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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 ...

“He’s a great team guy, a quiet kind of leader.” What teammates and coaches appreciate in a player aren’t necessarily the same qualities fans see and admire. “He just leads by example, trying to play right and play hard,” Richardson says. “He’s not a rah-rah guy. He’s probably his own worst enemy because he’s as hard on himself as any coach would be. I know I don’t have to say anything to him because he already knows he’s done something he shouldn’t have done before I get there.”

‘They sent me down today’

Among the million-plus viewers who’ve clicked onto the YouTube version of the still-famous fight is the young man who wears his hard-won Ottawa Senators cap like a war vet sporting a campaign medal. Janet Dziurzynski hates the idea that David’s knockout became instant Internet entertainment, and she told him not to watch. But having missed seeing the punch the first time round, he needed to figure out where he went wrong.

So what did he learn? “Not to expose myself,” he says, with a technician’s terseness. “In a fight you always have to protect yourself so that doesn’t happen. My hand slipped off his jersey. As I was going to grab it again, I opened myself up. He landed one right in the right spot. That happens.”

Public introspection is not David Dziurzynski’s style. The kind of hockey he plays – driving full-speed into the corner, crashing the net, looking for the next body to hit, creating space where none existed a moment before – is hard enough without added layers of self-doubt or overthought hesitation.

“He’s laid-back and that’s what’s progressed him along the way,” Jeff Helperl says. “He never worries too much about things, he’s a day-to-day type of guy, he kind of rolls with the punches as they come.”

But some punches are bigger than others. McLaren’s knockout blow happened on a national stage, and went viral on social media instantly. “The fight happened,” David says ruefully, “and people started noticing who I was.”

Don Cherry featured the fight on his Coach’s Corner segment the following Saturday, taking the superheavyweight McLaren to task for battling a kid from the AHL, but also offering encouragement to the concussed Dziurzynski by recalling the similar fate of famed fighter Bob Probert:

“And Davey, all I’ve got to say to you, Probert, when he first started, I saw him get knocked out cold by Todd Ewen. They had to lift him up and carry him. Don’t you quit. You gotta get right back on again.”

Other players might have been bucked up by such support. But David didn’t want or need attention, even the well-meaning kind. For an outsider like him who was doing all he could to belong in the NHL, a knockout punch is a public shaming, no matter how many arguments the sport’s thought leaders can find to condemn or explain away what happened.

“Our doctors spend time with our kids afterward,” Bryan Murray says. “They make sure they feel half-decent about themselves. I had a couple of chats with David just to make sure that he felt he didn’t let anyone down – we let him down a little bit by not demanding that he not get involved with that kind of player.”

David looked downcast for a couple of days, says Murray. “But after several conversations and getting back on the ice with the guys, I think he understood: Everybody in this game who fights gets beat.”

That’s a kind of consolation. Murray offered to put David in touch with former players who’d been in the same situation. “But I never reached out,” David says. “I just dealt with it on my own. And nothing really came of it. My approach was, it’s part of the game and it happens. I just wanted to recover as fast as I could and get back out playing.”

That cool indifference masks one key element in his streamlined recovery – the counselling offered by the 23-year-old’s father.

“His Dad spoke lots with him,” Janet says. “He told him, when you do come back, you’re going to have to prove to yourself and everyone else that you’re still going to be the same player. It’s important not to be different, scared or whatever you want to call it. Because this is your livelihood.”

Given the apparent devastation inflicted by the punch on March 6, his return was swift. He was back practising on March 14 and in the lineup March 24. Ottawa’s management wanted to send the message that he was valued by keeping him with the team during his recovery and getting him into a couple of NHL games on his return. And then he was sent down.

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