By Sean McClelland
Dayton Daily News
FAIRBORN, Ohio – Every knuckle on both hands is red and swollen. His nose is slightly askew, giving him the look of a boxer who may have gone one round too many.
Need more evidence that fighting is Marco Caprara’s game? Check out those 188 penalty minutes, most among ECHL rookies, and 18 major penalties, tying him for the league lead, in 44 games.
“The job has to be done,” the Dayton Bombers left wing reasons. “You need guys who aren’t afraid to throw a couple of fisticuffs. A lot of guys won’t fight, but I like to do it.”
Here’s the kicker: Listed at 5-foot-10 on the Bombers roster, Caprara actually stands 5-7 — “and a half,” he is quick to add — and weighs about 170. But he regularly chops down comparative giants, often driving them to the ice with a volley that brings Nutter Center fans to their feet.
“They should never trade a guy like that, because every night he puts it on the line,” said goalie Mike Ayers, now in Syracuse. “He’s fun to watch, especially how small he is and how he dominates.”
With the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, Caprara had a three-year total of 794 penalty minutes in 188 games.
“He’s all heart,” Bombers coach Don MacAdam says. “I’m assuming he’s done a good bit of street fighting in his day. He just knows how to fight.”
A decent skater, Caprara is still learning the game. He will frustrate MacAdam with a bad play or an ill-timed penalty, but the self-described pest knows the physical aspect is his ticket to higher levels.
Stronger than ever
Early in the season, just as he was getting established in the ECHL, the 21-year-old Caprara lost his father, Bruno, who died unexpectedly. Marco left the team for four games and returned seemingly tougher and with even more to prove.
“It’s hard, but he’s always going to be with me,” Caprara said. “I know he would want me to play hockey for as long as I can. We were very close. He was like my best friend.”
And his biggest fan, too. Bruno Caprara taught his son to skate despite never skating or playing hockey himself. He attended virtually all of Marco’s OHL games, making the 2 1/2-hour drive to Sarnia, Ont., from the family’s Toronto home.
Marco learned plenty from his dad, but he picked up fighting from his older brother, Christian, who always had the height advantage.
Scrapping with his brother and others in the neighborhood taught Caprara about angles and how to counteract a taller opponent’s reach advantage. So when he started mixing it up on skates, he was ready.
“The thing with big guys is, they like to wind up a lot,” Caprara said. “For me, as a little guy, I can duck and move, so I’ve got that over them.”
‘He’s a spark plug’
Hockey fights often arise from players sticking up for teammates. They are accepted tools in the pro game for swinging momentum or keeping the other team honest.
“I know it sparks me,” Ayers said of Caprara’s antics. “Just seeing him run around and be a goof. He hits people, fights people, and then jokes about it in the locker room. He’s a character guy, an energy guy.”
He’s also good at landing that punch that separates winners and losers.
Reading’s 6-foot-7 defenseman Jeff State has walked away a loser. So has Trenton tough guy Cole Byers, a 6-foot-2 and 225-pounder who suffered a concussion and broke a hand during one bout.
The enforcer role fell to Caprara partly because defenseman Alex Johnstone was recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and was advised to steer clear of altercations.
“For his size, he’s one tough cookie,” Johnstone said. “He’s a spark plug. He’s not scared to fight anybody. He’s definitely earned respect around the league. It’s always great to see a smaller guy beat up a bigger guy — unless you’re the bigger guy.
“You look at him and you wouldn’t think much, but he’s surprised a lot of guys.”
Up the ladder?
In November, Caprara went after Reading’s 6-foot-3 and 235-pound Tyler Hanchuck, a friend and former OHL teammate. He absorbed six unanswered shots to the head. OK, so maybe he isn’t undefeated, but that’s the only loss anyone seems to remember.
“I never saw him lose,” said Bombers president Costa Papista, recalling his days as an OHL executive.
Some in that league likened Caprara to Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tie Domi, a smallish (5-foot-9 and 200 pounds) but feared enforcer who has been a penalty-minute machine over the years.
There’s some doubt whether Caprara can aspire to a higher level. “It’s going to be tough for him to do in the AHL what he does here,” MacAdam said. “They’re bigger and tougher up there.”
Caprara at least figures to have a puncher’s chance.
“Everybody’s goal is to get to the next level,” he said. “I’m going to give it my all to get there.”