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Once, they were professional hockey players, some better than others. Now they are Hockey Enforcers and they've come to this northern B.C. town to beat the heck out of one another.

After weeks of hand-wringing and one failed bid to cancel the event entirely, this hockey-mad town has made peace with its decision to be host to the North American debut of the mother of all hockey brawls.

You could even say the town is a little stoked.

Tonight at the Prince George CN Centre, 16 former pros and junior players, dressed in full hockey gear, will duke it out for hours at centre ice -- with no sticks or pucks or even a game to distract them -- until a champion is declared. The winner gets a prize of about $70,000. The losers get, well, beaten up.

"It's good, clean, Canadian fun," said radio host Brad Bregani, 27, who has two friends flying in today from Vancouver to watch the event, aptly titled: Hockey Enforcers; Black and Blue.

His colleague, Kyle Wightman, 24, is expecting eight house guests from out of town and is holding a pre-rumble barbecue this afternoon in his backyard.

Now that Hockey Enforcers is finally a go, fight fans are coming out of the closet, shamelessly declaring their devotion to a good old- fashioned hockey fight. It's even kindled civic pride in this hard-scrabble former mill town.

"We don't mind if our necks are a little red," Mr. Bregani said, noting that city leaders are happy that Prince George hotels and restaurants are full this weekend.

"People don't want to admit it, but hockey is fighting," said Gary Russell, station manager at a Prince George radio station that is sponsoring the event.

"What does it say about us? Are we morons? No, we just want to be entertained."

Its promoter and mastermind, Darryl Wolski, believes Canadians -- especially young Canadian men -- are indeed thirsting for this kind of entertainment. He got the idea by watching fans fly out of their seats whenever a fight erupted at a hockey game.

"They're standing and cheering. It's a real human reaction, like watching a car wreck."

Others aren't so sure. Most sports writers have sneered at the event. Hockey purists were livid at the notion of charging admission for a prolonged hockey brawl. They accused Mr. Wolski of tarnishing Canada's beloved game. Minor hockey associations said it sent the wrong message to young players.

But Mr. Wolski, a minor hockey tournament organizer from Brandon, Man., plowed on, determined to stage the event. When squeamish Prince George city councillors threatened to cancel it, he countered with a threatened lawsuit.

Yesterday, Mr. Wolski was pleased as punch that his so-called slugfest on ice will go ahead tonight as planned.

And he was as unapologetic as ever to critics who say he has demeaned the game.

"You don't have to watch the thing," he told reporters at a news conference in a Prince George hotel billed as a "meet and greet" with the players. "You don't have to like the thing." If you don't like hockey violence, he added: "Go rent a scooter and plant a tree in Sudbury."

Mr. Wolski said he hopes to one day take his brawling-players act to Las Vegas.

He might have some work ahead of him. Despite the hype, yesterday's news conference had a whiff of bush-league to it. Some of the players did not show up. Another, former Boston Bruin Lyndon Byers, pulled out entirely.

Some openly admitted they were there for the cash.

"I'm not sure if it's good for hockey or good fun," said Link Gaetz, 36, who played briefly in the NHL in the early 1990s. "But there's some guys here who want to make a name for themselves and maybe make some cash."

One no-show at the news conference was former Montreal Canadiens defenceman Kent Carlson.

In an interview earlier this week, Mr. Carlson, 43, admitted he was feeling overwhelmed.

Mr. Carlson was bunking with fellow Enforcer Eddie O'Toole in a Prince George hotel room.

At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 270 pounds, Mr. Carlson towered over Mr. O'Toole, but he said he felt intimidated by the fighting resumés of other players.

On Thursday afternoon, the pair relaxed in their hotel room, watching TV and comparing post-hockey careers. Mr. Carlson lives in Manchester, N.H., where he sells cars. Mr. O'Toole owns a health-food store in Mississauga.

"I get afraid of a fight," Mr. Carlson said. "I don't think Eddie is afraid of anything."

Ironically, Mr. Carlson said he always resisted the enforcer role during his professional career, first with the Canadiens, then the St. Louis Blues and later the Washington Capitals.

"I thought: 'I had worked my whole life to be a player -- not a fighter.' "

He retired 15 years ago, but misses the game and competing. Mr. Carlson said yes to Mr. Wolski's invitation, in part because he wanted to put skates on again in front of a cheering crowd.

The 16 players are divided into two pools. Each will play a minimum of three fights, lasting one-minute each.

Mr. Carlson rolled his eyes when asked what he thinks his chances are. The lone American in the event, Mr. Carlson said he thinks Canadians are better scrappers on ice. "They learn to do it when they're young."

Meanwhile, the Mayor of Prince George, Colin Kinsley, who fought his councillors to bring the Enforcers to town, said he now thinks the tempest was pretty funny.

"It does draw attention to the fact that people like hockey," Mr. Kinsley said. "It just hit a nerve."