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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 ...

Guys like David Dziurzynski aren’t supposed to attract attention.

But there he was last March, seconds into his 10th NHL game, waiting for the puck to drop at the Air Canada Centre – a big, quiet 23-year-old from Lloydminster, Alta., who’d forced his way into hockey’s spotlight despite going undrafted in a junior career that never got beyond a low-level club in Port Alberni, B.C.

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Something was wrong with this picture. The bruising third-line grinder for the Ottawa Senators didn’t belong on the ice this early in the game, and the Toronto Maple Leafs took notice.

In hockey’s body language, Ottawa was sending a message that it intended to play a hard, physical style in what’s become known as the Battle of Ontario, and Toronto answered the call – Leaf tough guy Frazer McLaren, 6 foot 5, lined up opposite the lanky 6-foot-3 Dziurzynski.

Back home in Lloydminster – Lloyd to the locals – Janet and Lauren Dziurzynski could be excused for missing the cues. Earlier in the day, their younger son Darian had signed a two-year contract with the Phoenix Coyotes organization, and with David taking the ice against the Leafs in the centre of the hockey universe, the proud parents were ready to savour the moment.

“We were excited,” says Janet, a lively 45-year-old grandmother who works as a payroll assistant at Husky Energy. “And then seconds in, it was sickening.”

The puck was dropped, but their son and McLaren ignored the action developing around them and squared off in a bare-knuckle battle – an orchestrated brawl on blades sparked only by the older fighter’s need to justify his occupation and his young opponent’s desire to prove he belonged in the big time.

It was David’s first NHL fight. To judge by the result, he didn’t stand a chance. McLaren caught him off-balance with a powerful punch to the chin, and he was out cold even as he began tumbling to the ice. An all-business McLaren skated straight to the penalty box while his victim lay prone and helpless on the white ice.

Hockey fights are often represented as a necessary and relatively benign part of a game that flaunts its fearlessness. And at first the Toronto fans took the bait, chanting “Go Leafs Go!” as Dziurzynski tried to regain his equilibrium. But the big winger’s flailing was too awful to ignore and his sudden downfall lost its motivational power. The home crowd turned silent and the players’ faces went grim.

In the end, his own linemates had to haul him away, propping him up as his legs dangled helplessly, a damaged brain unable to keep pace with the moving mass of hockey flesh. In a few seconds, a career that should never have got this far appeared to have reached its sudden and savage end.

It was widely assumed, even in hockey circles, that the first time most people had heard of David Dziurzynski, nicknamed Dizzy or just Dave, could also be the last – if not for lingering physical and psychological effects from the beating, then because of the cold calculation that marginal players who go down to a resounding defeat in their first NHL fight may be missing a crucial element in their game.

But David Dziurzynski refuses to disappear. In a short and unshowy career that could have ended many times before, some combination of desire and denial keeps pushing him forward. In July, the Senators signed him to a one-year deal: Training camp opens in a few days, with Dziurzynski competing against other young hopefuls for a chance to stick with the big club and keep his NHL dream alive.

‘Don’t cry ... he’ll be okay’

Over 19 years of hockey parenting, Janet Dziurzynski has watched her sons break a finger, a collarbone, an arm. “It’s always been something,” she says. “And you know, I was always pretty good through it all.”

But not that night. Her son was trying to stand up and failing, his skates sliding out from under his legs. “He was like Bambi trying to get off the ice,” his mother says, seeing in her wounded child the splay-legged Disney faun. She lost it. “I’m sitting there on the couch, I’m not crying loudly because that’s not me, but I’ve instantly got these big dinosaur tears running down my face.”

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.”

But it’s Darian, remembering AHL games against McLaren last season, who says with a laugh, “I was pretty happy he didn’t ask me to fight.”

And it’s David who took him on.

‘I would do it again’

“I don’t regret the decision,” says David Dziurzynski, sitting in the emptied arena of the Binghamton Senators, the Ottawa farm team in upstate New York where he was consigned last March shortly after he came back from his fight-induced headaches and whiplash.

He’s staring straight ahead into the darkened rink, where skaters share the ice with logos for Dunkin’ Donuts (“Official coffee of the B-Sens”) and Cost Cutters Family Hair Care (“Just Your Style”).

“Obviously it was unfortunate how it ended, but I would do it again. Hopefully it would end differently.”

If the fight had turned out better, maybe he would have stuck with Ottawa instead of returning to the rough-edged city on the Susquehanna known to jovial minor-leaguers as Bingo. Every player who’s called up to an NHL team fixates on what he needs to do to stay with the big team and never again endure a six-hour bus ride along the AHL’s Interstates.

“You’ve got to take every game like it’s going to be your last,” David says, “especially when you’re getting your first chance. Every shift I’d go out and play my hardest and show what I could do.”

Hockey is pretty well everything to him, if you subtract the time he devotes to sleep (“When he’s out, he out for 12 or 15 hours,” Darian says), working out, TV (Dexter, a show about an honourable serial killer, is his favourite), healthy cooking and recuperative summer weekends at the lake in Saskatchewan.

“We’re both pretty laid-back guys,” says one of his Binghamton roommates, Darren Kramer, a 21-year-old fourth-liner who models his game on David’s and in his spare time promotes a two-part peanut butter jar that allows easier access to the sticky clumps adhering to the bottom. “We’re just Alberta kids, we have a good time, bug each other a lot, lay low, rest the bodies.”

David was called up to Ottawa “way ahead of schedule,” says Bryan Murray. He was an injury fill-in who’d been talent-spotted during the NHL lockout at the start of last season, a disciplined role player who could play his part on a checking line, dishing out hits for a few games before returning to complete his development in the AHL.

He may not have been part of Ottawa’s immediate plans, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t force the issue by taking on McLaren. “I guess from his point of view,” Murray says, “he probably felt like he had to do this to show he’s a manly type of guy. That’s the hockey mentality in a lot of cases. Some guys know what they are and they don’t do that. David probably thought coming up to the NHL, certainly earlier than we ever expected, it would make him appear like he’s committed more than maybe we thought he was.”

Full-blown commitment has never been a problem for David Dziurzynski. But instant decision-making is another matter.

The best hockey players are inventive improvisers, true originals with a gift for the unexpected who create the action to which lesser players react. Such stars are rare, and it’s a lot easier – and cheaper, in a sport with a salary cap – to pack a lineup with more workmanlike players who combine professional-level skating ability and play-the-body toughness with a willingness to do exactly what they’re told.

David Dziurzynski is a prototype of this second-tier, grinder style. There’s no flair in his makeup. He’s big (“You can’t teach size,” notes his agent, Jeff Helperl), quick enough to keep pace with the other team’s stars (allowing for the smothering qualities of his long reach) and physical enough to wear down a skilled opponent over the course of a long, tightly played game. He’s also a Westerner – a kind of dutiful, no-questions-asked resilience is built into a Prairie boy’s DNA, or so NHL talent evaluators like to believe.

He’s had his share of altercations in the minors, and displays the gaps in his front teeth that vouch for his willingness to take a punch. But is he a natural-born fighter? “Not really,” says his Binghamton coach, Luke Richardson, who amassed 2,055 penalty minutes in a 21-year NHL career. “He’s got a long fuse. Nothing really fazes him. He’s not a mean player, he’s not one of those guys who’s yapping out there. He’s a big, stoic guy who skates well, a guy who concentrates on his position and his game rather than looking around for all the extra crap that goes along with the scrappy side.”

So when David Dziurzynski, listed at 205 pounds, found himself lined up against a 250-pound Maple Leaf, 23 seconds into a game, the level of thinking got much more complicated.

“He tapped me on the shin pads and asked me if I wanted to fight,” David says. Staged fights always begin with this sort of gentlemanly invitation.

“I said no,” David remembers. The puck hadn’t dropped yet. But something changed in the next split-second of meditation. “I sat there and I thought about it. I went over and confronted him and we ended up by squaring off.”

What does a rookie contemplate in that crucial moment of analysis? “Just emotions, and we were on a couple-of-games losing streak and I thought it would be a good time to do it – get the first NHL fight out of the way.”

It’s the simple hockey logic that might have made sense in the moment, when a young player has to answer an unexpected question that could determine the rest of his career.

But it didn’t wash with Darian. “Oh my God, do I have to teach that kid everything?” he asked his mother. The feeling among his family and friends is that David didn’t recognize McLaren or his reputation, though he maintains he knew he was up against a tough guy – because who else taps you politely on the pads to arrange a pugilistic play date?

“David obviously didn’t understand that he didn’t have to accept a fight against a tough guy like that,” Murray says. “Maybe we didn’t sit him down ahead of time and talk and tell him you don’t have to do that.”

In large parts of their narrow world, hockey players grow up at a very young age – leaving home in their teens, putting their bodies at risk, testing their self-confidence before thousands of screaming people. By the time they reach the NHL in their late teens or early 20s, players are treated as adults capable of making their own decisions. But there’s also a great deal of personal development that these young and often poorly educated athletes have missed out on in their single-minded pursuit of a dream, and a job.

The Dziurzynski fight has caused Bryan Murray to rethink the traditional hands-off approach. “I think when we bring young guys up, the guys who are players and have certain roles on the team should be told clearly that you don’t have to prove anything to us by taking on a heavyweight. Job descriptions have to be defined more clearly. We think Dave’s going to end up being a really good solid role player in the league, so this is a way for him to have a job description that fits his ability level.”

When he was a coach, Murray used to tell players publicly that he’d fine them $500 if they took on another team’s tough guy. “What you’re really doing is letting a player off the hook in front of his teammates, so he doesn’t feel obligated to fight a guy. And David, maybe he needs that clearly defined for him.”

‘He’ll stick up for his teammates’

Growing up in Big River, Sask., the Dziurzynski brothers were renowned for their fearlessness. “They were riding dirt bikes by the time they were 7 and 9,” Janet remembers, “and they just weren’t scared.”

Her father ran a logging business where her husband found work, spending a week of 15-hour days in the bush away from his growing family. They’d had two daughters as teenagers before marrying after Janet finished high school – Chelaine, now 27, and Rachelle, 25, whom Darian and David liked to call “the bastards” once they’d figured out the wedding-anniversary math.

Jovial derision is a way of life in the hypercompetitive Dziurzynski household. When David decided to get glasses recently, he pretty well knew that the opening line from his brother would be, “You’re wearing glasses, you’ve got no teeth, you’re a mess at 23.”

When David was in Grade 4, Lauren grew tired of being an absent father and decided to relocate to a place where his children would have more opportunities. He settled on the burgeoning town of Lloydminster, three hours away, and found a job the first day. Within a few weeks, they’d sold the house in Big River and started a new life in Lloyd.

“That’s where the boys get the side of them that’s not scared to try something new,” Janet says. “But I thought he was totally crazy.”

At first, the children missed the easy freedom of Big River – “Everyone knows everyone,” David says. But hockey proved to be a great connector for the boys, who rapidly got recruited as hired guns by travelling teams.

“People would call and say, ‘Can your boys come and play in this tournament and we’ll pay your hotel room and your expenses?’” Janet remembers. “So my kids wouldn’t know anyone, and they’d go walking into a dressing room of Team so-and-so, and where most nine-year-old kids would say, ‘You have to come with me, Dad and Mom,’ they’d say, ‘No, don’t come in.’”

David’s easy-going personality and team-oriented values made him friends wherever he played. Even after he was sent down to Binghamton, teammate Hugh Jessiman recalls him putting other players at their ease by cracking jokes about the McLaren fight.

“It shows you how loose he is,” says Jessiman, a 6-foot-6 Dartmouth College alumnus. “Obviously he’s a tough kid, but he’s also humble. He keeps things light in the locker room and he’s a great teammate. He’s a guy who definitely has some edge to his game, and he’s a popular guy because he’ll stick up for his teammates, he’s 100-per-cent watching out for everybody.”

These are traits that are essential for team-bonding at the professional level, and may be overlooked by casual fans mesmerized by the flashy skater or the booming shot. But even hockey’s best talent evaluators missed out on David Dziurzynski.

By the age of 19, when Canadian players with a discernible future have already been selected by NHL teams, David was getting ready to call it quits. He’d never been drafted by a top-level major-junior team or recruited by a U.S. college, the usual feeders for the NHL. For two years he’d played for his hometown Lloydminster Bobcats, a lower-tier junior team, but chafed at the goon role he’d had to take on.

His mother wanted him to stay in Lloyd. She’d hated seeing Darian disappear at the age of 16, when he climbed on a bus with a newly bought suit to join the Saskatoon Blades. She was only slightly mollified when her youngest child told her, “This is what I’ve wanted since I was a boy.”

Those hockey dreams were disappearing for David. But he so despised his role in Lloydminster that, with just one year of junior eligibility remaining, he orchestrated a trade to the Alberni Valley Bulldogs in the British Columbia Junior League.

“I didn’t have any plans,” he says with a laugh. “I was just going there to get away from home and grow up a little bit.”

He’d never been much of a student. So the idea that he’d put in the hockey version of a gap year, see the world beyond Lloyd just a bit, and then return home to work with his father in the oil fields or maybe ship off to Fort McMurray, had its appeal. He’d held physically demanding summer jobs since the age of 15 and knew he could handle himself in man’s work even if he didn’t like it much.

But something happened in Port Alberni. The coach took a liking to him and put him on the top line with two talented brothers, Mitch and Mark MacMillan. That vote of confidence changed everything for the quiet player with a strong self-critical streak – he still seeks his father’s reassuring counsel when times are tough.

Hockey was fun for the first time in years. Instead of being typecast as a dead-end enforcer, he was able to stay out of trouble and prove he could be dangerous around the net, tallying 93 points over 70 games, while showing surprising technical virtuosity by playing first unit on both the power play and the penalty kill. A classic late-bloomer, he’d kept growing in his late teens, topping out at 6-foot-3. Scouts start with the raw numbers, and a big player with gaudy stats is going to get noticed.

Although the Tier-II leagues are obviously a cut below in terms of overall ability, they attract some good young players who want to pursue the college route to the NHL, since U.S. collegiate rules on amateur status regard the major-junior leagues as professional. They attract scouts for the same reason, and 17-year-old Mark MacMillan was definitely on the radar.

David never talked to an NHL scout but U.S. college teams started to pay attention, only to be discouraged by his bad high-school grades. The Bulldogs’ education adviser, Tom McEvay, who specializes in finding scholarships for hockey players, took an interest in him and had him tested. David, it was determined, had a learning disability, a useful discovery that made him newly eligible for U.S. colleges.

But only under conditions designed to get David’s learning skills up to speed: “I had to redshirt if I went the school route,” he says. “No practice, no skating, take a year off hockey. I didn’t really know if I wanted to do that.”

A good season came to an end, and David left at the beginning of April with his head held high, encouraged by his coach’s advice that he just might be able to catch on in the East Coast Hockey League, a feeder program that is essentially a job fair for players on professional hockey’s margins.

He was driving back to Lloyd when he got a call from Jeff Helperl: A couple of NHL teams had spotted him in Port Alberni and were making inquiries. David and Jeff agreed on a noon deadline just to gauge the seriousness of their interest. At 12:15 he learned that Ottawa was willing to offer him a three-year deal.

“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.

“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.

The demotion to Binghamton must have hurt, but a grinder who intends to be successful has to learn to compartmentalize the many frustrations that come with the job.

“Obviously it’s disappointing,” David says, “But you can’t look at it that way. You’ve got to listen to the things they’re saying to you, what you need to work on to stay up the next time, so that’s what I’m doing – working on all the little things that will help us win.”

He got in the 2010 Dodge Ram truck he bought when he signed his big contract – a ride designed to blend in back home in Lloydminster – and began the solitary return-trip to Bingo. He called his mother at work one, two, three times but she didn’t answer. When she finally returned to her desk and noticed the missed calls, her hockey-parent worries resurfaced yet again.

“I called him back and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Just driving.’ I said, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘Oh, to Binghamton. They sent me down today.’”

Long drives are nothing to him – he did 26 hours straight from Saskatoon to Kitchener before training camp last summer so he could get in two weeks’ skating with his former Binghamton roommate, Mike Hoffman. If nothing else, he could tell himself he was looking forward to cooking homemade pasta dinners after a month-and-a-half of Ottawa hotel living.

And if he felt despair on the AHL-bound Interstate, he wasn’t about to acknowledge any hard feelings once he made it back to Binghamton and played out the end of his three-year contract.

“No it wasn’t bad,” he says. “You just relax and think about what you’ve got to do to get up there again. I wasn’t expecting to stay up there as long as I did. I ended up playing very well and scoring a few goals. It was very exciting, trying to stay up there as long as I could and take every shift as my last.”

‘You’re not guaranteed anything’

And now he’ll get another chance. With training camp opening, David and his girlfriend, a student at the University of Saskatchewan, made the cross-country drive to Ottawa in his trusty truck. His one-year deal will pay him $640,000 if he can make the big club.

The Binghamton Senators were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs last spring, but that surprise loss gave David the opportunity to revisit Ottawa and watch the Senators’ playoff games as one of the team’s “Black Aces” – reserve players who could be called to the lineup in the event of injuries. He was impressed by the intensity and physicality of playoff hockey, not least because those qualities are the hallmarks of his game.

There’s some dispute over the message he was given at his exit interview with the Senators. His mother maintains that his chances of cracking the lineup seem to be good, that “it’s his spot to lose.” David scoffs at this interpretation.

“I don’t know what she was thinking,” he says. “It must have been a long day at work. How many kids do they have going into camp? Yeah, there’s a chance of making it, but you’ve got to prove yourself. You’re not guaranteed anything.”

His summer was pretty typical of a young NHL hopeful: gym work in the morning, golf in the afternoon, some skating in the evening, weekends with friends and family at the lake. He cooked dinners for his grateful mother, acquired a dog (a French bulldog/Boston terrier cross named Lewis) and tended to his well-worn body with massages and visits to the chiropractor.

The fight in Toronto has undoubtedly raised his profile in his home province. David was asked to take part in a couple of charity golf tournaments, and at the Hartnell, MacArthur, Holtby Celebrity Golf Classic in Lloydminster, he finally met his fellow NHL celebrity, Frazer McLaren.

“We had a few beers together,” he says. “It was good. It was normal.”

The fight that once transfixed the hockey world and brought home the horrors of bare-knuckle brawling for a day or two didn’t figure much in their discussions. The Senators like David’s stoic qualities, and they are much in evidence as he lets the subject drop.

“We just put it behind us,” he says. “It is what it is.”

Some day, if David Diurzynski’s career proceeds according to plan and against all the odds, he will be back in an Ottawa Senators jersey, lining up against his beer-drinking buddy in the ongoing Battle of Ontario. And what will happen then?

“I’m not sure,” says the anonymity-seeking grinder in as few words as he can muster. “We’ll see when it comes.”

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