And Matt Bradley, playing in the OHL, won the William Hanley Award as the league’s most gentlemanly player (an award also won by Wayne Gretzky exactly two decades before). The player that Washington Capitals fans now know and love as a checking, occasionally brawling, blue-collar presence was only in three fights that year.
It’s a testament to a player’s desire to make it in the NHL that Bradley altered his game from a guy who didn’t have to fight to become a give-it-all-you-got fourth-liner who scores points with fans by jumping to his teammates’ defense (case in point: last year’s classic duel with Steve Downie, where Bradley stepped in for Alex Ovechkin).
“I used to be a skill guy,” Bradley told me recently. “Then I realized I didn’t have enough skill and had to change my game.”
Bradley explained that while many players begin as the top guys on their junior teams, succeeding at a higher level of play requires a player to figure out where he’s most valuable to his team, do that well, and make sure he doesn’t try to fill a role that he can’t oblige.
From his head coach’s perspective, Bradley seems to be living by his own words.
“Matt Bradley knows his job,” Bruce Boudreau said earlier this season. “He knows when to do it and how to do it. Whether he wins or loses, he competes . . . That was probably the only time I did cheer [when the Caps beat New Jersey 7-2 in October], when Matt did okay in that fight. David Clark[son] is a really tough individual. Matt sometimes, doesn’t matter who he’s fighting, when he does fight, big or small – and it’s usually bigger than him — and he still puts his nose in there and does what he has to do.”
Bradley says he remembers his first fight came at the end of his first year of junior hockey. But he doesn’t remember the opponent and answers “probably not” when asked if he won.
“I never really fought before, and I was nervous, but you kind of have to learn as you go,” he said.
Since then, the stats make it look like he’s become a little more comfortable: he actually has more NHL fights than goals, although he prefers to reflect on the latter. He’s logged the most bouts against the Florida Panthers, according to the HockeyFights website. And while he doesn’t necessarily win all of them, his effort and work ethic during games is always top-line worthy.
Bradley went over a few key points of fighting like a gentleman: (1) Let the guy get his gloves off first before throwing a punch; (2) If a guy falls, you just don’t hit him when he’s down; (3) If someone asks you to fight (and vice versa), and you say no, then it’s left at that. Though in the heat of the game, Bradley added, all bets are off.