EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Thirteen months after he gave up on hockey, Troy Crowder of the Devils has become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the National Hockey League as well as a player with skills good enough to enable him to take a regular shift.
The 22-year-old Crowder was crowned the NHL's punching champion when he decisively knocked out Detroit's Bob Probert, who had been the league's consensus boxing king, with a right uppercut to the face in the first game of the season.
Crowder's thunderous punch opened an inch-long gash under Probert's right eye, sending him off for stitches and into conversations around the league in the two weeks since.
"He took a cheap shot at Claude Lemieux," Crowder said of his reason for taking on Probert, "and I couldn't let him get away with it. It wasn't anything that was planned, but people made a big deal because he was ranked No. 1."
Four games later, at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, where hockey fights are more common than at most of the league's 21 rinks, Crowder gave another exhibition of his boxing prowess by beating up two of the toughest Flyers. He broke the nose of Jeff Chychrun and won decisively over Tony Horacek.
Crowder's boxing skills haven't come as a surprise to those who know the background of the biggest Devil. The 6-foot-4-inch, 215-pound Crowder was considered a boxing prospect for the Canadian Olympic team when he was a youngster in Sudbury, Ontario.
"I had some boxing lessons with the guys on the Olympic team when I was in junior hockey," Crowder said, "and the coaches said I had a lot of potential. I was surprised how quickly I adopted to boxing, but I was interested in hockey."
Crowder, however, lost so much interest in hockey 13 months ago that he deserted the Devils for five months to get a new perspective on his life. After he left training camp on Sept. 8 last year, he returned to Sudbury and opened a construction and landscaping business.
"I went home thinking there is no more hockey in my life," Crowder said. "I was not happy with the way I was playing. I felt I wasn't contributing. I felt I wasn't part of the team."
Lou Lamoriello, the Devils' president and general manager, never gave up on Crowder, who was drafted by the Devils in the sixth round in 1986. Lamoriello stayed in almost constant touch with Crowder and his family and finally persuaded him to rejoin the organization.
"Lou talked to me all the time while I was away," Crowder said. "He was really persistent. He kept telling me 'we need you' and my dad said to try hockey again and see if I liked it."
Lamoriello's experience in dealing with young athletes as hockey coach and director of athletics at Providence College helped him regain Crowder for the Devils.
"I met Troy when he was playing junior hockey and I recognized right away what a high-quality person he was," Lamoriello said.
"He is the kind of person you have to respect his feelings because he is a genuine person and you have to be honest with him."
Crowder formally rejoined the organization on Feb. 8 and the Devils sent him on loan to Nashville to get him back into shape. He joined the Devils Feb. 17 and made his debut that night in Toronto.
"Cunny and the guys were really great," Crowder said about the welcome he received from Coach John Cunniff and his teammates when he rejoined the team.
"Cunny is my kind of coach. He jokes with the players and makes you feel you're part of the team. I was testing them and they were testing me when I came back."
Crowder played 10 games last season and spent the summer determined to improve his skating and puck-handling. The fruits of his hard work in the summer became evident quickly at training camp.
"He came in prepared," Cunniff said. "When we worked with him in camp, we realized he had skills and he had potential. He is an enforcer, but when a guy is coachable he can improve his skills and he's done it."
Cunniff gave Crowder the opportunity to play not only as a tough guy but also as a member of the team's checking line, and Crowder has responded well.