Sunday, February 5, 2012

February 6

1997 - Paul Laus fought Rob Ray, a good fight between two rivals.

Hockey hitmen not all bad.
Jack Gatecliff. Standard. St. Catharines, Ont.: Feb 8, 1997.

Paul Laus has a split personality. But in his case, it's a definite asset.

In Buffalo Thursday, the Beamsville-born Florida Panthers defenceman and Rob Ray of the Sabres staged the main event in a brawl which involved every player except the two goaltenders.

They were well-matched. Ray has 186 penalty minutes, Laus 171 minutes. NHL convention has it that when a fight is brewing, the toughest player on each team doesn't go toe-to-toe with a passive opponent.

The enforcers seek out each other.

Every team has one -- Tie Domi in Toronto, Bob Probert in Chicago, Dave Karpa in Anaheim, Craig Berube in Washington, as well as Ray and Laus.

At one time, the enforcer's one job was saving the more skilled players from punishment.

But this is no longer the case.

Mind you, none of those mentioned would be confused with Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux or Jaromir Jagr. But the current musclemen can play sound hockey and are often among the most intelligent on the team. The change of deportment once they're in the locker room is remarkable.

Laus speaks better English than many university grads, looks and acts like a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, and even called me Mr. Gatecliff which I always thought referred to my late father.

The only indication of his pugilistic tendencies was a cut over his right eye, which was quickly building up to a bruise twice the size of a toonie and, coincidentally, matched the damage around Ray's left eye.

If you're interested in winners and losers, I'd give Laus a split decision.

The 6-foot-1, 216-pounder recalled playing one "forgettable season with St. Catharines junior B Falcons when I was 16, then I was stunned by being drafted and spending three years of junior A (one with Hamilton, two with the Falls).

"Pittsburgh picked me 37th overall in the 1989 entry draft, but the next three years were spent in the International.

"The International is much better than people think, maybe even half a step above the American League, and I got a lot of needed experience in Albany and Muskegon.

"But the NHL is where everyone wants to be and my big break was being picked in the expansion draft by Florida.

"Getting to the playoffs last year in only our third NHL season, then beating Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before being swept (beaten four straight) by Colorado in the final were very special moments for everyone.

"We were all outcasts from other teams and underdogs in all three rounds we won. Now that we're up there again (second in the Atlantic Division) proves it was no fluke.

"It was unfortunate we lost in the championship round, but to get within one point of the playoffs our first two seasons, then almost go the distance the next brought everyone together."

How does life in the NHL compare to the International?

"It's great. No one wants to go back to the minors. We fly first class or charter, stay in the top hotels, eat the best meals and of course the money's much better."

Paul earns $600,000 (Cdn.) a year, has a home in Boca Raton, Fla., with his wife Jeannie and six-month-old daughter, and will have his parents John and Rhea with him next month.

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