Cummins' 'development' unhindered by ban

So what of players who come up through U.S. college hockey, in which fighting isn't at least tacitly tolerated, as it is in the often rough-and-tumble world of major junior?

If they need to, they learn.

Jim Cummins is a native of the Detroit area and, unlike some U.S.-born prospects, didn't play major junior in the Canadian Hockey League.

Cummins played three seasons of collegiate hockey at Michigan State, where fighting carries prohibitive penalties, and then embarked on a career as a physical winger and enforcer that has taken him to Detroit, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Phoenix, Montreal, Anaheim, Long Island and now Colorado. He and Peter Worrell, in theory, are entrusted as the protectors of the Avalanche's high-priced talent, and Cummins did much of the fighting early this season with Worrell out with a knee injury.

Over the years, Cummins has won a few, lost a few, bled more than Chuck Wepner, bounced around, and generally gotten high marks as a guy who will stand up for his teammates. He has averaged roughly 250 minutes a season, and he had 24 career goals heading into the week.

So how did an American college kid from Detroit grow into this role?

"I played for Compuware in the North American Junior Hockey League,'' said Cummins, who is close to returning to the Avalanche lineup after recovering from a neck injury. "We played in the Toronto tournament and a lot of tournaments, and fights would break out. Geez, we had a bunch of bench-clearing brawls. I guess I didn't realize until then I had a knack for it. I was an aggressive kid at the time, and I was big. Now I'm really not, not with these kids coming in. I got recognized for that, and I started playing better, too, and was getting attention from major junior teams. But I already had the mindset that I was going to college.''

At Michigan State, Cummins said, he "fought once or twice a year. Ron Mason, our coach, knew I had that in me, so he said, 'I don't mind you fighting, just make sure it's against a bona fide player.' So every now and then I'd get into a fight, and a couple of them were big. We had a bench-clearing brawl against Michigan at Joe Louis Arena.

"After three years, I realized that I was drafted to be a physical player, and that to be able to do that, I was going to have to go to the American League to learn about it and get to my goal of the NHL. There? Sometimes, you had to go looking for it, sometimes you didn't. When I first came in, I'd probably fight for no reason. I'd just fight to show people I
could fight. My style back then and even today is more as a puncher than with technique. I just want to overpower guys, which is tough to do with the size and power of some of these young kids.''

So has not doing fighting a lot on the way up put him at a disadvantage?

"No, actually, I think that's an advantage,'' he said. "That's a lot of wear and tear I didn't encounter. Meanwhile, I was playing the game. I was able to work on some of my skills. For being a physical player known to drop his gloves, I think I can skate and shoot the puck. I think my skills are pretty good. I credit that to playing hockey and not just focusing on fighting.''

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."