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Zack Stortini doing his best to be more than just a tough guy with Oilers

In an era when NHL tough guys seem to be going the way of wooden sticks, the gap-toothed rookie is breaking in with the Edmonton Oilers determined to be more than just a heavy-handed hammer.

Summoned from Hamilton of the American Hockey League on Jan. 27, the former captain of the Sudbury Wolves is proving he can contribute with his gloves on. He's ready and willing to give coach Craig MacTavish more than mayhem in the five minutes of ice time he gets a night.

Let's go or let's play. Either way.

"I think it's important to be able to contribute in all aspects of the game," said Stortini. "With the new rules, it's important to be able to skate and be reliable defensively."

Stortini, 21, doesn't need a written invitation to drop his gloves. The six-foot-three, 228-pound winger had 12 fights on his dance card and led the AHL in penalty minutes when the Oilers, having seen the likes of Ales Hemsky too often manhandled in the absence of an enforcer, called him up.

While he's since traded punches with Vancouver's Jeff Cowan and Chicago's Martin Lapointe, Stortini has spent considerably more time doing extra work on skating, agility and puck handling than he has honing his fistic prowess in the gym since arriving. He already knows how to bend noses.

"Stortini has shown me a tremendous amount of gamesmanship," said MacTavish. "I don't throw that around lightly. We don't have enough of that in our line-up. He's got good hockey smarts.

"The value of the role now is that if you want to be of significant value, you have to be an initiator, not a reactor. If you're a reactor, teams can render you ineffective very quickly. If you initiate, you're going to be a factor. That's the fundamental difference in the way the role is played now."

Stortini, selected 94th in the 2003 draft, scored his first NHL goal in his sixth game, a 5-2 loss to the Canucks on Feb. 6. Cowan came calling on Stortini after he levelled Lukas Krajicek on his first shift with a clean, hard hit that ignited a capacity crowd.

"It's impressive to see a young guy come in and do what he's doing," said Oilers winger Ryan Smyth. "He's excited to be here. He cares about winning. You can see it in his play.

"Those things go a long way with you teammates. I have a great deal of respect for that. It's a tough job to do, but he knows his role and he accepts that role."

With a franchise that's had some legendary tough guys tending the talent - Dave Semenko, Marty McSorley, Dave Brown and Georges Laraque - Stortini has big skates to fill.

Most recently the Oilers had Laraque, widely considered the NHL's most feared fighter. Unhappy with diminishing ice time heading into unrestricted free agency last July, Laraque asked for a no-trade clause and GM Kevin Lowe didn't re-sign him.

"You can't help but like the guy," winger Ethan Moreau said of Laraque. "He works extremely hard. He wants to play the game. He wants to be a complete player. There's room for a player like that."

Without Laraque, MacTavish opted for a "team tough" approach, but with Moreau out with a dislocated shoulder and Steve Staios hobbled by a bad knee, teams took liberties. Enter Stortini.

"Fighting is like any other skill. You have to work at it," smiles Stortini, who has spent time with skating coach Liane Davis in Regina every summer since his draft day.

"Our coaching staff has done a great job working with me on all aspects of the game. I'm trying to soak it all up."

Hockey being the physical, emotional game it is, intimidation will always play a part. While that remains Stortini's bread and butter, he's smart enough to understand how his role has evolved.

"It's a learning experience," said Stortini, who had 746 penalty minutes in four seasons in the OHL with Sudbury. "You have to read the situation.

"It's about what's best for the team and getting those two points in any given game. You have to put the team first."


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