By Alan Siegel
BOSTON — David Singer is the world's preeminent on-ice violence expert. Since 1999, he has cataloged pugilistic skaters on hockeyfights.com, the sport's one true almanac of punches, grabs and smashes.
"We're just providing information," says Singer, a New York City-based Web developer whose site receives 8 million page views per month, "on many guys who've been ignored."
Not long ago, Milan Lucic was one such anonymous brawler. When the Boston Bruins selected the Vancouver native with the 50th overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft, he was big and strong, but didn't resemble the slick, highly skilled forwards clubs covet.
Then, on Oct. 5, 2007, during his professional debut, he dropped the gloves for the first time. Lucic didn't quite knock Dallas Stars right winger Brad Winchester out of his Bauers, but earned an overwhelming 79.3 percent approval rating on hockeyfights.com. Comments poured in like valentines.
Cabsf15e: This kid is pretty strong for a 19-year-old pup, not to mention tough!
Islandersfan39: Winchester had the size and Lucic had the (um, guts).
Cue the "Raging Bull" score. By hockeyfights.com's tally, the rookie led the Bruins in fights (13) last season and finished second in penalty minutes (89). But surprisingly, there was substance beyond the brawn.
"He does what seems like everything on the ice," Singer says.
Not only did he hit with the force of a supercharged Zamboni, he collected 27 points (8 goals, 19 assists) while drawing stylistic comparisons to all-time greats Terry O'Reilly and Cam Neely. It made sense. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Lucic, Massachusetts' most popular left winger this side of Ted Kennedy, is built like a heavyweight boxer.
"He's got the body to back it up," Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference says. "He's not scared, whether it's a big, tough guy on the other side, or whatever. He enjoys getting involved."
One look at Lucic's puffy scar, a reminder of the time his nose cracked like a walnut, and you believe Ference. It was last January at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia. After finishing a check, Lucic's beak got caught between the glass and the boards. Fifteen stitches later, he was back in the game. The Bruins ended up beating the Flyers 4-3 in overtime. Lucic led the team with five hits.
"I think toughness is something you're obviously born with," he says. "You can't teach someone how to be tough."
The 20-year-old's ascension to Boston's top line this fall hasn't changed his style a bit. Coming into the weekend, he was leading the smoldering Bruins in penalty minutes (41) and was second in the league in hits (59). One stunning October collision sent Toronto's Mike Van Ryn so hard into the TD Banknorth Garden boards, it caused a pane of Plexiglas to shatter like a broken windshield.
And to all the Looch smoochers out there, fear not. Your hero's 2008-09 hockeyfights.com card is no longer empty. Late in Thursday's 6-1 win over rival Montreal, he pummeled 6-4, 240-pound Canadiens defenseman Michael Komisarek like a heavy bag. As Lucic made his way to the penalty box, he roared to the crowd.
"I don't think he would be where he is," Lucic's junior coach Don Hay says, "if he wasn't a good fighter."
Nick Tarnasky vs. Milan Lucic
Oct. 18, 2007
Voted winner: Lucic 96.0%
Luckysod04: Tarnasky was lucky to emerge from this one with his head still attached.
Before he became a force in junior hockey with Hay's Vancouver Giants, Lucic was more interested in putting on the gloves than dropping them. So his father Dobro, a longshoreman who immigrated to Canada from Yugoslavia 22 years ago, phoned local boxing coach Ken McInnis.
Operating out of the Champlain Heights Community Center in the Southeast corner of Vancouver, McInnis trained amateur fighters. In the summer of 2004, Lucic arrived eager to learn. McInnis says his new pupil was a natural.
"His hook was perfect," McInnis says. "I've seen him use it in hockey. He brings it over with the elbow slightly curving. A lot of guys will do it sideways."
Lucic won three of four amateur bouts in the year and a half he boxed, McInnis says, stopping one dazed opponent in the first round. Time in the ring helped him hone his aggression. It would soon pay off on the ice.
"What it does is teach you how to throw a punch," says Lucic, who recorded his first career hat trick in a 5-4 win over Atlanta on Oct. 25, "so you're not wild, all over the place."
As he learned to fight, Lucic's hockey stock began to rise. By 2005-06, he was a regular on the Western Hockey League Giants. By 2006-07, he was a bona fide star for the Memorial Cup winning club, finishing with 68 points (30 goals, 38 assists), more than tripling his 19-point output from the previous campaign. He also finished the season with 18 fights, only three less than the year before.
"I always wished he could become a boxer," McInnis says with a laugh. "But there was more money down the road in hockey."
Matt Bradley vs. Milan Lucic
March 8, 2008
Voted winner: Lucic 99.5%
Formerref: What a beatdown! And to think Lucic is how old?? WOW!
Despite his well earned tough-guy reputation, Lucic's friends and family say he was never an instigator. His ferocity, however, is well documented. Just ask his older brother, a second-generation longshoreman.
All three Lucic boys, Jovan (21), Nik (18) and Milan (20) used to go at it like pro wrestlers.
"There was always competition between each other," says Jovan, who estimates that he's about 6-3 and weighs 220 pounds. "It was like fighting for the WWF title belt. We'd tear the whole house apart."
Once, Jovan says, after he made an improbable comeback in a Sega baseball game, Milan protested. "Dad," he pleaded, "he's cheating!"
Spencer Machacek, a former Vancouver Giants teammate and high school buddy, was in Lucic's math class at Killarney Secondary.
"We were both surprisingly good," says Machacek, a prospect in the Atlanta Thrashers system.
But if Lucic got a 95 on a test, Machacek usually came back with a 97.
"That," Machacek says, "killed him."
Some Lucic stories are as mythical as the British Columbian Sasquatch. Jovan remembers the day when Milan beat up a boy who was harassing him on the basketball court. Milan, an eighth grader, easily took care of his tormenter, a high school senior. (Lucic says he doesn't remember that one).
How about the time he caught the eye of a Rugby Canada scout? It was during a high school game, Jovan says. Their coach didn't want Lucic getting hurt, but after the team fell behind, he begged to play. When he finally entered the game, Lucic led a furious comeback and slammed an opponent into the turf. A referee, who was also a scout, approached him to no avail afterward.
Even if you doubt the veracity of his legend, one thing has been repeatedly proven: Messin' with Lucic is dangerous.
He reportedly pounded several junior hockey foes who made fun of his slumped posture, the result of an otherwise harmless back curvature he was diagnosed with as a teenager.
"He enjoys the identity of being a lunch-bucket type of player," Hay says. "He comes and he works hard, leads every team he plays on. He has to bring a lot of will."
Lucic's survival in hockey depends on his blue-collar mindset. It's what makes him so proud of his older brother, who earns a living handling containers and operating heavy machinery at Port Metro Vancouver.
"You know," Lucic says, "it's probably where I would've ended up if I wasn't here."
Alas, Lucic's lunch bucket now belongs in his locker at the Garden.
"There was just something in him," McInnis says. "You knew he was going to make it somehow."
Barret Jackman vs. Milan Lucic
Dec. 22, 2007
Voted winner: Lucic 95.5%
Aces50: I believe Lucic can leap over tall buildings.
Cheetham_8: I really hope he can live up to all the (Cam) Neely comparisons from us Bruins fans.
Last summer, Lucic returned to McInnis' gym for an impromptu autograph session. One 13-year-old boy couldn't make it that day. Lucic promised to return with something signed. Two weeks later, before heading to a party, he dropped off a photo.
"Bet you thought I wasn't coming, eh?" Lucic said to McInnis.
When McInnis talks about Lucic, he can't help but think of a boxer he recently trained. The kid is so talented, McInnis says. Should've made the Olympics. Should've been a star. But then he remembers. Not everyone has what Lucic has.
"If only he had Milan's attitude in him," McInnis says. "Deep down inside, he has so much heart. So much heart."