Garrett Burnett makes his living as a bare-knuckles brawler, a job nearing extinction.

Tough Guy 

Garrett Burnett makes his living as a bare-knuckles brawler, a job nearing extinction.

The Tough Guy circles forebodingly in the grainy, homemade videotape. He suddenly lurches forward, throwing a wild series of punches before tumbling to the ice. The next moment, he is seen stripped of his jersey and shoulder pads, swapping mean, arching fists with a player from Rochester. In the next fight, he is clutching a man, holding tight, unwilling to do that for which he is paid: hit people.

Steel pins had just been removed from his broken hand, he explains apologetically. One must be prudent with one's professional tools.

The Tough Guy possesses many such tapes, sent from fans across the North American Snow Belt. This one consists of 20-odd minutes of bare-knuckles fighting, awkwardly edited from minor league cablecasts, the color heavy with luminescent pinks and greens.

The Tough Guy doesn't sit while he watches. He is large, muscled well beyond nature's boundaries, giving him a stiff look as he leans against the wall of his cluttered Independence hotel room. Until this moment, he has been relentlessly gracious, spinning stories with the laugh of a little boy. But now he is clearly disappointed. This is not his best work.

After all, the Tough Guy was the most prolific fighter in professional hockey last season, recording 53 bouts. A mortal enforcer might drop the gloves every three or four games. But when one calculates in suspensions -- "I usually get four or five a year," he says, smiling -- the Tough Guy fought nearly every game.

Unfortunately, this is a greatest hits tape from three seasons before, when he was a mere lad of 22, a novice in the art.

"Now, if I was fighting that guy, I could get in uppercuts," he says as a bout from Kitchener, Ontario, crosses the screen.

The next moment he laughs at a close-up of himself. "My nose used to be straight before a guy made it unstraight for me."

Then there is footage from Hershey, Pennsylvania. The tape shows little more than a pile of arms and legs and torsos, striped shirts attempting to unravel the mess. When the Tough Guy is eventually pulled away, his prey remains on the ice, splayed in the ungainly form of the unconscious. Seconds later there are gloves, sticks, and fists everywhere.

This provides the Tough Guy with a teachable moment. "The guy was stupid," he says of the unconscious man. "I beat him. I had him down. But he was still saying he's gonna kill me. I had to hit him."

Such is the Tough Guy Code. For those who fight on skates for a living, these are the unwritten laws, and they have served Garrett Burnett well. He is, after all, the last man who should be playing professional hockey.

Since he embarked on his road to the pros in 1994, Burnett has been discarded by teams from Saskatchewan to Jacksonville. He's been called a goon, a bully, a no-skill bum. In a game where 20 goals a season is the benchmark of a good scorer, Burnett has but 12 -- over six years. In fact, so many coaches have given up on him -- six in one season alone -- that he struggles to remember them all.

Still, through a childlike exuberance and a sheer love for propelling big fists into other people's heads, Burnett has managed to slowly, painfully climb his way up in this game. He may well be the most loved and hated man in all of minor league hockey.

And now he has come to fight for the Cleveland Lumberjacks.

To understand hockey, one must first understand the Far North. Though it doesn't share the same beat-the-wife/shoot-the-brother-in-law traditions of the rural South, it is a curiously violent place nonetheless. Fighting is a cultural staple of this land, a means to administer justice, to settle grievances, to relieve the overstocking of testosterone, its greatest natural resource. It's also cheap and accessible entertainment for those isolated by snow and subzero temperatures. To fight, or talk of fights past, is among life's great pleasures.

"There's a lot of outdoors kind of people," says Burnett, who was raised outside of Vancouver. "They work long hours in the mines or in the forest. People work all week out in the bush, and they come in on Saturday, and they drink like all hell. And if they can't get a woman, they get a fight."

Hockey is the sport and official religion of this land. Fighting, quite naturally, has always been a part of it.

The game's loftiest perch, the National Hockey League, was conceived in 1917. The Toronto Star tells of a battle that season between Bad Joe Hall and Alf Skinner. After fighting on the ice -- a bout that entailed a good bit of stick swinging -- the players were hauled away for disorderly conduct. Festivities continued in the paddy wagon, where five policemen were needed to yank the men apart. Hockey has maintained its brawling ethic ever since.

While fisticuffs in most sports call for automatic ejection -- and handsome suspensions -- the NHL did not crack down until 1922, when it decided to rebuke combatants with a five-minute penalty -- the equivalent of a parental time-out. NHL officials weren't about to vanquish such a closely held tradition.

Besides, fighting was viewed as a safety valve, a way of releasing tension when play became too furious.

It also served as a secondary justice system, according to Stan Fischler, a commentator for Fox Sports Net New York and author of such scholarly texts as Ultimate Bad Boys: Hockey's Greatest Fighters. "Hockey was a frontier game. It was basically played in the pioneering areas of western Canada, in the prairie. If somebody got hurt, and the referee didn't call a penalty, they took matters into their own hands."

Of course, everyone fought, from the smallest players to the biggest stars. To do otherwise was to flirt with cowardice.

But something changed in the early 1960s. The Montreal Canadiens, the Yankees of hockey, thought others were taking liberties with their stars. So they hired John Ferguson, considered to be the original designated fighter. Such men were called policemen. If others got too rough with the more skilled Flying Frenchmen, it was Ferguson's job to exact justice.

By 1967, the game had changed again. The NHL expanded, and the increasing number of jobs corresponded with a decreasing level of talent. Though men of Ferguson's ilk were actually talented players, a new breed of fighter emerged, one whose résumé began and ended with his ability to punch people. He was known as The Goon.

Hockey was embarking on its Roving White Street Gangs on Ice period. There were bench-clearing brawls, bands of players chasing fans into the stands. Magazines of the trade were filled with photos of men with long hair and bushy Fu Manchus, blood streaking down their faces.

The Philadelphia Flyers' Andre "Moose" Dupont best described the times. After a game in which Dupont used his stick to create an eight-stitch cut in an opponent's face, he said contentedly, "That was a lot of fun. We don't go to jail, we beat up their chicken forwards, we score 10 goals, and we win. And now the Moose drinks beer."

The bedlam would continue well into the '80s, until hockey -- finally concerned about its reputation for bloodlust -- began to enact more severe penalties. One-on-one fisticuffs between willing combatants would remain kosher. But to clearly instigate a fight or to be the third man in on someone else's fray would be no more.

It was a business move. The NHL hadn't had a national TV contract in years. Outside its native lands of Canada, the Rust Belt, and the Northeast, the sport was viewed as an oddity, something akin to the World Wrestling Federation on ice. It's one thing to sell the occasional bare-knuckles fight; it's quite another to market a series of miniature riots.

The league hired a new commissioner, a marketing geek pirated away from the National Basketball Association. It launched teams in places like San Jose, Dallas, Miami, and Nashville. And the fighter, who had since seen his title changed to the more romantic calling of "enforcer," was becoming an afterthought.

By the late 1990s, hockey was a shadow of its former violent self. Teams that once employed three full-time fighters were now hiring just one. Some even went without. The number of fights was falling dramatically. In fact, the NHL hadn't witnessed a decent bench-clearing brawl since 1987. Many believed the enforcer would be extinct in a matter of years.

Garrett Burnett has the misfortune of being born 20 years too late. He is decidedly old-school, a player whose own father describes his son's brand of hockey as "extreme."

Kevin Neibauer, a columnist for Just Hockey, recalls seeing Burnett when he joined the Philadelphia Phantoms three years ago. "His first game here . . . Burnett had three shifts and three fights."

But the most telling assessment comes from last season's stats, when Burnett played for the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the American Hockey League. The numbers: 3 goals, 3 assists, 506 penalty minutes -- despite missing 24 games. To put this in perspective, Denny Lambert led the NHL with 219 minutes. When Lumberjacks Director of Media Relations Tom Caudill first examined Burnett's numbers, "I thought it was a misprint," he says.

Bryan Kurzman owns Drop the Gloves, a Newton, Massachusetts company "specializing in game-used enforcer jerseys and equipment," the fight fan's version of a collectibles shop. His is a doctoral knowledge of all matters pugilistic.

"Cleveland has never seen a pure enforcer like Garrett," says Kurzman. "A guy like Garrett, he just eats, sleeps and breathes fighting and hockey. He just loves the art of hand-to-hand combat. He understands the role and what it takes to get the job done. He doesn't have any qualms with it."

On a sunny September afternoon, Burnett sits in a Euclid Avenue eatery, talking about that job. For a professional fighter, his face is relatively damage-free. Sure, there's the bent nose and a small cut across the bridge, the hint of a scar above his eye. But he is a handsome man, with a chiseled, angular face and gelled black hair. When he smiles, which is often, he looks like a model for some rugged brand of cologne. When he doesn't, fierce eyes and the requisite goatee make him look to be sired by a third cousin of Mephistopheles.

An inquisitor asks if he enjoys fighting. He launches into a long monologue on the role of the enforcer, known to players as simply The Tough Guy. He solemnly recites the official job description: to protect his teammates; to look out for the talented, the small, those too important to waste away in the penalty box.

But the inquisitor presses on. Does he enjoy fighting?

Burnett pauses for a moment, trying to maintain the Earnest Athlete Doing an Interview Routine, then breaks out a sheepish smile.

"Yeah, I guess I do. I really do."

Genes are what brought him to this day. Burnett's sister was a three-time British Columbia wrestling champ. And Dad -- let's just say Burnett the elder could knuckle in his own right.

Bob Burnett played senior amateur in Vancouver and admits to fighting "quite a bit. It went hand in hand with being big in those days. I guess it's just something I handed down to him."

Such things are important heirlooms in Canada, where hockey is invariably described in hallowed terms. A sample day from Garrett's youth: "You go to school, talk about hockey all day at school, then get home, get your stick, play street hockey -- like in Wayne's World -- then eat supper, go to your hockey game, then get home, and it's late, so you watch hockey with your parents.

"It's like a religion."

Actually, it's a theology bordering on fanaticism. Take the case of an Oakville, Ontario league. Officials suspected some of the town's best talent was playing in another Metro Toronto league, despite residency requirements. So Oakville hired private investigators to stalk the players. The offenders' ages: 9-13.

By the time top prospects reach 16 and 17 in Canada, they are drafted away by elite junior leagues and sent to live in distant cities with new families.

Burnett was never subjected to such attention. He was not a skill player, the euphemism for quick feet, soft hands, a cunning shot. Nor had he discovered the joys of fighting. He recalls his first bout as a 17-year-old trying to earn a spot in the British Columbia Hockey League. He was in preseason camp when he noticed a bigger, older kid pushing others around.

"I had never fought before. I don't know what happened. My gloves just kind of fell off the first time I was on the ice, and the next thing I know I'm on top of him."

Young Burnett had found his gift in life. But the road to becoming a tough guy is indeed the road less traveled -- and for good reason. He would later try out for the Saskatchewan Hockey League. A preseason game proved instructive when he took on a tough guy three years his senior. "He probably hit me 8 to 10 times before I got going. I realized it was going to be a tougher job to be a losing fighter than a winning fighter."

His mother, Vicci, agrees. During those early days, she had difficulty watching her little boy play. "When he was fighting, I would pick the program up and start reading, so I didn't have to watch."

Still, Burnett was good enough neither at hockey nor fighting to make a name for himself out West. "A lot of teams would say, 'You don't have the foot speed; the skills are not there,'" he says.

So at age 19, elderly by Canadian junior league standards, he offered to pay his own way to a tryout with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. For a northern boy, the Ontario Hockey League is a princely station. It is the NHL's best finishing school, chock-full of high draft picks and gems awaiting polish. Burnett was a decided longshot to make the team. Yet he would see his defining moment the first shift of preseason camp.

On that day, he took the Greyhounds' No. 1 draft pick hard into the boards, knocking him to the ice. The player came up swinging. With one punch, Burnett crushed the bridge of his nose. "He couldn't breathe for two months."

The fighter had landed a spot on the roster.

But the Ontario League proved an alien land. Burnett was eager to learn the craft of the tough guy -- a bit too eager. In the Western League, he says, "it's so intense that they won't let teams warm up at the same time. They're old-school. In the OHL, they let you warm up together. I was getting in fights all the time during warm-ups."

By December, he would be traded to the Kitchener Rangers, where, incidentally, he was invited to stay with the family of the No. 1 pick whose nose he crushed. Such are the live-and-let-live ways of the North.

Kitchener, however, would not go particularly well either. He recalls his first home game with the Rangers. A tough guy from Sarnia was beating a Ranger not known for fisticuffs. In between punches, the tough guy would raise his finger in the We're No. 1 salute, before unloading again. Burnett emerged to avenge the slight on the next face-off. It turned into an all-out brawl. "My coach was pounding on their coach. It was funny."

Not so funny was that Burnett had become a marked man. "I ran into a lot of problems with suspensions. I was looked at as a one-dimensional player that came out of the West." After the season, he was traded once again, this time to Portland.

Burnett saw no use playing further in the junior leagues. He was, in many respects, the one-dimensional player others thought him to be. He readily admits that fighting was the only thing keeping him in the game. So he did what any player who's short of options would do. He turned pro.

"He just decided if he was going to be knocking heads, he would knock heads with the men," says father Bob.

He tried out for the Binghamton Rangers of the AHL, hockey's equivalent to AAA baseball. He was cut in camp.

He signed on with the Utica Blizzard of the Colonial League, a landfill for has-beens and never-will-bes. The pay was $300 a week, the play uninspired, and the owner, who bought the team with his wife's money, decided to coach as well, though he had never actually played hockey. Burnett asked for his release after 15 games.

He fired up his 1980 sedan and headed to Oklahoma City. Three games, cut. Then Tulsa. Six games, cut.

Bob Burnett recalls these as trying times for his son. "The phone bills were fairly extensive there for a while."

By all accounts, the Burnetts are a close family. It may seem corny, even contrived, but Garrett speaks earnestly -- constantly -- about the support he receives from Mom and Dad. By this time, however, their son had already been dropped from four teams, and the season wasn't yet over. Even mother Vicci, who speaks with the warmth of a saint, was second-guessing that support. "I've always told him that good things happen to good people, but sometimes I was really questioning what I was telling him."

Garrett listened nonetheless. He heard of a coach in Hampton Roads named John Brophy. The former minor leaguer was said to like tough guys, said to be someone "who would carve out your eye and not think anything of it," says Burnett. For a fighter down on his luck, Brophy looked like the Second Coming.

So Burnett once again packed up and headed for Nashville, where Hampton Roads was playing. When he went to mooch a free ticket at the Nashville office, the team invited him to join the pregame skate. He was hired on the spot. But this, too, would not last. Two weeks, cut.

"I was halfway across America," recalls Burnett. "I don't know where I am. I want to come home. People were just telling me I wasn't a good enough player. But my parents kept telling me not to listen to them, kept pushing me to knock on doors."

So he would knock on the door of the Jacksonville Lizard Kings. The team had nailed one of the last playoff spots, and the coach wanted toughness. He promised extra instruction if Burnett worked extra hard. When the season concluded, however, Burnett received a pink slip -- his sixth of the year.

He was claimed by Peoria the next season. Cut.

So he signed with Knoxville in what proved to be his best season. He picked up 5 goals, 11 assists, 321 penalty minutes. More important, Burnett got his confidence back.

The turning point came when Roanoke arrived in town. A former Knoxville player, regarded as the team bully for hazing younger guys, was now skating for Roanoke. He had terrorized Knoxville during the preseason.

"Everybody had fear of this guy," says Burnett. "They were saying we should just leave this guy alone."

By the second period, Knoxville was down 3-1, and the Roanoke badass was skating toward him. Burnett offered up the international tough guy mating call: "Hey, you wanna go?"

"It almost seemed like the first time I ever fought. I just kept throwing and throwing. I hit him maybe 20, 25 times, just hammering the shit out of him." Knoxville ended up winning 5-3.

It was a moment of clarity. Burnett discovered his role in the ecosystem -- that with a few well-placed punches, he could purge the fear of an entire team, give bravery to those who had none.

Perhaps miraculously, he would stay with Knoxville the whole season. But life in Tennessee was not to last.

Burnett worried about becoming a franchise player. In the context of minor-league hockey, the designation is not as exalted as it sounds. They are usually aging scorers, notorious fighters, kept by the same team year after year to provide a marketing identity, with no chance of moving up. The East Coast Hockey League, the infamously brutal venue where Knoxville played, owns a good share of these men. The pay is low and the perks are few, but it beats the hell out of getting a real job.

Burnett never saw it this way. "I thought they just wanted me there to bring in fans," he says. Besides, NHL scouts did not ply the land of okra and grits. Their work was done north. So he requested a trade.

In the meantime, he landed tryouts in other leagues. Las Vegas: Cut. Utah: Cut. Syracuse: Cut.

But in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a man named Nick Fotiu liked what he saw. He spent 14 years in the NHL, a legendary tough guy. Now coach of the Johnstown Chiefs, Fotiu understood the import of tough guys. He traded for Burnett, and the player would serve his mentor well. In just 34 games, Burnett had 1 goal, 1 assist, and 331 penalty minutes.

The numbers, specifically the last one, were good enough to land a tryout with the Philadelphia Phantoms by midyear. He was supposed to stay 10 days; he ended up staying the season and made a name for himself in the process.

"He put the fear in other clubs," says Fotiu. "Other clubs didn't want him playing, because they knew they would get hit."

Most tough guys pick their spots, maintaining a large, looming presence on the outskirts of the game, waiting for the roughness to start. Burnett, by contrast, was an impatient madman. If there was no trouble to be had, he would create it himself. It was not uncommon to see him throwing punches moments into his first shift. And if that fight ended in a draw, he would seek the man out a second, a third time, until the matter was settled.

"What you have to understand about Burnett is he wants to go every night, and he won't wait for you to fight him," says fellow tough guy and former teammate Adam Nittel. "He knows before the game that he's going to go out there and tear somebody's head off. His model is to instill fear before the puck's dropped. He comes right out straight and says, 'You wanna go?' And if they don't want to, he won't leave their side by more than five feet the whole game. He has everybody else hearing footsteps out there."

Cleveland teammate Chris Armstrong puts it more succinctly: "Sometimes it's like he's almost out of control, like he's almost certifiable."

Such aggression got him noticed. After the season, he was signed by the NHL's San Jose Sharks.

It is one thing to make the NHL as a conventional player. It is another to do it as a tough guy. The interview process requires kicking the living shit out of other candidates, who just happen to be your teammates.

Prior to his first camp in San Jose, Burnett had spent the past few years making $400 a week. The prize for winning a new job in the Silicon Valley: $300,000 annually. In that first year, he fought six times in the initial scrimmage, only to be sent down to minor-league Kentucky, where the pay was $50,000. He would eventually be injured and play but 31 games.

Last year, he returned to San Jose, fighting Nittel every chance he got. Yet the Sharks already had a resident tough guy. Burnett was sent down once more.

It wasn't necessarily a bad move, for the Burnett legend would reach full bloom in Lexington, Kentucky. He fought 53 times -- the NHL record is a mere 39 -- and racked up so many penalties that fans in one section kept a running tally on a homemade sign, the way fans in St. Louis chart Mark McGwire's home runs. He was the consummate showman, blowing kisses to the crowd, appearing for the team in WWF-style TV commercials. He had long autograph lines, was a prime ambassador to the community. Here was a man who knew how to play a crowd.

"After he got kicked out of a game, he would return to watch the rest of the game with almost nothing on," says Thoroughblades' booster club member Keith Coleman. "He would return with just a Speedo on or something, making sure his big chest showed. The women just loved him."

Whether one is a goon or not depends upon which jersey one is wearing. The routine that played so well in Lexington sank in opposing arenas. Internet forums for other AHL teams are filled with references to Burnett as a "knuckle-dragger," "Mr. Neanderthal," and "Hit 'Em From Behind Burnett." They catalog a long list of muggings, cheap shots, and untoward behavior.

On a fan site for the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, Kentucky's arch-rival, an article describes the tough guy as "a gutless goon." But the story's last line is the most telling: "We won't miss his antics, but most fans agree that we won't forget him either."

Indeed, Burnett had become the most loved and hated man in the American Hockey League.

Apparently the Thoroughblades, like the parent club in San Jose, were not as impressed. When his contract expired last spring, he wasn't resigned.

About to enter the NHL were two new teams in Columbus and Minnesota. Expansion franchises are Job Service programs for players like Burnett, who huddle at the fringes of hockey's top league. They are places of opportunity, rebirth. And they tend to be keen on employing tough guys. New teams are inherently bad. Fights distract fans from noticing this.

After last season, Burnett told his agent, "'Just tell me when you have a place for me to go.' I just wanted a chance."

That chance would be granted by the Cleveland Lumberjacks, Minnesota's top affiliate.

Burnett is sitting in an Independence restaurant, one of those prefab joints decorated in rough lumber to simulate character. He is eating his customary dish of meat, gravy, and potatoes when he remarks out of the blue, "I just feel good today. I don't know why. I just feel really good." He is known to bubble like this.

One might expect a tough guy, especially one of Burnett's pedigree, to be the brooding, surly sort. Some are. One of the baddest men he ever fought would later land in jail. Kurzman has a tape of another actually stealing a foe's necklace during a fight, then showing off the bounty to teammates.

But most are regarded as the pleasant men of hockey, as agreeable off the ice as they are mean on. Burnett, of course, is the extreme. His is a yes, ma'am/no, ma'am politeness. He recounts his battles with laughter and shy smiles. "He's basically a big kid," says Just Hockey columnist Neibauer. There is no talk of himself in third person, no threadbare ego easily snipped by a pointed question. In fact, nearly everyone who knows him stresses his essential goodness.

There's the story of a young brother and sister in Kentucky. Unlucky genes forced them to have their feet amputated. Burnett visited them at the hospital and brought them to a game as his guest. "It gave him so much pleasure to see them there," says mother Vicci.

Then there's the tale of the eight-year-old boy who had a heart attack and lapsed into a coma. When he came to, the first thing he said was, "How are the boys doing? Is Burnie still suspended?" His mother called the Thoroughblades, and Burnett soon arrived with sticks, memorabilia, tickets to the game, and an invitation to the locker room.

Carol Williams, an editor at two hockey periodicals, tells of another eight-year-old in Philly, this one battling leukemia. "Josh took a liking to Garrett, and Garrett took a liking to Josh. Whenever Garrett's in town, he makes it his business to find Josh. I asked Garrett one night where he got his courage from, and he said, 'You want to meet somebody who's brave?' and he took me to meet Josh. Garrett's just that type of person. He's so human. He's just constantly reaching out."

No doubt Burnett is genuine. His sparkle and missing-in-action vanity tell you so. But there is also a calculation evident. Everyone in hockey is basically a tough guy, from coaches to general managers. Unlike in other sports, they suffer neither prima donnas nor punks easily. Burnett understands it's in his best interest to be a model of decorum off the ice. After all, there are other tough guys where he came from.

Talk to him away from the game, and only his hands betray what he does for a living. They are huge, meaty things, with so much scar tissue they light up under nightclub neon. Each hard knob, each bent knuckle has a fight attached to it.

It is the principal hazard of being a tough guy. "My hands are a mess," says Eric Boulton, a Burnett nemesis who plays for the Buffalo Sabres. "I have a couple ligaments torn off the bones in the fingers of one hand."

Then he adds, with requisite tough-guy understatement: "Nothing big. I can still fight."

"You look at guys, and their skin splits open, and it becomes infected," says Mike Brophy, a writer for The Hockey News. "[Detroit's Joey] Kocur had the worst I've ever seen. They looked like a road map: stitches and scabs and scars. It was really gross. It hurt to look at his hands."

It is one reason so few players want the job. To be called on to fight nightly, to go home with cut fists, headaches, to look in the mirror and see scar tissue where a face once was, to wake up in the morning unable to bend fingers, pick up children, hold the car keys -- no, this is not a job others seek.

There is also the fear. Says Lumberjacks center Brett McLean: "I'd have a hard time sleeping at night, knowing some of the guys I'd have to square off with the next night."

And for good reason. With tough guys increasingly trained in boxing and martial arts, according to Burnett, "I wouldn't be surprised if somebody gets killed someday."

"Bare-knuckle boxing was outlawed when?" asks Steve Dryden. "And we still have sanctioned, bare-fisted bouts? It's hard to believe we're having this discussion in the year 2000."

Dryden is editor-in-chief of The Hockey News, regarded as "The Bible of Hockey." He is among the most prominent critics of fighting, at times known as a "conscientious objector," at other times referred to with the less flattering label of "Greenpeace puke."

To fight or not to fight; this debate has clung to hockey for years. Dryden is among the few close to the sport in vocal opposition. Most hand-wringing comes from outside. Conduct a newspaper search with the phrase "hockey fighting" and it produces mounds of commentary on the game's blood thirst and absence of civility.

Compounding the problem is a brutal past year for the sport. Tough guy Marty McSorley was recently convicted in a Vancouver court for using his stick to deliver a two-handed knockout blow to another player's head. In Illinois, an amateur player was checked into the boards after a game, leaving him paralyzed. And in Massachusetts, one parent, upset that the coach of his son's team was letting play get too rough, showed his displeasure by beating the coach to death.

This is what is known as an image problem.

Hockey officials have always skirted the issue, offering denunciations of illegal play, yet never moving toward an outright ban of fighting. "The owners don't want to attack this issue, because they know a lot of people just come to the games because of the fights," says Larry Wigge, who's covered hockey for The Sporting News since 1969.

Tough guys respond with a shrug. They remain among the most popular players, the subject of memorabilia stores, websites like "Knuckles, Blood & Ice." Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry's fight tapes have sold over a million copies.

Rob Skrlac, resident tough guy for the Albany River Rats, sums it up best: "Nobody ever gets up to get a cup of coffee when a fight's going on. But when I'm watching two Europeans run up and down the ice, I might get thirsty."

Still, these are ominous times for the fighter. Rules changes have withered his ability to exact revenge. Moreover, coaches are less tolerant of tough guys taking reckless penalties. When the playoffs come around, today's enforcers are usually found in the press box; they don't even dress. The man who throws fists and does little else is soon to be extinct.

"The fighter who can't skate and can't play is a dinosaur," says Sean Brousseau, Burnett's agent. Which is why he delivered his client to Cleveland. Here awaits the chance to prove once and for all that Garrett Burnett is not a goon.

On a recent Wednesday night at Gund Arena, a sparse crowd seems to barely outnumber the ushers and concessionaires. Pity, because the Lumberjacks are a fine-looking team. Theirs is a roster filled with speedsters and jitterbug forwards. Most played in the NHL or are legitimate prospects. Only two remain from last year's team, the rest descending upon Cleveland in hopes of seizing a precious new expansion job with the parent club in St. Paul.

Aside from one brief shift in the first period, Burnett will be restricted to shouting encouragement from the bench. The Lumberjacks blow a 4-2 lead, eventually losing 5-4. This is the season's third game; Burnett didn't dress for the first, didn't play a shift in the second.

The post-game locker room finds coach Todd McLellan in a distracted yet courteous mood. He speaks of Burnett as a role player, of his need to improve -- just as many coaches have spoken before him. But McLellan also invokes the phrase "hard worker," words forever linked to Burnett, and he seems sincere when saying the tough guy's time will come as the season wears.

On this night, Burnett is unusually terse. He responds to questions with quick, monosyllabic sentences. There are no laughs, no little boy's grin, no sign of the big kid who has slugged his way across America, maintaining good cheer while others said he wasn't good enough.

But later this evening, back at his Independence hotel room, he will likely remember the mantra he so often recites. "It doesn't matter if it takes me till I'm 35 years old. I'll never stop trying."

It is a long-money play to bet on Garrett Burnett. The numbers, the trends of the game, those swift, diminutive teammates who skate while he yells from the bench, all are barriers before him. Yet the tough guy cares little whether you believe in him or not. He will happily wait his turn in Cleveland. After all, it is a town with the attributes a fighter seeks.

"I really like this place, because it has a Jumbotron screen," he says. "You can see your punches in slow motion while you're in the penalty box."

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