Craig Berube looks like an old-fashioned caricature of a hockey player. He's big and rugged with gaps where some teeth used to be.
Yet, as a member of the Washington Capitals, Berube has become more than the image. He fills the role the Capitals acquired him to fill -- NHL tough guy. But he also has given them more than they thought they were getting, leadership on the ice and in the locker room. He has even scored four goals and handed out three assists in 39 games.
"He gives me everything he's got every time out, in a very demanding role," said Capitals coach Terry Murray. "Craig has to be prepared every night. Doing what he does, he can't take a night off. If he did, he could get his head smacked around. But what I like is that he hasn't come in with a tough-guy enforcer image and tried to be something else.
"He knows the offensive opportunities he has been getting result because of the hard work he's doing on the physical side."
There is no denying Berube has a physical presence on the ice. He checks anybody in his neighborhood against the boards. He makes opposing players' heads rattle inside their helmets. Sometimes, his rattles, too.
And it is easy to think of the 6-foot-1, 205-pound left wing as a one-dimensional player. The surprise is that he is more. He leads by example. He says what he thinks and, his coach and teammates say, he backs it up on the ice.
"He isn't going to change everyone on this team," said Capitals defenseman Al Iafrate, who has found a friend in Berube. "But he is changing some people. He's been to the Stanley Cup finals and semifinals. He has a right to voice his opinion
and preach what he believes, sees and feels."
After a game in Quebec last month, Berube said publicly that teammates who weren't willing to play within the Caps' system "should be weeded out."
"I don't sugar coat," Berube said. "We're all grown men. All I'm doing is trying to help them out, to win, to help guys play better. I've always said what I felt. Sometimes, it gets me in trouble. But I'm not going to back off. To me, black is black and white is white."
Berube said he lost his front teeth -- "the first time" -- when he
got sucker-punched as a 17-year-old in a bar and he lost them the second time, after having bridge work done, in an on-ice fight while he was with the Flyers.
It is in the fights that he is noticed by most fans. They see him drop the gloves and wade in where most people wouldn't. He says when guys come after him, he's not afraid to get involved.
In Philadelphia last month, it was almost comical when at one point the puck dropped and, in the same moment, Berube and rookie Jim Cummins both dropped their sticks and gloves and began circling as if in a bare-knuckle exhibition.
"He came up to me before the faceoff and said he wanted to fight," said Berube, who trained as a boxer through juniors and only stopped practicing two years ago. "Those kind are easy. It's the ones where I have to go after someone. . . . I hate going after guys. That's the hardest part, when you have to go into the corner and get someone just to stir something up, when the team is down 3-0 and you've got to do something to get the team going. That's tough.
"Sometimes it's OK, but most of the time, I don't."
He won't say it goes against his nature, though it probably does. He smiles easily, signs autographs for kids at Piney Orchard after practices and donates time to the Special Olympics. One of seven children, he grew up on a cattle-and-grain farm near Calahoo, Alberta.
The most fun he ever had in this game was when he used to play shinny hockey late at night in Calahoo.No one in those games was a tough guy. "Everyone was Guy Lafleur or Bobby Clarke."
wasn't until he was in junior hockey that he knew he would be an enforcer.
"If I wanted to play the game, that's the way I had to play," he said. "It wasn't a disappointment. You take what you have and you work with it. It does feel good to hit other players, though I get beat sometimes."
Berube is working for his third team in three years, but he has settled in here. He brings some of the same things veteran center Dale Hunter has provided, grit and heart.
"I didn't know Craig well enough to know he'd give this kind of leadership," said Murray.
"I didn't realize he had such a good understanding of the game and what makes it work. We've missed that friction in the room. He identifies his game and the team game. He was with the Flyers when he was a rookie and went to the Stanley Cup finals. He knows why and how they got there. And he's picked his spots well. He's not in position to be too outspoken every night."
Opponent: Chicago Blackhawks
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
TV: HTSRadio: WMAL (630 AM)
Tickets: 2,900 available