On the ice, Washington Capitals rookie defenseman Brendan Witt is one tough customer: He is 6 feet 2, 212 pounds, and hits with power. Off the ice, he can be hard-nosed, too: His contract negotiations took two years because he held out until he got what he wanted -- five years, $6.7 million.
But none of that quite prepares you for the sight of Witt with his pet -- Eddie the iguana.
Witt reaches into the cage that sits near the foot of his bed and gently picks up his friend. Eddie is about 12 inches long, and when Witt wraps his giant hand around him he almost disappears. Only a small portion of his little head and his long green tail are visible.
On this day, Witt is a little concerned because Eddie is shedding his brownish skin to reveal lime green skin underneath, and he is not supposed to be handled too much during the process.
He also wonders how Eddie will react to company.
As it turns out, Eddie is a ham. After crawling around Witt's back and shoulders -- "Just checking me out," Witt says -- Eddie begins making his way along Witt's arm, stopping to pose for pictures all along the way.
When Eddie finally gets to the top of Witt's hand, the Caps' hard-hitting defenseman ever so gently rubs his thumb up and down the iguana's chin and neck.
The expressions are priceless. Witt smiles with parental pride, and Eddie, well, Eddie appears to have found pure bliss.
"I'm living alone, and it gets kind of lonely, you know," says Witt, whose family and girlfriend are back home in Humboldt, Saskatchewan. "A lot of people might think, 'A lizard? You got to be pretty crazy,' you know. But on the other hand, he likes attention. He gets attached to you and stuff. He likes to crawl all over you, and when he doesn't see you for a couple days, he wonders where you've been and stuff. He's great company."
Capitals general manager David Poile, who has seen many of his players get dogs and then wonder who would take care of them while the team was away on road trips, says Witt's pet decision is "a sign of great intelligence."
Witt says Eddie is low-maintenance. He eats simple things such as squash, watermelon and lettuce, and his cage has to be cleaned about once in three weeks.
"And with Eddie," he says, "you can just leave him in his cage, and he'll be fine for five days or so with some food."
But Witt, who comes home from practice to play with Eddie for about two hours every day because "we just like to hang out," doesn't leave Eddie on his own unless he has to.
"When Brendan and his girlfriend went to Disney World just before camp opened, I fed Eddie," says teammate Jason Allison. "I didn't touch him or anything. I wouldn't know how. But I fed him and it was . . . OK."
Witt and Allison have been friends for several years and cemented their relationship in 1993, when they and right wing Martin Gendron were part of the gold medal-winning Canadian Junior National Team.
Now Witt, 20, is in Capitals camp to stay ("No more disappearing acts," he says, referring to the past two years when he left without a word) and he's building more friendships. During a scrimmage last week, he worked on team captain Dale Hunter by setting him up in front of the net with a beautiful pass for an easy goal.
"He's definitely a little bit off the wall," says Hunter. "But it makes you feel good to look back and see a guy like that behind you. And that pass he made to me, I told him I can take that all year. I said, 'I'll take 20 of those.' And he said, 'Stay there.' "
Hunter likes the attitude, but he isn't sure he ever wants to meet Eddie the iguana. "Wow, that's different," he says, recoiling just a little. "I hate them things. Maybe Brendan should be a goalie."
Witt laughs. He's a purebred defenseman, but he's always been a bit of a free spirit. When he was little, he had a tarantula -- "But my mom didn't like it too much."
Some of his teammates figure Witt eventually will get a dog. But he says he's "committed" to Eddie.
"I don't think Eddie would like a dog," he says. "And Eddie can live to be pretty old, up to about age 15. He's going to be around for a long time."
An iguana also can grow to be 3 to 5 feet long, and Witt already has a collar and leash for when Eddie gets big enough to go for walks.
What would he need a dog for?