The story out of Montreal last night should have been about James Reimer making his case to be the starting goalie for the Maple Leafs, or the beast-mode performance from Lars Eller, which seemed to hint at what might lie ahead this season for the Canadiens’ promising young center.
Instead, last night’s season opener between Toronto and Montreal was defined by a grim injury to Canadiens enforcer George Parros that left the veteran forward prone on the ice and sucked the air out of what had, up to that point, been a rollicking Bell Centre.
Early in the third period of the Maple Leafs’ 4-3 win, Parros was doing what he gets paid to do: trading punches with Toronto tough guy Colton Orr. It was their second fight of the night. As the brawl wound down, Orr lost his balance and fell to the ice. On the way down, he grabbed Parros’ jersey and pulled him down. It was the sort of tumble you see all the time at the end of a punch-up, when both parties are usually exhausted. Only this time, Parros was unable to get his arms up and brace for impact. He fell hard, unprotected, face-first on the ice.
At first, Parros appeared to be unconscious. Soon, he was moving. The nine-year veteran attempted to get up after receiving medical attention, but the trainers advised him to lay back down as they called for a stretcher. Parros was then taken to a hospital, where it was reported that doctors had diagnosed him with a concussion. It’s unknown at this point how long he’ll be out of the Canadiens lineup. He is, however, out of the hospital.
It was a horrifying moment. And it’s not surprising that it quickly ignited another chapter in the endless debate on the place of fighting in hockey.
But as bad as it looked — and as much as the anti-fighting advocates might hope otherwise — this incident won’t change anything.
That group was quick to jump on Parros’ injury, citing it as further evidence that what they see as inevitable — an on-ice death — has only been avoided by the grace of God.
“I believe the game could survive without fighting,” wrote ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun. “My belief is simply based on my fear that one day a player will die in a fight on the ice. Pure and simple. I say that because Don Sanderson did die in a Senior A Ontario game fight in 2009. I’m worried we’ll have a tragic incident one day, because today’s players are just stronger and bigger than ever.”
There’s no ignoring the fact that Sanderson’s death is a valid cause for concern, but it’s not one that people who actually play the game take as evidence that fighting poses a deadly risk. If anything, players know that hockey’s next life-threatening injury is more likely to result from a breakneck sprint to the boards, a hard hit from behind or a horrific encounter with a skate blade.
The nature of the sport involves the assumption of that risk. And that’s something that the players understand better than anyone.
“I think for a lot of people outside hockey, they’re going to start questioning [the place of] fighting in hockey, but as a guy who’s played the game for a long time — and I’m sure if you went and asked George tomorrow, he’d be the first to say that just because this happened you don’t take fighting out of hockey,” Montreal’s Josh Gorges said. “We all know the risks of getting into a fight. Hockey’s a physical game, it’s an intense game, and players are going to get hurt. But players are going to get hurt taking a hit, taking shots, they’re going to get hurt battling in corners. It’s the nature of the business.”
Gorges isn’t speaking for every player, but it’s fair to say that his views are shared by many around the NHL. They respect what fighting means to the game and the courage of the men who undertake the role of enforcer.
But that doesn’t change the opinion of those who want fighting out of the sport, a group which, at this point, seems to be primarily confined to the media.
Fighting’s detractors can take solace in the fact that the role of the brawler is evolving. Fighting is not as prevalent as it was, say, in the pre-Bettman era, and while there are still staged battles, they have become less common. Roster spots are more precious than ever, and fewer teams are willing to employ players whose primary purpose is to act as a deterrent, or to extract a pound of retaliatory flesh.
Fighting clearly retains a place in the game, and it’s one that the league — which tacitly endorses the violence by streaming brawls on nhl.com and allowing video game licensees to market fighting as a selling point — has no real desire to change.
Neither do the fans. If some are voting against fighting with their wallets, good for them. But they have to know that they are outnumbered. Take a look in the stands the next time the gloves are dropped for ample evidence of that.
And if the people who are most directly impacted by it — the players themselves — aren’t swayed in the aftermath of this incident, you have to wonder if there’s really an argument to be made anymore. Or if it all comes down to simply filling column space.