Randy Holt would very much appreciate our not being too hasty in judging him. He asked if we'd wait a bit before calling him the Capitals' first big-time goon or suggesting that his uniform jersey should not have a number (4) but a message: Fists for Hire. He made this request with a smile, although he did not say please.
"I want the people here to give me a chance," said the man acquired from Calgary last week. "Forget all the past bull. Watch me play, then offer any opinion you want. I really feel, and I think I'm pretty honest about myself, that I've never been given the chance to play hockey. If that happens here, I think I'm capable of competent, tough defense."
He emphasized tough, for the Capitals did not bring Holt here to tap-dance near center ice. They were intrigued not by his adroit stick-handling and shooting skills but by his willingness -- for the right price -- to punch some respect into the opposition when that becomes necessary.
Yes, Holt's reputation preceded him. In less than eight years with five NHL teams, in 247 regular-season games, he has scored all of two goals. And accumulated 847 penalty minutes. If there were a Hit Man's Hall of Fame, Holt would be a charter member.
His scary side is hidden behind a face that seems gentle at times. In a hockey lineup, Holt is not the one you'd select as Mr. Tough.
"Throughout my life," he admitted, reddening in embarrassment, "all the times I've ever fought in bars, it seems as though people would overlook somebody else to fight me. And yet I was the toughest there. It's hilarious."
In the NHL, where what would bring two to five years off the ice brings two to five minutes, Holt has become a legend of sorts for one fistic fit. March 11, 1979, to be exact, a binge that will live in hockey infamy, when Holt, all 5-feet-11 and 180 pounds of him, brawled with the Broad Street Bullies.
That Flyer flailing got him into the NHL record book. It tied him, with four others, for most penalties in one game: nine. It enabled him to set a record for penalty minutes in one game: 67. The unfathomable part is that they all came in one period.
That jolts even fanatics accustomed to ice madness: one minor, three majors, two 10-minute misconducts and three game misconducts by the end of the first period. What manner of hockey hellion is Holt?
"I've been in all-outers five times in my life," he began, adding that an all-outer is when both benches empty, when everybody on both teams scrambles onto the ice and picks a punching partner. "Of those five, four have been against Philadelphia. And all four was because of me, because I'd stand up to them. The way Philadelphia plays is a gang war against one guy."
Holt was a Los Angeles King that night. He continues:
"I got in a couple of fights with a defenseman by the name of Frank Bathe (who before the game ended would be behind Holt in second place for most penalty minutes in one game, with 55). Then Blake Dunlop was playing for them, and he turned around and said something to me which you would never say under normal circumstances. Only because he's in Philly and playing for them.
"So I drove him in the head. I went to the bench, and then Bobby Clarke skated to their bench and said: 'We're gonna get him at the end of the period.' Soon as the period ended, they all leaped over the boards for me. So I already had the two fights, then I caught (Paul) Holmgren and a couple other guys. I don't know how they sorted it (the penalty minutes) all out.
"It's not a thing I'm proud of. But I am proud to say I stood up to them. Anything they threw at me I threw back."
Holt recalls Mel Bridgman and a King squaring off once, breaking away and going at one another again. A short time later, they neared each other, and went at it once more when one of them muttered: "Let's go for the tie breaker."
"The Philly papers said they won all the fights. Yet I never had a mark on me. But both my hands had to be put in ice after the game, they were so raw."
Beyond knuckles worn to the bone, Holt has no lasting fight scars. His nose has been broken seven times during games, but never from fights. He has all of his teeth but one, and that void is the result of a teammate accidentally hitting him with a stick.
If such as Guy Lafleur is what hockey tries to sell, Holt is its reality, necessary because obvious penalties simply do not get called often enough to make the power play a convincing deterrent. If somebody picks on, say, a Dennis Maruk, Holt may be summoned to tell the fellow to mind his manners. If he persists, mauls Maruk again -- well, according to Holt:
He once was a finesse player.
"I play a certain role that's been asked of me," he said. "When I was 20 years old, I made the rookie pro all-star club (in the Central Hockey League). At 21, I got (a CHL record) 411 penalty minutes. Then they told me to play hockey, and I proved it again."
His role as enforcer started about four years ago.
"I can't afford to get overly tired," he said, "Because if I get overly tired, how am I supposed to protect anybody? I'm gonna lose the fights. And if I'm losing the fights, who am I scaring? So I started laying off the hockey skills, to concentrate more on the job they gave me."
Holt has trouble remembering when he was not fighting.
"A hard-rock kid," he said, "I fought all my life. My father was a barroom brawler. He'd go in the bars on a weekend, with that fast temper, have a few drinks and end up gettin' in a fight. Then I'd be going to school with these kids, go home with them and hear their parents look at me and say: 'Any relation to Ray Holt? Yes? Well, I don't want you hangin' around him.'
"Out of frustration, I started beatin' these kids up. They hated my father, who I loved, so I beat 'em up. It's a wonder how I stayed out of prison."
More mellow now, he said, Holt is rich enough to skate away from the Capitals if they cannot agree on renegotiation.
"All of a sudden we (his wife, Lynn, and three children) are uprooted again," he said. "And since it doesn't look like I'm ever going to have stability, I might as well get what I can financially."