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Peluso Article.


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Don't usually like Earl but...


Maybe the big kid in the beer league thought he'd have something to brag about to his buddies. Or maybe he was just dumb when, against the rules, he delivered the bodycheck, and even dumber when he dropped his gloves, beckoned with his hands, and said, "C'mon, washed-up old NHL tough guy, c'mon," and then ran him with his head.

From a house in Edina, a small town in Minnesota where he lives with his ex-wife Heather and black lab Coors he rescued from an animal shelter because he says it needed love, he watches on TV the team that once gave him a chance to prove that he was more than just a formidable goon. Prove it he did, but not with the abandonment of all that made The Hibbing Haymaker the fans' most popular player in his first, and last, season with the Ottawa Senators 15 years ago.

"If the Devils even the series, I think it'll go seven," he says before last night's game, but not naming a winner, the precious symbol of his split loyalty resting in a vault at the local bank, a ring with his name engraved among diamonds, and which he wears only for special occasions.

The image that resonates most with many hockey fans is not of Mike Peluso on the ice beating up yet another opponent, but Mike Peluso on the bench of the New Jersey Devils on a June evening in 1995, his face turning upwards to the arena clock in the dwindling seconds of the game.

His eyes seeing Devils 5, Red Wings 2, and the tough, hard face of Mike Peluso dissolving in uncontrollable weeping for, at that moment -- the Stanley Cup seconds away from being brought out -- all the improbabilities of what he, one Mike Peluso, had achieved, where he'd come from, and how he got there, overwhelmed him in a crashing wave of emotion.

And now: "Ottawa's playing pretty well. They're smarter, more disciplined and relaxed than they used to be. For the Devils to be successful, they've got to dump the puck in more and forecheck. New Jersey's got to get ready to play in the first period. They come on too late. But in the playoffs, it comes down to goaltending. Emery's been tested, he's solid."

Mike Peluso, born in Hibbing, Minn., son of an iron miner, came to the Senators in the 1992 expansion draft from Chicago where he'd played little, but Ottawa, he hoped, he believed, would see his true hopes rising, achieved.

"It was a wonderful, exciting time for all of us. A new franchise, the enthusiasm from the fans and the press. I made good friends in Ottawa. I loved the city and I loved the Molson's beer."

And the city loved Mike Peluso, defenceman, No. 44, six-foot-four, 200 pounds who showed not only -- for a mediocre team that won a mere 10 games -- what his competitive heart and sadistic fists could do. He finished fifth in goal scoring with 15 plus 10 assists. He was in 35 fights and his 318 penalty minutes remain a Senators season record.

"One stretch, we lost 10 in a row, and some of the guys were letting it get to them. For me, it was an opportunity for all of us let go by other teams to show what we're made of. Some guys didn't grasp that. It was 'Whatever will be will be.' We had guys who didn't compete every night. He pauses. "I can't believe it was so long ago. It all seems like yesterday to me. It really does."

Until one considers that perhaps among those watching the 1992-93 Senators on Hockey Night In Canada were a nine-year-old named Jason Spezza, a 10-year-old named Ray Emery, a 12-year-old named Mike Fisher, a 14-year-old named Wade Redden.

Mike Peluso was traded to the Devils, four seasons as their tough guy. In his Stanley Cup-winning playoffs, he had one goal and two assists. "Jacques Lemaire was our coach. He's a genius. He taught me so much. Positioning. Seeing. I grew on and off the ice because of him."

After New Jersey, Peluso played a season with St. Louis and a few months with Calgary when his career ended in the fall of 1997 due to a severe neck injury. "I had recurring numbness in my hands. I took the doctors' advice to retire rather than risk permanent spinal damage."

Since then, he's worked at different jobs. Helping at his brother's golf course in Wadena, Minn. Operating some hockey schools in the state. And, for the past four years, coach of the St. Louis Park High School Orioles -- a girls hockey team.

"I'd like to scout for an NHL team, but it's hard to get into. It seems the guys in scouting stay a long time. I did have a chance to get into selling insurance, but I didn't think I was cut out for it."

He doesn't watch much NHL hockey anymore. "I don't like the new rules, the softness. When you get a charging penalty now, it's basically just a good hit."

This coming Monday, as he does every Monday, Mike Peluso will drive to the town of Richfield. An hour before midnight, he'll put on the uniform of the Richfield Hurricanes beer-league team and take to the ice. Mike Peluso is 41 years old.

"It was last year. I didn't want to fight the kid, I backed away. What did I have to prove? But then he came charging at me, swinging. He gave me a shot. I hit him with four punches, a couple of good, solid lefts. His helmet went flying and he was bleeding. That ended it. He apologized. He was a big, tough kid. I didn't want to have to settle it in the parking lot. I can't fight in parking lots. He might have beaten me."

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