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Past imperfect

Violent episode in 2002 in Boston was a turning point for future Bruin Corvo

Defenseman Joe Corvo filled a need for the Bruins, bolstering their power play, and he feels playing with them has been personally fulfilling for him. Defenseman Joe Corvo filled a need for the Bruins, bolstering their power play, and he feels playing with them has been personally fulfilling for him. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 11, 2011
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It was a Sunday, Sept. 25 to be exact, and Joe Corvo just wanted to get a bite to eat before heading to Nova Scotia with the Bruins to play Montreal in a preseason game. He headed across the street, to a bar near TD Garden, the new Bruin still anonymous in his new city.

A group of people was sitting at a table chatting, discussing the upcoming hockey season and the new players. Corvo’s name came up. The bartender mentioned that he’d heard that the defenseman, who had recently been acquired from Carolina, beat his wife.

Corvo just sat there.

He bought them a round of drinks on his way out, the name on his credit card the only indication of the reason for his generosity. Apologies were made.

“I don’t beat my wife,’’ he told them.

It’s not the first time the assumption has been made that he attacked his wife - an accusation that has come up with opposing players in hockey scrums over the years. It’s something that has always galled Corvo, part of the reason he knows he couldn’t have handled Boston four or five years ago, couldn’t have handled the stigma that comes with a felony conviction.

Especially since the crime occurred in Boston.

“There’s no way I could have dealt with it emotionally,’’ Corvo said. “I think it would have been impossible to play here and not let it affect me.

“But now as time has passed and I’ve matured, I just feel like I’ve done all the right things to put it behind me and just moved forward and continued on with my career.’’

Even when people - from opponents in on-ice fights to fans in the seats - assume that the charge was spousal abuse.

As his wife, Angela, said, “He just knows how to deal with it now.’’

And he can talk about it.

Corvo, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, his tattoos peeking through his street clothes, sat down on a worn sofa in a mostly empty room across from the Bruins locker room recently. It was post-practice, and as his teammates finished showering and dressing and headed out of the arena, Corvo began to describe what led to “pretty much the worst day of my life.’’

Fateful night

He was a 25-year-old playing for the Manchester Monarchs, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings. It was 2002, and his dream of making it to the NHL was dissolving in minor league towns and major league bars. Though he was blessed with a devastating shot, it hadn’t all come together, and in Corvo’s mind, it was getting late.

So he used alcohol to forget, too much and too often.

“Maybe,’’ as Corvo said, “you don’t want to feel some things.’’

It was a combustible mixture, booze and self-pity. Dangerous. It would lead to something, someday. A DUI or a fight, an injury or an assault. He just knew it.

And his greatest fear was realized on the night of Nov. 13, a night to celebrate the rookies, to haze them. There was bar after bar, drink after drink.

The group found itself in downtown Boston at the since-closed Trio Café on Lincoln Street. It was there that Corvo grabbed the buttocks of a woman, Hoda Abou-Jamra, and was thrown out of the bar, according to the Boston Police report.

It all could have been over. But Corvo returned.

He hit. She fell. He kicked.

“The evidence at trial [in the civil suit] was that he had punched her in the face and then kicked her on the ground after she fell,’’ said Marianne LeBlanc, Abou-Jamra’s attorney. “Kicked her in the ribs. And then ran out of the bar.’’

Corvo was arrested, charged with indecent assault and battery on a person 14 or over, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (shod foot), and assault and battery.

He declined to discuss the specifics of that night, saying only, “It’s all in the police report, I’m sure. That’s what happened.’’

Corvo pled guilty to the two lesser counts and received a two-year suspended sentence. He was put on probation for three years, and was required to attend anger management sessions. Abou-Jamra brought the civil suit against Corvo in 2006, resulting in a judgment of $100,000 against the hockey player.

“When we tried this case several years ago, I was not convinced that he was truly sorry for what he had done or that he was really taking responsibility for his actions,’’ LeBlanc said. “I am hopeful that with the passage of time and perhaps some maturing on his part that he is now more mature and is sorry for what he has done.’’

Corvo is willing, if not eager, to talk about the aftermath, the anger management, and the changes he believes he has made. His candor is striking, especially from a quiet man who has always kept to himself and says it is an effort to make idle conversation with his teammates.

“Moving forward from there, it was kind of a life-changing thing,’’ he said. “I had a decision to make. It was either continue on the path that I was going on or just clean up my act and start doing the right things and making up for my mistakes.

“You have a choice to either face it and try to make amends and do the right things and try and fix it the best you can, or you can run from it. You can try and hide from it the rest of your life. It’s something that’s always going to follow me wherever I go.’’

And yet, the Bruins still picked him up.

Filling a void

With the loss of defenseman Tomas Kaberle to Carolina this past offseason, the Bruins needed an addition to a power-play unit that had been highly criticized, especially at the end of last season and during the playoffs. It didn’t produce nearly enough, and general manager Peter Chiarelli was determined to target someone who could help change that. Corvo was his man.

He, like the rest of the Bruins, started slowly this season, but he was better able to fit himself into this team than he was at other stops, and he has appeared more comfortable on the ice of late.

“With Kaberle leaving, I kind of felt like I had a place and I had a spot and a job to do, and this made it easier,’’ Corvo said. “I think I put a lot of pressure on myself because you think one guy can change a power play, but I just try to do my best to do things like shooting the puck and moving the puck, I just try to do those things well.’’

While Corvo has a reputation for prowess on the power play, that’s not all he brings to a team.

“He’s an everyday player now,’’ said Andy Murray, who coached Corvo on the Kings and now coaches Western Michigan University. “He plays a lot more consistent, just because of the maturity. He’s an NHL defenseman now on an every-night basis.

“When you’re younger, like he was when we had him, you have your ups and downs a little bit more. I think Joe has proven that he’s the guy that can run your power play and is a guy that can give you valuable minutes.’’

Helped, of course, by what Murray called his “devastating shot.’’

Corvo has always been an offensive-minded defenseman, with a dedication to the weight room. As Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, who coached Corvo in Manchester and Washington, said, “This guy was all muscles.

“What I see now is a polished defenseman. Even when we [the Capitals] got him at the trade deadline two years ago, [he was] a guy that you could use killing penalties, you could put in all situations, a responsible guy.’’

But Corvo is not a fighter. He hadn’t had a fight since the playground, at least a fight off the ice. (Not that he has been known for fighting on-ice, either. He made it 592 games into his NHL career before receiving his first fighting major last week.)

“The only time I think I’ve ever put my hands on anybody was probably in junior high school,’’ said Corvo. “It was really out of character for me. You kind of realize that it’s not you. It’s something else that’s controlling you.

“It was really an eye-opening thing, a pretty scary thing to discover about yourself.’’

And then he had to tell his family and Angela (his girlfriend at the time), the people who most cared about him, the people he wanted to respect him.

“That was a really hard part for me,’’ he said. “The embarrassment you feel from something like that, you’re putting them through it. You’re dragging their name through it. That was the toughest part for me, because I know my parents were probably embarrassed and disappointed.’’

Angela said it never had an effect on their relationship. When she got the phone call, though, there were a few seconds when she worried about what he had done.

“It really didn’t fit,’’ Angela said. “That was pretty much the hardest part of all that. Because he can be the quietest, most introverted person ever. Joe didn’t have a mean bone in his body. It was hard to deal with because, at first, you don’t know what to believe, you don’t know what the real story is.’’

Since learning the details, she said, she has never questioned him.

Changing his ways

While Corvo said he has changed his relationship with alcohol - trying to ensure that his wife and family are around him when he drinks - he has not gone to rehab. He has not been treated for alcoholism. He has not stopped drinking.

He has, however, given up drinking in that way, in those situations.

His former coaches and his wife all say the same thing: He needed to mature and be grounded. He needed to move past his juvenile behavior and attitudes.

He needed experience, both in life and in the game. He needed time.

“I think sometimes there’s things inside of you that you don’t know are there,’’ Corvo said. “And that sometimes you put yourself in a position where you can’t control some of those feelings.

“I wouldn’t say that I learned limits. I think it would cheapen it to say that. I think I learned that as an adult, as a parent, that there’s certain things that aren’t right to do and you have to know not to put yourself in situations where those things can happen.’’

The assault charge changed him. The anger management sessions changed him. Parenthood changed him. Corvo and his wife have two sons, ages 7 and 5.

“He learned, yes, he did have some anger issues, being that he bottled up stuff and didn’t know how to deal with it to turn it into a positive thing,’’ Angela said. “He learned how to deal with things in his family, with himself, with us.’’

Corvo called anger management “the best thing I’ve ever done,’’ acknowledging that it helped for him to delve into his past, to understand his family dynamic growing up, to stop suppressing feelings. The lessons, he said, still help.

Not only, though, did Corvo have difficulty processing moments from his childhood, dealing with his emotions, he also had difficulty simply talking to people. As Boudreau said, “He was such a quiet guy, he was such an introvert, bringing out his personality was an important thing.’’

He kept everything inside. He barely spoke to his teammates, coaches, in-laws, anyone; the loner inside a surprising contrast to a body covered in colorful tattoos. He says, even now, that he could come in the locker room and not talk or interact with anybody. He fights it.

He knows he needs to get engaged, be a part of things, look people in the eye.

“He’s made an effort,’’ said Bruins forward Chris Kelly, also a teammate in Ottawa. “I think guys have noticed. That goes a long way.’’

Faith in their choice

So does talent, the reason Corvo was brought back to Boston.

He is here, after all, to contribute to a team that looks as if it might have a chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champion.

Chiarelli said the team did work to get a sense of whether Corvo would fit, whether he had changed, whether they were right for him and he was right for them.

“It’s no secret what happened with Joe, so you look into it,’’ Chiarelli said. “We didn’t specifically talk to anyone who was involved with what happened, but with that instance, it was early on in his career.

“Part of my job, part of our scouts’ job, is to continue to enlarge the book on each player. So something like that is a red flag, obviously. You look into it, but mainly you see how he’s progressed from there and how he’s handled himself from that point on, and with Joe it was all good reports.’’

It’s something that, Chiarelli said, the Bruins look at on a case-by-case basis, while priding themselves on going “a little bit beyond what everyone does’’ in terms of bringing in “character players.’’

His teammates know about the incident, or at least pieces of it. As Kelly said, “It’s not something we pry about. It’s all kind of hearsay.

“It’s one of those things that if he felt comfortable talking about, then I’m sure we’d be more than happy to listen. But a lot of guys have things that they want to stay in the past. That’s the great thing about hockey - most of us will let things stay in the past.’’

The Bruins and Corvo knew that fans in Boston might not do the same. They knew it would be a topic of conversation. The team still made the move, on the faith that Corvo has changed, that what he brings to the ice, as an offensive defenseman and power-play specialist, will trump what happened nine years ago in his new town.

“Am I happy that that happened?’’ Corvo said. “No, not in the least bit. But sometimes people do things and they get second chances. I’d like to think that I’ve done the best I could with the second chance that I’ve been blessed with.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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