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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.

In 2001, Brashear grabbed a neighbor around the throat in the gym of their luxury townhouse complex in Vancouver after the neighbor had complained to Brashear's common-law wife, Gabrielle Desgagne, about their infant son Jordan crawling on the exercise equipment, according to court documents.

Brashear was granted a conditional discharge after pleading guilty to common assault. He received six months' probation.

"I admit I grabbed him by the neck for maybe three seconds and then pushed him a little," Brashear said. "It's something I regret to this day. That's no way to show my boys how to solve their problems."

Brashear and Desgagne separated in 2007. They have two children, Jordan, 9, and Jackson, 7, who live with their mother in Quebec City, where Brashear spends every summer.

The incident serves as a reminder to Brashear that, when off the ice, he must control the temper that his father never could tame.

"I didn't want to be like him," Brashear said. "I got to be careful. But it's something that's in me. I . . . I got his blood."

* * *

' The Scars Stayed With Me'

In Bedford, Ind., Johnny Brashear stood in front of the rambler home he once owned and where he last lived with Donald.

"I did so many horrible things in those days," he said. "I can't blame the ex-wives or the kids, nobody else besides me."

The house Donald recalled from his youth had a long hall, leading to his bedroom. The window shades were usually pulled shut, and Donald would sit there in the dark, hoping his father's shadow would pass his doorway and keep going, because that meant he was being good and he wasn't going to be hurt.

Donald remembered that his father cared for him, but most of those images are washed away by the recollection of looking down at his left hip one day and seeing snaking, imprinted lines in his skin. It was shortly after he had moved to foster care, and the scars confused him at first. Then he remembered: "My dad beat me with an electric extension cord."

"The scars stayed with me a long time," Brashear said. "I just remember looking down at that age and thinking, 'Oh my God.' "

Numb to most resentment, Brashear said he never grappled with his capacity to forgive. "My mom, she thinks I hate her," he said. "She didn't do anything, she just never felt like a mother to me. I didn't grow up with her or know her."

Brashear, meanwhile, said of his father: "He started the chain reaction of everyone splitting up and going our separate ways. I don't call it forgiving. I think you decide to put it behind you and move on. But to say I forgive him? No, I will never forgive him."

Johnny will be 62 this year, having taken early retirement at the local General Motors plant because of health problems. He lives with his fourth wife, Mary, in a modest, single-story, limestone home. He went into treatment in March 1980, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has not relapsed since, he said.

Five stents have been inserted into his heart because of blockages. Last December he underwent his fourth surgery to remove a vein from his arm and insert it into his left leg, leaving a deep scar the length of his right arm. Peripheral artery disease, the cause, is almost a daily affliction.

"If you see Donald, make sure you remind him to stay on the heart thing because it's a rampant thing on dad's side of the family," Johnny said.

Johnny's late uncle -- Donald's great uncle -- was Carl Brashear, the first black master diver in the U.S. Navy. He was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2000 film "Men of Honor." Johnny still hands visitors a pamphlet celebrating Carl's life.

His connection with his son's hockey career is more tenuous.

He first discovered that Donald was a professional-caliber player in the late 1980s when a co-worker showed him a Canadian newspaper that listed him as a top youth prospect. "He's awesome, he's just a monster on the ice," he added through a rueful smile. "I saw on 'SportsCenter' once he taught himself to play piano. Everything he's accomplished, he's done it without me. Tell Donald I am proud of him; my mother never told me that."

Johnny has attended only one hockey game in his life, driving two hours north to Indianapolis to see a minor league contest. But the game held no appeal to him. "It was just too violent for me," he said.

* * *

'I've Never Forgotten Him'

When Nicole Gauthier's mother died 10 years ago, she did not attend her funeral. "I didn't feel angry at her," she said of the woman who had abandoned her as a child. "I thought she's lived a miserable life, she hasn't had what she needed to be who she wanted to be. But now she's at peace. So now I can be at peace. It's like I just took her out of me and I was free. And then I started remaking myself."

Gauthier stopped speaking, then added: "But you can tell Donald, if he's waiting for me to die for him, to take me out of him and feel better, that it's not going to happen for another 20, 25 years. If he wants to talk to me in the meantime, maybe he can fix it a different way."

Donald, she said, "broke me and my children's heart" when they read a Montreal newspaper article in which he said he did not know whether to believe his mother when she tried to explain the truth about his life to him at their last meeting, 18 years ago. "Jay, Lorraine and I sat there and cried and decided. That was it. He doesn't want to be part of this family."

When asked what she makes of her son's success as a hockey player despite the trauma of his childhood, Nicole grew cool, almost clinical.

"Every child will become somebody," she said. "Everybody has it in them. Children are not just a product of their parents. Every one of them has what it takes. They could have grown up in the woods and they would still have it. They just have to have the will to learn. You can learn from anybody; it doesn't have to be your parents."

She turned suddenly toward the sliding glass door of the apartment, her voice choking with emotion.

"Well," she said, "you tell Donald I wasn't there for him. And I've always loved him. I've never forgotten him. He's always been with me and I still love him. And you tell him that I will keep on loving him and one day maybe he will come and see me."

On the ride home, Nicole's visitor realized he had forgotten his coat. Fifteen minutes later, she opened the door, breathing deeply, and said: "I thought to myself when you left, 'Why didn't I give him a number or a note to give to Donald?' And then I saw that you had left your coat. It's providence."

She handed over a letter to be given to her son.

* * *

'It Wasn't Really a Letter'

In his Washington apartment, Brashear picked up the envelope from his kitchen counter and read the letter inside. He said his mother had let him know how he could contact her if he was interested.

"It wasn't really a letter; it was just a note so I threw it in the garbage after I read it," he said, adding he wrote down his mother's telephone number first.

"One day I am going to go and see them," he said. "But for me there is two ways to do it. It's I go and I act like nothing ever happened and we won't talk about it or I'm going to go and I've gotta say everything that's on my mind and explain to them and make them really understand how I felt all these years.

"Is it worth it or is it not? I think it's worth it that I go and that I see them and I get back in their lives. But I've got other things to fix in my life before that."

Brashear paused, swallowed hard and said: "I guess somewhere inside we all have parents and you can't deny it. They're there.

"Somewhere, inside, there's a little part of me, maybe 1 out of 100 percent, that I know I have my real parents. I didn't live with them. I didn't grow up with them. But somewhere I would like to have my own family. I didn't have the family I wanted to have growing up. And that's all I wanted."

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