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Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Fraser McLaren (38) knocks Ottawa Senators left winger Dave Dziurzynski out during a fight in first period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday March 6, 2013. (FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Fraser McLaren (38) knocks Ottawa Senators left winger Dave Dziurzynski out during a fight in first period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday March 6, 2013. (FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

hockey

The NHL’s line of duty and the story of David Dziurzynski Add to ...

Her husband, whom she describes as “tough as nails,” is a service-rig worker in the oil fields – David worked summers with him from a young age – and she knew that her emotional reaction was out of line with his controlled calm. She imitates the firm and deliberate voice of a parent instructing a child.

“He was like: ‘Don’t cry. He’s knocked out. He’ll be okay.’”

That’s not the way it looked to anyone else. In the days to come, commentators would use the Dziurzynski fight as a graphic warning of hockey’s deadly possibility. YouTube videos of the knockout blow passed a million views, and Janet could hardly get her work done for the ringing phones and the sympathetic co-workers stopping by her desk. Ottawa, meanwhile, realized what it was lacking and traded for a bona fide enforcer to take Dziurzynski’s place – Matt Kassian, owner of a trademarked nickname The Kassassin, who made a point of fighting the Leafs’ McLaren when the two teams next met.

Twenty minutes after his parents watched their son being dragged off the ice, the phone rang. Dziurzynski was on the trainer’s table at the Air Canada Centre, submitting to the first round of damage assessment. But all the time he was regaining consciousness, what was really stressing out the rugged winger was that he had to call his mom.

Janet can’t help but laugh at his rookie priorities. “He said to me, ‘I knew you’d be freaking out. I’m okay.’”

The men who drop the gloves in North American professional hockey are governed and guided by codes that are mostly unwritten.

If you’re small and speedy, and don’t go looking for trouble, the odds are good that trouble won’t find you – barring the kind of all-in, bench-clearing brawls that have been effectively banished from the game.

But if you’re big and fearless and prone to inhabit the hostile spaces on the ice where bodies get banged around as players compete for the puck and a dominant position, you’ll have your share of fights. Sometimes you hit a skilled opponent with a hard bodycheck designed to nullify his physical advantages, and the other team decides it needs to protect its skaters. A fight is a way of drawing the line: A bodyguard steps in and says enough is enough.

Those are the heat-of-the-moment, score-settling fights that are widely accepted as part of the game. “David does take the body,” says Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray. “And sometimes those guys have to answer the bell.”

But there are also the more controversial staged fights – more controversial to coaches and managers anyway, since many fans, lifted out of their seats, seem to love them. These manufactured confrontations need no particular act of provocation and can happen at any time (23 seconds into the game for the Dziurzynski-McLaren tilt) just because a player bearing the tough-guy label decides he needs to give an emotional lift to his team. It’s the catharsis theory of Greek tragedy played out at ice level, a glorification of suffering for some vaguely articulated greater good.

Staged fights normally happen between heavyweight equals and aspirants, designated protagonists who are trained for the hard knocks of their profession. These players are legends within the game, and are given a wide berth, even by players who are otherwise big and brave but know enough to accept their limits.

The respect goes both ways. Heavyweights prefer to take on their counterparts – there’s no honour or glory in beating up an unwilling, incapable victim.

“A guy like McLaren, he’s not just going to jump, you know, he’s a pretty respectful guy. I mean, he’s going to ask you, but it’s your choice if you’re going to fight him or not.” As 22-year-old Darian Dziurzynski of the AHL Portland Pirates explains it, the rules for steering clear of a known tough guy sound pretty clearcut.

Darian’s a scrappy provocateur who counts Mike Tyson as one of his athletic heroes and was once listed among the least-liked opponents in the WHL. His mother’s nickname for him growing up was the Tasmanian Devil. “David’s a real quiet guy,” she says, “he doesn’t like to step on toes, doesn’t like to see anyone hurt. Darian’s more feisty.”

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