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."
Like thousands of other Canadian kids, Brashear was trying to earn a spot on an NHL roster. Becoming a fighter was one way to do it, and his coaches liked what they saw.
The next season, he jumped to the American Hockey League, where he skated for a farm team of the Montreal Canadiens, the NHL's most storied franchise. He moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he would play for two and a half years. Brashear tried to impress with his offense, one season scoring 38 goals and totaling 66 points in 62 games. "But you get a role and you do one thing well and you keep doing that to survive," he said.
His first NHL fight came in his first season with the Canadiens, 1993-94, against Bob Probert, a veteran wild-man enforcer with the Detroit Red Wings.
"It was like Ogie Oglethorpe from 'Slap Shot,' " Brashear said of the 1977 cult hockey film. "He just had the long hair, like old school, Then you hear everybody saying he's the toughest guy and this and that. It was nerve-racking. There are 20,000 people and you don't want to lose your fight." Probert lunged and missed and he and Brashear slipped and fell at the same time. Brashear survived.
And his reputation as one of the league's tough guys began to spread.
"I didn't go real crazy at first," Brashear said. "I didn't start fighting everybody. I fought when I felt I had to."
After bouncing in and out of the Canadiens' lineup for four seasons, Brashear was traded to Vancouver, where he continued grappling with the NHL's established fighters, slowly learning balance and leverage, and how his strength could work for him. It became almost a science for him.
"It's like scoring a goal for Alex Ovechkin," Brashear said, speaking of his Washington Capitals teammate, the leading goal-scorer in the league the past two seasons. "When a goalie goes down, he's putting it up top. Well, if the guy I'm fighting puts his head down, I know I'm coming underneath."
Despite all the success it has brought him, though, Brashear still finds it ironic that his hockey career is built around his ability to punch another man.
"To tell you the truth, I never liked fighting," he said in a soft voice that still bears a French-Canadian accent. "I always wanted to be the type of player that plays hard, hits, body checks and scores some goals. But that's not what they wanted me to be."
* * *'He Has All This Aggression'
Nicole Gauthier backed her black Saturn out of the parking space behind a working-class brick apartment complex in Candiac, Quebec, which sits on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River about 20 minutes from Montreal. She was going to visit a friend when a reporter from Washington told her he had come to talk to her about the son she had not seen since he was 19.
"We're dead to Donald. He doesn't want any contact with us," she said, idling the vehicle and taking a drag from her cigarette.
Several minutes passed before Gauthier parked the car and invited the visitor inside her tiny apartment. Then she began to talk about how Donald Brashear came into this world and why she abandoned him.
She met Donald's father in 1967 when he was on weekend leave from the U.S. Air Force radar station in St. Albans, Vt., less than 20 miles from the Canadian border. Johnny Brashear was 22, already in the throes of alcohol addiction, and she was 19, a hardened product of Quebec's foster-care system, when she became pregnant. They moved to Bedford, Ind., about 75 miles south of Indianapolis, to be married. By the age of 24, she had given birth to three children -- Lorraine, Johnny Jr. and Donald, the baby.
"He was a beautiful child," Gauthier said. "He had an innocence about him."
Johnny drank to get drunk, building up enough tolerance so he could down a pint of Seagram's VO Canadian whiskey in three swallows. He would lose money at cards and come home angry and hungry, telling his wife to make him something to eat.
"If I rubbed my eyes to wake up, he'd grab me by the hair and pull me out of bed saying, 'I mean now!' " Gauthier said. "He'd say, 'Shut the baby up.' If Donald didn't stop crying, his dad would grab him by the arm and throw him across the room. He was 6 months old when that happened."
He whipped Donald with belts and electrical cords and whatever else he could find during drunken rages that left welts and bruises all over the little boy's body.
Gauthier finally left Donald's father, hitchhiking back to Canada in the middle of the night after he had beaten her three nights in a row. "I believed I was going to die or have a nervous breakdown," she said.
Later, she returned to Indiana to get Lorraine and Johnny Jr., whom the family called Jay. She left Donald, who was about 18 months old, with his father.
He would not rejoin his mother in Canada for another four years, when he would move to Loretteville, a small, middle-class town in central Quebec, to a brick house with windows poking through the roof. There he was reunited with Jay and Lorraine, and he would meet his half-brother, Danny, the first child Nicole had with Gerard Roy, her new husband.
Gauthier said she had left Donald with his father because Roy was "prejudiced" and did not want another biracial child in his household. Roy had earlier tried to persuade her to give up Lorraine and Jay to social services, she said. Danny Roy recalled a visit one time to Gerard's mother when she would not let his three half-siblings use her bathroom. "She took all three of them outside and made them go out there," Danny said.
The children slept upstairs together in a room with a bunk bed and a small mattress -- except Donald. He was isolated by his stepfather and made to sleep in a small, dark room across the hall because of a bed-wetting problem. The other children were sometimes awakened by the sound of a plastic garbage bag that Donald's stepfather would tie to his waist as he writhed and moaned at night. It was Roy's cure for bed-wetting.
"All you could hear was the garbage bag crinkling and Donald crying all night," said Danny Roy, now a police officer in Montreal. "I hear him crying still in my head. I kept thinking how hot and scared he must have been in there. He must have been 7, I guess. It still haunts me."
Danny is the only blood relative with whom Brashear feels any personal connection.
Brashear also had trouble tying his shoes. Roy would stand over the boy and humiliate him, Gauthier said, as he tried unsuccessfully to get the laces right. "He would be yelling and yelling at him," she said. "And he kept making him do it over. I couldn't stand making the child go through that. I wanted him to be safe."
She finally decided to send Donald to Quebec's foster-care system, as she had been as a child.
"I did it because he had the mental problems from all the trauma he had," she said. "And he wouldn't speak with me; he just kept saying you're not my mother. There's nothing I could do with him. There's no way I could help him and I could see he was going to endanger himself. His father had really done a number on him."
During one visit to see her son, she said she was told by a social worker not to return because Donald became too aggressive with his foster family after seeing her. Pregnant and with three other children at home, she never went back. Donald was 7. He would have no contact with her again until he was 18.
Years later, when she found out he had made it to the NHL, Gauthier said she was "gloriously proud" of Donald and that she was not surprised he had became an NHL enforcer.
"What else would he be?" she said. "He has all this aggression. In all his games he's known as the fighter. Instead of fighting back the people that hurt him, he fights the people on the hockey."
Gerard Roy, reached by telephone, confirmed he had Donald sleep in a separate room with a plastic bag around his waist, explaining, "It saved a mattress." He denied that any racism by him or his immediate family played a part in his and Nicole's decision to either not take Donald as a toddler or give him up to foster care as a young boy. He said that it was Donald's insistence, as a child, that his mother couldn't be his natural mother because she was white that led to the intervention by social services. As for his own racial views, he said, "red, black, white, yellow -- I love everybody."
* * *'I Didn't Want To Be Like Him'
On Feb. 21, 2000, while with the Vancouver Canucks, Brashear was involved in one of the NHL's most blood-curdling moments when Marty McSorley of the Boston Bruins swung his stick and hit Brashear in the head. Brashear lost consciousness and suffered a grade 3 concussion when he fell backward, his head ricocheting violently off the ice. A jury found McSorley guilty of assault with a weapon in October 2000, for which he received 18 months' probation and the longest suspension in NHL history. McSorley never played another NHL game, and Brashear never accepted his telephone calls of apology.
Today, Brashear maintains his own Web site that documents his fights. It includes videos of many of them, including one entitled, "Don Delivers A Beatdown," a malicious free-for-all in a semi-pro game. "That's not who I am," Brashear said, adding that he is taking steps to remove it from the site. "I didn't want to fight any of those guys, but managers [of teams] paid them money to fight me. They just kept pushing me and pushing me."
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."