Mayhem and a mohawk

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

Blue hair? In a mohawk? Why didn't anyone tell us Mr. T's grandmother was in town?

Oops. Check that. The head turner at Rexall Place yesterday has nothing to do with the A-Team, but he is the toughest guy on Edmonton's AHL team - and we pity the fool who cracks wise about his new locks.

"I used to have the really long hair but I cut it off last year because a guy grabbed it in a fight and I ended up getting the crap beat out of me," said American Hockey League veteran Rocky Thompson, in full grin after the first day of Road Runner training camp.

"Then I ended up bleaching it. Then I kind of ran out of things to do, so I figured what the heck, let's look like a Road Runner and get the full 'hawk."

HE'S A ROAD WARRIOR

With the missing front teeth, the shoulder pads and the Breathe-Rite bandage on a nose that couldn't belong to anyone but a fighter, Thompson looks less like a Road Runner and more like a Road Warrior - like he and his gang should be chasing Mel Gibson through the wasteland on a motorbike. Still, it never takes long for the friendly, easygoing winger-turned-defenceman with the Balboa-sized heart to become the most popular player on his team.

"Everywhere I've gone fans have kind of taken a liking to me because I have a good work ethic and play within my skill," said the 27-year-old father of three. "They appreciate that. My name is Rocky, so that never hurts, plus I'm a southpaw and I'm the underdog (as an undersized heavyweight). There's kind of a script there."

Kind of a script? With a storyline like that, the Road Runners could soon end up promoting bland-looking women in horn-rimmed glasses and full-length jackets ankling around Rexall Place between periods.

"Rocky's been a marquee guy in every town he's been in and I don't expect it'll be any different in Edmonton," said Road Runners head coach Geoff Ward. "He's got a great personality, he does a lot in the community and he goes to war for your team every night. You want guys like that on your team."

When he first broke into the pro ranks in 1997, Thompson was pretty much a thug. The only time he ever thought about the puck was when he wanted to cuff someone over the head with it. Or did you think those 1,312 career penalty minutes were all hooking minors?

In the last couple of years, however, he decided to try something wacky, like playing hockey. Turns out he's not too bad at it.

Last season he was top-prospect Doug Lynch's regular defence partner. No more going out there for 45 seconds a period to beat someone up, he was logging miles of quality ice - the former goon skating side by side with a blue chipper.

"Those two have had a symbiotic relationship," said Ward. "Rocky made Doug's learning curve into pro hockey a lot more accelerated and at the same time Doug made Rocky a better player, too. Every day they were out doing extra stuff.

"Now he's kind of experiencing the other side of hockey, getting a chance to do some other things in the game, and I think he enjoys the expanded role."

Who wouldn't? Thug to hockey player is a metamorphosis all enforcers strive for, but one that very few even get the chance to attempt.

"When I first came in, my skills and my development were limited," admitted Thompson. "But I was good at being an enforcer, being a fighter. Nothing wrong with that. Over time, though, if that's all you do, it can get kind of old."

And it did. But most coaches just rolled their eyes when he talked about maybe becoming a player.

"In a lot of ways it was my own fault because I was overweight, I felt I needed the extra leverage to fight," said Thompson, who used to weigh as much as 230 pounds, but trimmed to 210 last year and 200 this season. "I valued fighting more than maybe I should have, maybe more than I valued the game of hockey. But over time I've become a big fan of hockey and a fan of training. My diet has improved. I feel really good on the ice. My skating feels 10 times better than it has in the past.

GIVEN OPPORTUNITIES

"Because of all that it's developed my game to the point where I've been given opportunities to expand my role ... and when somebody puts their confidence and trust in you, you don't want to let them down."

He hasn't.

"He was a really good player for us right from the beginning and he's been a great leader," said Ward, who saw enough in Thompson to make him an alternate captain during a stretch last season. "He has a tremendous influence in our dressing room and with our young players, getting the team together and moulding our identity. He gives his heart and soul every night. He's not just a fighter any more, he can play the game."


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