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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 ...

“I didn’t know what to think,” he says. “I’m going home to work for the summer and suddenly I’m signing an NHL contract.”

Janet had received a call from David as he was driving east: He’d been caught speeding and the police had confiscated his truck. She freaked out in her motherly way, and then he wished her a happy April Fool’s Day. A little later, as he was working his way toward Edmonton, he called again and said the police had stopped him. This time, he insisted, it was true.

“We talked about that for five minutes,” Janet recalls. “And then he said, ‘Mom, I just signed a three-year contract with the Ottawa Senators.’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, David, why did you wait this long to tell me?’”

It clearly wasn’t an April Fool’s prank, because Dziurzynskis don’t joke about professional hockey careers. But Janet still found it hard to believe.

“You always want to think something like this is possible. But in the back of your head, you know, what are the chances? He proved a lot of people wrong.”

‘That’s what toughness really is’

“Everybody loves a big guy who can skate,” Luke Richardson says. “But you have to do all kinds of other things to get to the NHL.”

Fighting is often perceived as one of those necessities for a do-what-it-takes kind of player. But Richardson sees it as a very limited skill in a game that demands a wider range of talents even from its anonymous grinders.

“Nowadays in the game, if you can’t skate and bodycheck, I don’t find you intimidating anymore. When you can bang guys and they can feel it, that’s the intimidating thing in hockey.”

Fans get fooled by the spectacle of a staged fight into thinking that the heavyweight puncher is the most effective proponent of pain. But coaches prefer the more versatile, long-haul players who can negate an opponent’s abilities within the boundaries of the sport.

Stereotypical tough guys, notes Richardson, can’t remove talented players such as the Leafs’ Phil Kessel or Nazem Kadri from a game simply by tapping them on the shin pads. “That’s not going to happen. But if you’re big and can skate and can bodycheck, then you can take the body. That’s what’s going to intimidate the most dangerous players on the other team. And that’s what toughness really is.”

To be a competitive NHL role player, you have to do a lot of little things better than the next guy. Richardson rhymes off some of David Dziurzynski’s less obvious talents:

“He’s a really smart penalty killer.” Which means that he can keep up with the speedsters on the other team, use his body to tire out skill players and separate them from the puck, play his position with an unrelenting steadiness, and cover a lot of ice with his reach. This disrupts the quick puck movement that is the essence of an effective power play.

“He’s a big honest player who’s going to get goals by skating to the net.” He scored two goals within his first six NHL games, and Ottawa projects him to top out at 10 to 12 goals a year, enough to complement his other strengths. But even if he doesn’t pot the goals himself, he’s a disruptive enough presence that goalmouth pucks will be available to his linemates.

“When he’s playing with better players and he’s a big guy going to the net,” Richardson says, “pucks usually end up in the right position, and they’re going to rebound or bang in off you.”

They may not be pretty, but goalmouth-scramble goals caused by hard-to-move big guys count for as much as highlight-reel goals scored by superstars. Teams practise shoot-in plays relentlessly, and what looks like disorganized confusion is actually a highly perfected strategy of controlled mayhem.

“He can take faceoffs, which is very helpful on the penalty-killing unit.” With only two forwards available for faceoffs, a winger who can step in and gain puck control on the draw is hugely valuable. “This lets your penalty-kill centreman not cheat exactly but certainly try to cheat,” says Richardson, with his professional command of the fine distinction. “And if he gets thrown out, you’re not getting fearful that there’s a guy going in there who can’t take a faceoff.”

With his huge wingspan and faceoff talent, Dziurzynski is also the natural go-to guy in more desperate five-on-three situations. “It’s a little but integral part of the game that can help a guy like him get to the next level,” Richardson says, “because he has one more plus on his sheet.” The closer you get to an NHL roster, the more these tiny things matter.

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