If the National Hockey League is on the top floor of the hockey world, Alan May of the Washington Capitals got there by climbing a fence, scaling the fire escape and punching in a pane of glass.

It has not been an easy ascent and, having gotten there, his role as an enforcer is envied by few.

May does not relish the connotations that go with his job, nor the suggestions by some that hockey should ban fighting and those who duke it out. He understands the societal dislike for institutionalized fighting in a game that can be wonderfully played without bare knuckles.

But until the owners, who control the game, decide to remove it, there will be a spot on every team for someone to do what May did last season for the Washington Capitals.

May speaks of his role clinically, for it is simply business.

"Sometimes you hear certain players who say they wish there wasn't fighting," May said. "But they are usually the kind of guys who, when they're on your team, ask you to step up and talk to someone for them.

"There are some people {fans} that don't like it but there are others that do appreciate it. I've played at different levels. Some say there would be more {illegal and dangerous} stick work if there was no fighting. I don't know if that's true, but there will always be some form of intimidation. Right now, fighting is a big part of it."

But, while May will retain enforcement duties this season, his role will expand to killing penalties.

"Alan plays pretty responsibly as a checker," said Coach Terry Murray, who watched May play in the AHL with the Los Angeles Kings' farm club in New Haven. "Not often is he caught out of position. I'd like to utilize that a little more. If he can rise to that level and be successful, it will be great for the organization."

Murray showed a willingness to change line combinations during games last season, so the combinations he has together now might not be there when the season starts next week. For the moment, May is playing left wing with center Dale Hunter and John Druce.

Druce and Hunter had success in the playoffs, so Murray wants them together. As a group, the natural left wingers in camp have not set the world on fire, which is one reason Murray may keep the right-handed May with Hunter and Druce. May's physical play should discourage opponents from picking on Druce and Hunter, allowing them to concentrate more on scoring.

"I'll go to the net, I'll get a little more respect and that will leave them open," May said.

While May obviously would relish waking up one day as a 50-goal scorer -- there would be infinitely more money and glamour -- he understands that whatever line he is with, his style needs to remain fairly constant.

"I've played the same way since I was 17," said May, who is 25. "I'll play the same way as I did on the fourth line -- go hard to the net and go hard in the corners. If people take exception to what I do, I'll be there to face it."

Raised in Alberta, May did not start in one of the top three junior leagues in Canada.

"I took high school in three different provinces," said May, who left home at 16 to play junior hockey. Parts of his 11th- and 12th-grade years were spent in Saskatchewan, two places in Alberta and then British Columbia.

Once a pro, he found himself toiling in North Carolina as a player in the Atlantic Coast League.

"It was the most fun I've had playing hockey in my life," May said of the days in the ACHL. "You would get to the arena 15 or 20 minutes before practice, then practice for two hours harder than anywhere I've ever played. People made so little money, there were no attitudes.

"Three or four guys would live together in a house. It made hockey fun. It made me want to keep playing. I figured if I got to a higher level, it would be that much more fun, except you would have a little more money in your pocket."

Money is an issue with May right now. Last season, only then-teammate Doug Wickenheiser had a lower base salary in the entire NHL than May's $50,000. May also earned $800 per game, so playing 77 games brought him another $61,600. In the end, $111,600 was not the worst in the NHL, but it left an unpleasant taste.

In his tough-guy role, May received 339 minutes in penalties last season, which was a team record and the second-highest total after the 351 posted by Minnesota's Basil McRae. But May was smart with the penalties, leaving the Capitals shorthanded just 16 times.

McRae made $190,000 last season and probably will make more than $200,000 this year. Ron Salcer, May's agent, has argued his client proved himself in the role the Capitals assigned him and should be paid closer to $200,000 than $100,000.

The Capitals exercised their option to sign May to a one-year contract, plus another option. But an arbitrator will decide his salary unless the two sides reach an agreement before the hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.

"I don't want to cause any bad feelings," May said of the arbitration. "David {general manager Poile} doesn't want to come out as the heavy, either. I'm doing what I think is best for me and he's doing what he thinks is best for the organization."