McGrattan puts his best fist forward

Forward Brian McGrattan broke the single-season AHL penalty-minute record, racking up 551 minutes...

Forward Brian McGrattan broke the single-season AHL penalty-minute record, racking up 551 minutes last year with Binghamton. (Ottawa Sun/Sean Kilpatrick)

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

The Hockey News, as it often does, asks the question again in its latest edition: "Enforcer role endangered?"

THN has been trying to KO fighting in the game since Bob Probert was a pup. The mag heralds the failure of that Hockey Gladiators pay-per-view debacle to attract fans as another reason why fisticuffs should be banned from the NHL.

Never mind that Hockey Gladiators had as much to do with the NHL and its fighting issue as your mom playing in her mixed slo-pitch league does with major league baseball.

If fighting is on its way out in the NHL, somebody should really tell the league's general managers.

A quick look at the "Who's Who" feature on NHL rosters in the Sun yesterday reveals just about every team -- even in this new era of the salary cap and reduced rosters -- is sporting a tough guy on its roster.

One of the first moves Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins made was to go out and get Andre Roy to ride shotgun for Sidney Crosby.

Georges Laraque, Donald Brashear, Darren McCarty, Eric Boulton, Jody Shelley, Darcy Hordichuk, Andrei Nazarov, Krysztof Oliwa, Darren Langdon, Arron Asham, Reed Low, Scott Parker, Chris Dingman and Wade Belak still populate NHL rosters.

There's always going to be a place for a guy who protects his teammates and makes the fancy skaters 10 lbs. heavier and an inch taller.

"I agree with that 100%," said Senators GM John Muckler. "He doesn't have to play every game."

RECORD 551 PENALTY MINUTES

Here in Ottawa, Brian McGrattan, the heavyweight champ of the American Hockey League last season, weighing in with 551 penalty minutes (an AHL record), is a better than good bet to make the Senators 20-man roster they will carry on a day-to-day basis this year.

To which many Senators fans, tired of seeing that cheek turned yet again, are saying, "It's about time."

The 25-year-old from Hamilton is ready for the challenge.

"I'm not afraid of anybody," the 6-foot-4, 225-lb. winger said yesterday as he once again skated on the fourth line with the "NHL" group on Day 2 of Senators' training camp.

"I'm not being cocky. I know the guys are going to be bigger and stronger (in the NHL), but I think I can compete with the toughest in the league."

Senators centre Jason Spezza played with McGrattan last year in Binghamton and saw his handiwork firsthand.

If you don't think skilled players appreciate having a guy like McGrattan around, well...

"He gives you that fear factor on the other team," said Spezza, "and knowing you've got that protection makes a difference. Whether he's playing two minutes or 12 minutes, he can change the flow of a game. He can get the crowd into it.

"The thing I like is he never complains about it at all. He goes out, does his job, then sits down and cheers the other guys."

Senators coach Bryan Murray knows his skilled players will perform at a higher level if they know they are protected. If he takes care of them, they'll take care of him.

"I don't think it's about fighting. It's about being a presence. It's about supporting the skilled players and them knowing full well if they are abused that somebody can correct it," he said.

"The trust that the players have for a coach and the coach has for the players sometimes comes from giving them a comfort level to play the game. It may mean a guy never has to fight as long as the message is there, that protection is there."

With a salary cap and a roster squeeze it is going to be more urgent for tough guys to be able to play. There have been a few guys who have used their toughness to get a fist in the door. Brashear, Laraque, Marty McSorley ... dedication and hard work, commitment and sweat combined to help them upgrade their skills to where they became more than one-dimensional players.

"Brian is capable of doing some other things, too," said Muckler. "Marty McSorley was probably the worst skater I ever saw play in practice in the National Hockey League. Through hard work and determination he made himself into a player. That's a great asset. If you can learn how to play and be physically tough at the same time, you can make yourself a lot of money. Those guys are few and far between. They're special people."

NOT HIGHLIGHT REEL

McGrattan has some skill, no question.

Spezza remembers McGrattan scoring something like 21 goals in 27 games when they skated on a line together with the Mississauga IceDogs.

"I'm not saying they were highlight-reel goals," Spezza said with a chuckle. "He skates pretty well for his size. You stick that in front of the net and you can knock in a few."

Knock 'em in. Knock 'em out.

There will always be a place in the game for guys like that.


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