In hockey, perhaps more than in any other team sport, players have specific roles. There are passing centers and shooting centers. There are skating wingers, checking wingers, and digging wingers. There are defensemen who stay near their goal and there are defensemen who rush the puck, setting up the offense.

And there are policemen.

For some seasons Paul Holmgren was a policemen for the Philadelphia Flyers. He was paid more for his ability to inflict pain through punching than for his ability to inflict defeat by scoring.

One look at Holmgren makes it clear why he is known more for his pugilistic ability than his slap shot. At 6 feet 3, 210 pounds he is rock-hard and one of the best-conditioned players in NHI.

"Every time he goes in the corner he's going to take two guys out," teammate Rick MacLeish said. "He's so strong you'd be crazy not to be afraid of him."

But although he has accumulated 451 penalty minutes his first three seasons as a Flyer, Holmgren did not aspire to follow the footsteps of Dave Schultz and company. He worked to improve himself as a passer and a scorer even though he was aware of his label as an NHL goon.

"I don't have the quickness of some other guys but that doesn't mean I can't skate," Holmgren said Thursday after scoring the first goal in the Flyers' 7-0 rout of Minnesota, a win that evened their best-of-seven Stanley Cup semifinal at 1-1. "I've believed in myself even when others haven't.

During the 1979/80 regular season, skating on a line with Ken Linseman and Brian Propp, the Flyers' top line, Holmgren had 30 goals and 37 assists. Through 10 playoff games he has six goals and six assists. That makes him the team's leading goal scorer and second-leading point-getter behind Linesman's 13.

"No one in this league has worked harder at improving his game than Paul," Flyer Coach Pat Quinn said. "It makes me really happy to see that kind of dedication pay off.

"He's the Horatio Alger story of hockey."

The label isn't a bad one, considering Holmgren's past. He grew up in St. Paul, Minn. almost in the shadow of the Metropolitan Sports Center, home of the North Stars.

He played one season for the University of Minnesota before deciding to turn pro. A home-town boy, he fully expected that the North Stars would draft him. But it was the Flyers who drafted him, on the fifth round.

When then-Minnesota General Manager Jack Gordon was asked why the U.S. teenager had been passed over, he said, "We just didn't feel he was good enough to play for our team."

Holmgren remembers those words -- vividly.

"I was bitter," he said. "When I first came into the league I think I probably played harder against the North Stars than any other teams. I felt I had something to prove to them.

"Now, though, they're under new management. They're just like any other team to me."

And Secretariat was just another horse.

Unimpressed by the Flyers' decision to take him on the fifth round, Holmgren opted for the World Hockey Association, choosing to stay home and play for the Minnesota Fighting Saints.

The general manager of the Fighting Saints at the time was Glen Sonmor, the same Glen Sonmor who now coaches the North Stars.

"Homer was a great kid to have around," Somnor said recently. "He worked, he learned, he played harder than anyone. He was sort of unpolished but I knew he was going to be a player.

"When our team folded (in 1976) I called Fred Shero (then Flyer coach) and told him that if there was any way he could sign the kid, he should do it, that he had a heart bigger than the room I was sitting in."

Shero heeded Sonmor's advice and Holmgren became a fulltime Flyer in 1976-77 at the age of 21. He had 14 goals that year, 16 the next and 19 his third. Patiently, he played the role assigned him.

Then came Quinn. The new coach wanted to change the Flyers' brutish image. He has Linseman, 21, a superb stick-handler and skater; he had Propp, the team's first draft choice, a superb passer. But both were small, Quinn needed someone to get the puck out of the corners for them. Enter Holmgren.

"They're so well-suited for each other," MacLeish said. Kennys' so quick, Brian's so quick with the puck and Paul is always going to get them the puck."

And, when Holmgren digs the puck out and gets it to one of his linemates, he often stations himself in front waiting for a return pass of rebound.

"When he gets set in front, no one moves him out of there," Linseman said. "It makes it easier for Brian and me because sometimes both defensemen will be tied up by Paul."

Holmgren is still a long way from consideration for the Lady Byng Trophy. He had more than 100 penalty minutes this season, and he still can fight.

But as the Flyers head into the third game Sunday in Minnesota, Holmgren knows he is expected to score with his stick, not his fists.

"Sometimes I find myself watching Kenny and Brian because they're so quick and so talented," Holmgren said. "But playing with them has taught me discipline. I know if I do my job right, I'll get my share of the goals.

"It's a nice feeling having proven I can score in this league. Some people didn't think I could make it . . . "