On his very first shift in the NHL, Matt Rempe dropped the gloves and fought veteran Matt Martin. Since then, he has taken photos with adoring fans at a Cheesecake Factory and has had his name printed on custom T-shirts and chanted at Madison Square Garden, whether he is in the game or not.

Rempemania is in full bloom for the New York Rangers and their 6-foot-8, 241-pound rookie, who has become something of a hero. This is almost solely due to his five fights in his first two months on the job, including the central role in an unusual 5-on-5 line brawl and a four-game suspension for a hit to the head. He is just 21.

Rempe’s popularity underscores the NHL’s complicated relationship with fighting. Tough guys and fighting both have faded in the league amid concerns about safety and an increased emphasis on skillful play, but it is clear fans — a lot of them — love the brawls just as much now as they did during the blood-and-broken teeth days of decades past.

Rempe, then, is something like a warm memory, at least for now. He will quickly need to figure out how to balance pugilism and physicality with playing well enough to stay on the ice for the Stanley Cup-contending Rangers this season — and beyond.

“What happened the first two, three, four weeks of his career up there is not long-term sustainability,” said Dixon Ward, who coached Rempe as a teenager in Okanagan, British Columbia, and a veteran of 599 NHL games. “You’ve got to establish yourself and then you’ve got to pick your spots, but you have also have to show that you can play. And the only way you can show you can actually play is to stay in the game.”

Rempe has skated 84 minutes on the ice, spent 69 in the penalty box or the locker room, and recorded one goal and one assist since the Rangers called him up in February. Still, his jersey was featured in the front window of the NHL Store in New York, and “We want Rempe! We want Rempe!” is a familiar refrain from Rangers fans if their team is losing or being pushed around.

In and out of the lineup down the stretch, Rempe — who didn’t fight much in the junior Western Hockey League known for toughness — wants to prove he can stick around for more than just fisticuffs.

“I want to show the coaching staff that I can be a really effective player in the playoffs,” he said as the regular season winds down. “I don’t want to be a guy who just fights. I want to be known as tough but I want to be known as a guy who’s a very effective bottom-six forward who can skate, be a really good checker, can be physical, be good defensively.”

The current NHL game has no place for one-dimensional fighters like the days of yesteryear, a product of the salary cap and rule changes that have minimalized the instances of bareknuckle boxing on skates. Rempe is a welcome throwback for those who contend fighting allows players to police the game themselves and keep intentional injuries to a minimum.

“With this story about Rempe, it’s kind of bringing it back a little bit,” said Philadelphia’s Nicolas Deslauriers, who fought Rempe in February and leads the league with 11 fights this season. “It’s good for us. We try to keep this involved in the league. We all know it’s going away. But I think it’s strongly needed. I think it just settles people at the same time.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman said he ran into Rempe at Madison Square Garden after punches from Deslauriers gave the 2020 sixth-round pick a couple of shiners. Bettman said Rempe seems like a nice young man.

“For whatever reason, either his size or reputation or the fact that people just want to challenge him, I think this is his introduction to the league,” Bettman said. “Ultimately it’s going to be how good a player he is.”

Peter Laviolette, in his fifth job running a bench in the NHL and a Cup-winning coach before arriving in New York, is trying to put Rempe in position to succeed. Laviolette, a former player, said Rempe is “living his best life right now.”

“We’re just making sure that just because he hits hard — he hits people — he doesn’t have to go and fight every single time,” Laviolette said. “We want him to play the game. He’s an effective player for us.”

Answering the bell has earned him the respect of rivals around the league: Toronto enforcer Ryan Reaves said Rempe is “going to be a menace in this league,” New Jersey’s Brendan Smith called him “a tough customer” and Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said, “He’s not fearful of anyone and can hold his own.”

Beyond his many admirers — one Rangers fan site sells “Rempe’s Fight Club” shirts — there’s concern from some corners of the game about all the punches he’s taking after the deaths of retired enforcers like Derek Boogaard, Bob Probert and, as recently as last month, Chris Simon. Boogaard and Probert were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that researchers have linked to concussions or repeated blows to the head.

“I have a brother that had over 200 fights,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Certainly see the safety side.”

Ward, who racked up over 400 penalty minutes in the NHL during a rough-and-tumble era from 1993-2002, said he instead wonders if Rempe will become typecast as just a fighter.

Adding fighting to his game — nine in the American Hockey League in 2022-23 and seven before his callup this season — helped Rempe get noticed. It’s now a matter of making protecting teammates just part of his game, not the centerpiece.

“He did a good job of creating some buzz around himself,” Ward said. “Now, how he handles that moving forward will determine how long it all lasts.”

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AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan in Newark, New Jersey AP freelance writer Denis Gorman in Greenburgh, New York, and the Canadian Press contributed.

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AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl