Intense but not foolish

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:51 AM ET

He's a 5-foot-10, 178-pound ball of fury. He approaches every hockey game like it's the Red Cross.

You know, an opportunity to give blood.

His mission? If it isn't in blue and it's moving, make it go Splat! Referees have called him a bad actor, fans and media once dubbed him Sideshow Bob and he is universally reviled in dressing rooms not adorned with a Maple Leaf.

Good thing Darcy Tucker is mellowing.

For much of his career Tucker was one of those guys who could make you admire his tenacity one moment, then curse his immaturity and fool-headedness the next. The upside was that he could upset the other team and make them forget they were there to play hockey. The downside was that he'd just as often forget why he was there himself -- inevitably do more yapping than scoring; he would leap into an official's face flapping his arms like Big Bird on an amphetamine rush, or try to beat up the entire Senators bench.

But, as the Leafs enter the most pivotal time of their season with games against Washington, New Jersey and back-to-back against Buffalo, little Darcy finally is acting grown up. And, it only took 32 years. Yesterday was his birthday --and he admits that perhaps his energies were not always channelled in the most, ahhh, beneficial manner.

"I think I've learned over the past few years to be more patient," Tucker said yesterday. "When you're younger things don't always come as easy as you expect. Next thing, you get frustrated and then you force things."

Like in March of 2003 when, after teammate Tie Domi broke the nose of Senators' Magnus Arvedson with one punch, he attacked Chris Neil on the Ottawa bench. That cost him five games watching from the press box.

In 2000 his out-of-control style resulted in a series of dumb penalties that caused Leafs hierarchy to question if his career was headed in the proper direction.

Like in March of 2002 when he decked Washington defenceman Sergei Gonchar. Retribution at all costs that night cost him a two-game suspension.

In Dec. 2005, during a fight with New Jersey rookie Cam Janssen, Tucker hooked a finger under his foe's helmet and delivered a couple of blows with it. After numerous phone calls between Leafs management and the NHL, he escaped suspension, much to the ire of the Devils, and was fined $2,500 US.

Then came a subtle change. Tucker still has the devilish twinkle in his eye and he still plays like he's got a burr caught in his hockey pants. "I don't think I'll ever lose that aggressive nature, growing up on a farm we learned hard work and that'll always be a part of me and the way I play. But I've learned there's a way to go about things and ways not to do things," Tucker said.

The aggression seems more channelled. At a time when more penalties are being called, Tucker's time in the box is well off his career-high of 176 in 1998-99 or his Toronto-high of 141 in 2000-01. Offensively, he has become a vital cog on the power play, leading the team with 14 goals. He's one of four Leafs who have surpassed the 20-goal mark.

Like a fine single-malt scotch, he has aged well. That steak his wife Shannon has in the fridge? Now, most often, it goes on the barbecue, not on Tucker's black eyes.

"When you have kids (he has three children) things change. For one, I don't take the game home with me the way I did when I was younger. You realize that when things are going great that when you get home you're still just "Dad," and when things go bad when you get home you're still just "Dad." It makes it easier to accept the ups and downs.

"I've got a more even keel off the ice and I think it shows on the ice. My game has evolved and I believe that it's got a lot more to do with my personality than it does with any increase in my skill level."

If Mats Sundin is the team's spiritual guide, Tucker remains its emotional fulcrum -- capable of rousing it in the space of one shift, one hit, one rush.

Smarter? Maybe. But the intensity, coach Paul Maurice said, hasn't wavered. '"That's what he brings to the personality of our team. We need that. He's into the game; he's either running someone or getting run and he likes to have a chat with the referee ... he likes to talk to the other team. Percentage-wise, most of it isn't at the referee; it's at the other team, at our team, or he's on himself half the time too about shots he thought should've gone in.

"With our bench it fits well because when he does it, the other guys don't have to. And, he's good at it."

Next test? Next Tuesday. Cam Janssen comes back to town. Mom might want to stock up on the steak. You know, just in case.


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