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Dont tread on this Snake

• Winter Hawk enforcer may be penalty prone, but he's also a fan favorite

He ranks third in the Western Hockey League in penalty minutes. He has received three suspensions for hard hits and misbehavior. He shoved one player into the boards last week, and the kid went into convulsions.

When Robin Big Snake, aka 'the Snake,' bites, he bites hard, and he doesn't worry about the deadliness of his venom.

'I don't really regret anything I do,' the 6-foot, 206-pound forward says. 'What you do out there, you have to live with it.

'I work hard, and sometimes people don't appreciate that I work hard and go the extra mile to hit somebody. It's not a league where you want to be a fan favorite everywhere you go, anyway.'

The Winter Hawks and their fans love Big Snake, 19, and his attitude, even with the nine games missed because of suspensions, some bad penalties and general 'goofiness,' as General Manager Ken Hodge calls it. Big Snake arrived last summer with the reputation as one of the WHL's thugs, but Hodge saw some real hockey talent in him along with the ability to fight and be the surly roughneck.

Big Snake is half-Cree, half-Blackfoot. In keeping with native tradition, his parents gave him the name of the first creature they saw after his birth.

He grew up in Siksika, Alberta, the second-largest reservation in Canada. There, his nickname is Bear.

'He's docile and laid-back off the ice,' says Dean Vrooman, Winter Hawk play-by-play broadcaster. 'But in a game, he sticks up for his teammates. But it's not for personal glory. He does it all for the team.'

Coach Mike Williamson plays him with leading scorers Brandon Dubinsky and Daniel Da Silva, primarily to protect them. But Big Snake also has 11 goals and 11 assists to go with 225 penalty minutes.

'I don't need to look for any more (penalty minutes). I'd rather play hockey,' says Big Snake, who sat out Sunday's 4-3 overtime win against Vancouver with a hip contusion. He might not play Friday when the Winter Hawks (30-25-6-2) play Seattle in the Rose Garden, and says he could be out this week and next.

Big Snake played the 'meatball' role in Vancouver, where coach Dean Evason saw how the light-heavyweight brandished fists and let him loose. Evason still appreciates Big Snake.

'He's a gritty, hard-nosed player,' says Evason, who dealt him to Moose Jaw last season. 'Wherever he goes, he plays hard. Everybody likes a player like him on their team. He's a difficult player to play against.'

Let's get physical

Just ask Spokane coach Al Conroy. On Oct. 15, Big Snake charged Chiefs goalie Jim Watt, earning a two-game suspension. On Dec. 6, Big Snake got a major boarding penalty for running into Spokane's Jevon Desautels, and served a four-game suspension for it.

After the game, breaking an unwritten rule about off-ice scuffling, then-injured Chief Andy Schenn physically confronted Big Snake, and Conroy and assistant Jamie Huscroft verbally berated the player. All were fined and/or suspended.

Conroy would not talk about Big Snake because 'I have nothing good to say about the kid or the way he plays.'

On Feb. 7, while being escorted to the penalty box against Seattle, Big Snake pushed a lineman Ñ he says he pushed his hands away because 'I hate it when the refs act like they have so much authority that they can push you around on the ice.' Still, he got a three-game suspension.

'He can't behave like that,' Hodge says.

Last Wednesday in Kelowna, in a game televised throughout Canada, Big Snake got a major boarding penalty for hitting Shea Weber, but the league chose not to suspend him. The players got to the puck at the same time; while Weber tried to pass the puck, Big Snake lined up for the hit. Weber lost his edge, Big Snake shoved him, and into the boards he went. Weber went into a convulsion and lay prone for 20 minutes. He suffered a concussion and is recuperating at home.

Against Desautels and Weber, Big Snake says he simply wanted to finish hard checks. But the Weber experience shook him up. 'I would like to apologize to him,' he says. 'It was a freak accident. I wish him the best.'

On the edge

Big Snake has two game misconducts on his tally. One more, and he sits another game. He dreams of getting 400 penalty minutes in one season some year, and says nobody in the WHL can beat him up.

But, 'I'm not a loose cannon,' he says, an assertion Hodge and Williamson back up. They want the kid to play aggressively, on the edge and with emotion, even though Big Snake has 'red-flagged himself with the league and officials,' Hodge says.

Says Williamson: 'Robin's definitely got a temper, but he's got to play physical and body check. If he gets penalties, that's life.'