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He’s a scorer, not a fighter

• Winter Hawks want left winger Josh Olson to play a more physical game

Josh Olson was born with hands for scoring goals, not hands of stone and the enthusiasm to throw them at people. In the macho environment of hockey, the Portland Winter Hawks left winger prefers to be cool, play the game and not partake in fisticuffs.

'Sure, I could go out there and try to fight every game,' Olson says, 'but I think I can help the team more if I was actually on the ice, instead of getting banged up and doing all that stuff.

'Like I've shown the few times I've fought this year, I don't think there's any guys in the league who consistently hold their own when I do drop the gloves. But I think I can actually be a player.'

A lot of Portland fans froth at the mouth when it comes to hockey fights, a ritual to save face, fend off intimidation attempts and establish psychological dominance. Fans see Olson, a 20-year-old from Roseau, Minn., and expect him to be Lennox Lewis. The Winter Hawks, too, would like to see Olson throw his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame around more often.

But Olson will often skate away from confrontation. He will neglect to use his main asset Ñ which, in hockey terms, is the ability to 'throw his body around.'

Some players get to the NHL based solely on their punching prowess, while others simply have to display some courage and bravery and a willingness to stick up for teammates. If not, they develop reputations for being too soft, and hockey's little men make their living off instigating them (for example, Marty Standish, Winter Hawks, 1995-99).

Portland coach Mike Williamson and general manager Ken Hodge routinely remind Olson that the ability to throw his body around will be his ticket to the NHL.

'When he plays a bang-and-crash game, he has a tremendous impact,' Hodge says. 'But that's not his personality. He has to change his personality for 60 minutes. It's very important for his career.'

Hodge and Williamson are not picking on Olson, an adept scorer with 24 goals and 25 assists. The NHL's Florida Panthers were telling Olson the same things when they dispatched him to Portland for another year of seasoning. The Panthers, who have signed Olson, would have sent him to their minor-league affiliate, if they had one.

Olson's scoring touch and skating ability Ñ he's the Winter Hawks' fastest skater, once he hits stride Ñ must be complemented by thundering body checks and physical play every game. Olson has been slow to grasp that concept, much to the dismay of Winter Hawk management and the frustration of fans.

'I've always thought of myself as a physical player,' he says. 'There's games where you feel a little better and, obviously, the situation presents itself where you can throw your hits around. Look at (teammate) Joe Balej; he's not going to score a hat trick every night.'

Yes, but the beauty of hockey is when players help turn the game with their physical presence and attitude, rather than simply with goals or assists.

'He demands so much space out there when he plays (aggressively),' Williamson says of Olson. 'He creates so much for his team when he bulldozes his way through.

'We talk to him a lot about going through people rather than around them, which he has a tendency to do.'

Williamson tells Olson he needs to fight, especially when provoked.

'He needs to establish himself out there,' the coach says. 'We don't want him in the penalty box, but at this level people challenge your space.'

Says Florida scout Wayne Meier: 'He's not going to be a mean, antagonistic forward. There's not a mean streak in Josh. I don't think he can install it.'

Olson has been in five fights this year, and he rarely gets beaten. He pounded Vancouver thug Robin Big Snake to start a streak of four fights in the past 15 games.

On Friday, Olson slammed Kelowna's Jeff Coulter into the boards, and the Rockets' 6-0, 198-pounder took exception and slashed back. So the two exchanged 'hairy eyeballs,' as Winter Hawk announcer Dean Vrooman calls it, and Olson never hesitated in engaging in the do-si-do.

'He got him with a good one and knocked him straight over,' says Dustin Bauer, the Portland defenseman who leads the team with 10 tilts. 'He overpowers them.'

'I'm not going to go out looking for that kind of stuff; I don't need to do that,' Olson says. 'I think I bring more to the table.'

Olson had scholarship offers to play college hockey for Michigan and Minnesota, but he signed with Florida, and the Panthers sent him to the juniors to get the experience of playing with NHL rules, NHL prospects and the NHL style of hockey.

'He's come a long way in two years,' Meier says.

Rather than watching Eric Lindros, Olson grew up admiring Boston Bruin star Cam Neely. He didn't know that Neely played juniors in Portland until he got here.

As Winter Hawk fans can recall, Neely became an NHL All-Star by combining goal-scoring ability and the propensity to 'throw his body around.'

Like idol, like Olson?

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