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Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Colton Orr (28) fights with Montreal Canadiens right wing George Parros (15) during third period National Hockey League action Tuesday, October 1, 2013 in Montreal. (RYAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Colton Orr (28) fights with Montreal Canadiens right wing George Parros (15) during third period National Hockey League action Tuesday, October 1, 2013 in Montreal. (RYAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

SEAN GORDON

Hockey fights stuck in no-man’s land Add to ...

During the usual pregame glitz and pomp, the Bell Centre roared like mad for the lushly mustachioed, nasty-looking galoot.

Standing at centre ice, George Parros obliged by waving and flashing a confident sneer – it was a nice bit of theatre, and the fans ate it up.

They always do, because at bottom they love the idea of the two-fisted avenger, whether his name is Parros, or Laraque, or Kordic; perhaps that’s why the NHL continues to tolerate designated sluggers – an arena full of hockey fans will reliably stand and applaud every time two large men drop the gloves.

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And so they cheered when Parros fought Toronto Maple Leafs counterpart Colton Orr in the second period last Tuesday, and at the points where various other skirmishes broke out.

Blame group psychology or herd instinct or blood lust, there’s also a measure of hypocrisy at work here.

Parros has been a fan favourite wherever he’s played, and the Bell Centre loved every second of what he brought to the game – until it was confronted with the brutal, hard-to-watch consequences of Parros being carted off on a stretcher.

Then, there was uneasy silence.

Still, the show must go on, within 15 or 20 minutes, the place was rocking again.

Looking at a crowd in Montreal, or any other NHL city, there is plainly a market for fighting, the league is merely giving the punters what they want (and what the players want, too, a 2011 survey asking whether fighting should be removed reported 98 per cent of them voted ‘No;’ a straw poll in the Habs room on Tuesday night suggested little has changed).

That isn’t to say voices aren’t being raised in the league – important, loud voices – to ask whether it’s a good idea to continue to accept fighting, which is technically against the rules.

Hall of Fame player Steve Yzerman, now general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero and legendary former coach Scotty Bowman joined the chorus on Wednesday, as did Carolina Hurricanes GM/minority owner Jim Rutherford.

“I’m not going to suggest this is the time to try and eliminate fighting completely, but we have to find ways to lower the number of them significantly … we’ve seen any number of great games that don’t have any fighting,” he said in an interview. “We have a great game, but we have to protect the players who play it.”

Given the strongly camped positions on the fighting debate and the exigencies of the sport’s culture, there’s little to be gained in the short term in pushing for an outright ban – or so goes Rutherford’s logic.

Shero and Yzerman called for stiffer penalties, such as the expulsion of players who fight, in interviews with TSN.

“We’re stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport we want to be. Either anything goes and we accept the consequences, or take the next step and eliminate fighting,” said Yzerman, who will presumably raise his concerns at the next meeting of the league GMs in November.

Bowman, a Chicago Blackhawks senior adviser who remains an eminence in the sport, tweeted his support for Yzerman, Shero and Rutherford’s position, and said: “Poll all players.”

The Parros incident has also caught the notice of the medical community, and of one particular physician, Michael Stuart from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Stuart was watching his son, Mark, play defence for the Winnipeg Jets the same night and caught replays of the injury, which came a week before a concussion summit to be co-directed by Stuart, USA Hockey’s chief medical officer.

“It does bring to the forefront the risk of fighting, especially fighting while on ice when helmets come off. Our biggest fear is someone will lose their balance … we know in the U.S. we have people who have died from hitting their heads on the ice,” Stuart said.

The upcoming summit’s objective is to develop a better understanding of head trauma and identify new treatments through basic science – such as the use of 3D magnetic resonance imaging to look for structural changes in the brains of concussion sufferers, and whether some people have a genetic predisposition to brain injuries.

It’s not yet known what the Princeton University-educated Parros makes of all this (it should be said he has repeatedly and enthusiastically proclaimed he has no qualms about his role and station in life).

The 33-year-old was released from hospital early Wednesday, and is at home recovering from a concussion, the Habs said he didn’t suffer any other major facial injuries. He will be out of action indefinitely, but was well enough to take to Twitter and thank his well-wishers.

Habs fans will have to wait a while to see him again, it’s a safe bet others will stand in for him – even as head coach Michel Therrien and his players try to shift the emphasis to wins and losses.

After all, even the hockey fans who like a good scrap prefer to see their team win.

Indeed, Rutherford pooh-poohed the idea fans demand fisticuffs at hockey games, saying: “If there weren’t any fights [Tuesday], I doubt anyone would have left the Bell Centre disappointed.”

And if there are people like that, Rutherford said “maybe they should go watch boxing, or wrestling, or whatever.”

It’s true the loudest moments of the night came when the Habs’ Lars Eller scored the game’s opening goal in the first period, and when he tallied a second time late in the game to bring Montreal to within a goal.

The league brass in attendance will doubtless have noticed. It’s an open question as to whether it matters.

 

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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