ARLINGTON, Va. -- Jay Beagle is a fighter.
Not in the literal sense of the word -- the beginning of his season and nearly his career were derailed because he chose to drop the gloves with someone who really is, in hockey parlance, a fighter.
But Beagle's courage and determination -- whether it was taking on Arron Asham that emotionally-charged day in October, or working for hours and days and months and years to become a self-made NHL regular -- are part of what define him and make his story an incredible one.
"He grows on you," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "You see him at practice where he's the hardest worker in practice. Then you need him to take faceoffs, so he works hard in practice and watches video to become a better faceoff man, and right now he's very good on faceoffs. He works so hard that he's made himself into a good NHL player."
Just to get to where he was Oct. 13, 2011 was an amazing achievement for Beagle. A Calgary native who went undrafted while playing for the hometown Royals in the AJHL, Beagle then spent two seasons playing NCAA hockey at Alaska-Anchorage.
He left school after his sophomore season and finished the 2006-07 season with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL, who he helped win the Kelly Cup. Beagle had a strong showing at Washington's summer development camp as a non-roster invitee and signed an AHL contract with the Hershey Bears, which led to an NHL deal with the Capitals.
Beagle played 41 regular-season games and four playoff games with Washington from 2008-11, and became a key role player for the Bears as they won the Calder Cup twice.
He was three days shy of his 26th birthday, and still trying to find a permanent role in the NHL, when he nailed Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang with an open-ice hit and then squared off with Asham in an early-season tilt between the two rivals.
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Asham skated toward Beagle with the intention of telling him "to cool off." Beagle challenged him to a fight. It was the type of move a player who's desperate to keep earning NHL paychecks and fulfill a lifelong dream would make, while another fourth-line player who's been in the League for several seasons might not.
Beagle started the scrap well -- maybe too well -- and as the adrenaline raged through him, he was a bit careless with his hand placement, grabbing the wrong shoulder when the two fighters disengaged and locked up again. Asham saw the opening and didn't miss, landing two devastating right hands.
Asham earned criticism for his post-fight antics -- he made a "go to sleep" gesture as he skated to the penalty box -- as Beagle was out cold on the ice, and apologized afterward. Beagle had a concussion and would be out of action for 10 weeks.
"You never 'lose' a fight," Washington forward Jason Chimera said. "You go into fights and I've lost many fights. I fight, but I get beat up lots, too. When you fight, you put yourself on the line for your team. It is the ultimate unselfish thing you can do and shows what kind of character you have. Asham is obviously a tough guy, and a couple lucky punches is all it takes.
"It says the world about the kid that he is willing to go to bat with someone like that. Asham is one of those guys that can really hurt you. [Beagle] proved a lot to the guys in here and what he's all about in that moment."
When Beagle returned, he had a new coach to try and impress. He didn't play more than nine minutes in any game between Dec. 28 and Feb. 12, and his place on the fringes of the NHL continued.
Beagle had been a successful grinder in the AHL, but he wasn't able to translate that at the NHL level. Trying to regain his bearings after missing so long with a concussion also didn't help matters.
"When I came back it was tough, because my body felt so out of shape," Beagle said. "I felt I had lost a lot of strength I had gained in the summer. Once I got going it started to come back, but it was hard to get to that next level where I was coming into the year. That extra little bit of push and strength and power -- it took a while of playing. That first 10 games or so I just felt slow out there.
"It is a weird feeling and it is hard to explain. The game felt ... when I came back, I felt slow out there and everything was happening fast. That could be because my head wasn't used to it. It could have been a lot of factors, but the three coaches worked with me after practice and were patient with me, kept giving me chances. If it wasn't for that I wouldn't be here where I am now."
Beagle kept working and working, and working some more. The coaches noticed. His teammates noticed. After 12 games of playing less than nine minutes, he hit double figures in four of his next six games.
After Beagle played only 6:07 against Montreal on Feb. 24, he started earning at least 10 minutes every night. He's played at least that much in every contest since.
"Simply put, it is his work ethic. We always talk about being a dog on a bone. He just hunts pucks down," assistant coach Dean Evason said. "Ask our guys in practice if we're doing a five-on-five drill down low and they don't want to play against him, or if he's killing against the power play because he's just not going to quit. He's brought that to us, and he's allowed himself with that work ethic to be put in a spot where he's checking the top lines most nights."
The minutes kept increasing, as did his role with the Capitals. Hunter is a defensive-minded coach, and Beagle's ability to defend eventually convinced the coaching staff to give him more responsibility, which meant facing better competition in more important situations.
Washington traded David Steckel last season and let Boyd Gordon go this offseason, so there was a major hole to fill in the faceoff circle. Jeff Halpern was added as a free agent to help replace them, but Beagle has worked and studied and transformed himself into Hunter's go-to faceoff man, especially on the right side of the ice, where Gordon used to be former coach Bruce Boudreau's security blanket.
"All three coaches worked with me and were patient with me," Beagle said. "They gave me a chance to come back and keep pushing and try and get better, and try and get back to that spot where I was at the start of the season where I felt strong and I felt fast out there and the game didn't feel fast to me.
"I always wanted to play that position and going into this year that was my goal," Beagle said. "You want to improve and play big minutes and help your team win. If you would have said [I'd be here now after the Asham fight], I would have said, 'Yeah, it is going to be a long road to get there, but I think it can be done.' It's a dream come true, really, to be able to play a pivotal role in the playoffs on such a great team. It is something I don't want to take for granted."
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Added Chimera: "I think maybe [Beagle] looked at himself and had to get a role for himself. I think he was doing a lot of things good, but he wasn't doing any one thing terrifically. You see him now and he's blocking shots like a phenom. He's like a goalie out there. He's winning draws and he's great on the [penalty kill]. Now he's become one of our best checking guys. I think he kind of defined his role better. I think he was kind of stuck in the middle and not sure where he should be and what he should do. I think when he decided what he was going to be, he's been working so hard and getting better ever since."
The Capitals will play their most important game of the 2011-12 season to date Thursday at Verizon Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC). It is Game 4 of an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the team is down 2-1, and top center Nicklas Backstrom is not available because of a suspension.
Mathieu Perreault will replace Backstrom on the team's second line, but it likely will mean even more responsibility and ice time for Beagle, who anchors the team's checking line, flanked by Matt Hendricks and Troy Brouwer.
It has been a remarkable journey for Beagle, who went from missing 10 weeks with a concussion to averaging less than 10 minutes a game and being a healthy scratch on occasion in January and February to more than 15 minutes per game in March and more than 16 in April.
Hunter rarely shows much emotion when dealing with the media, but there was a flicker of that fire he played with when asked Thursday about Beagle. The player clearly has grown on Hunter, and he's grown into an amazing story of perseverance and determination for the Capitals.
"We don't have a Dale Hunter. I don't think there is another guy like that in the League these days," Evason said. "But certainly you want your team to take on the personality of the head coach. We're not the toughest team in the world, but we play a gritty game now. We play in your face and we work, and there's no question that Jay Beagle represents that to the fullest."