating again, holding his head high.

"It was a huge moment," he said. "He could have been the one knocking me down. He could have been the tough guy. I could have not dropped the gloves and have never fought anybody. Because I wasn't very confident doing that before I did it. I had never tried it. I just jumped into something that I had no idea what it was."

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