It took eight months, to the day, but Colton Orr was finally back on the ice in an NHL game on Tuesday night.
Over the 244 days he missed, concerns over both concussions and the role of fighting in hockey had become two focal points in his sport, something that has put the camera-shy Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer in demand for more interviews than he’d care to be part of early in training camp.
Orr, however, has been quick to make clear he wants to get back doing what he always has: playing hockey and using his fists for a living.
“I just can’t wait to get back out there,” he said shortly before taking the ice in Tuesday’s preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers. “It’s fun. I want to get out there and start checking.”
Orr’s lengthy absence came after suffering a serious concussion in a fight on Jan. 20, the result of a bout gone wrong against Anaheim Ducks tough guy George Parros.
The fight – Orr’s 13th of the season and 99th of his six-season career – ended with the Leafs’ tough guy crashing to the ice face first with the 230-pound Parros on top of him.
It wasn’t the first time Orr had suffered an apparent concussion – he had his bell rung by Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Deryk Engelland in October but didn’t miss any games – but this time it was far more serious.
While the team provided minimal updates as to his health at the time, Orr now says he was unable to pass his baseline tests for a couple months and that magnetic resonance imaging tests picked up evidence of head trauma.
By April, however, team doctors felt comfortable clearing him to play. The Leafs, however, decided to hold Orr out of the final few games of the season to allow him to spend the whole off-season recovering.
“We just felt and he felt that the time would be beneficial to him,” Leafs senior vice-president David Nonis said Tuesday. “I think it was a good decision.”
The tragic events since then have added another wrinkle to Orr’s story. After the deaths of three fighters – Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – the past four months, far more attention is now on just how difficult an enforcer’s role can be and if more can be done to help.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr even released a joint statement following Belak’s death that stated they were “committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events.”
According to a league source, however, fighters were not one of the topics up for discussion when the NHL’s board of governors – including Leafs GM Brian Burke – met Tuesday in New York.
Nonis also said the organization did not feel it needed to take any “special precautions” with Orr’s comeback than they otherwise would.
“He’s like any other player in that he’s at risk of a concussion at any time and any shift,” Nonis said. “Yes, you could say that because he fights more that the odds go up a little for him, but to be honest, there’s risk for any player. You really can’t approach playing the game if that’s in the back of your mind …
“We’re looking out for the health of our players,” Nonis added. “Unfortunately, Colton’s lumped into a group that people are focusing more on, but all of our players need and expect that we’ll take care of them and make sure they’re healthy before they’re put back on the ice.”
Orr wanted it known on the first day of training camp last Friday that he understands the risks he faces, saying in a press conference it was his choice to continue to play.
“There’s always a bit of concern, but it’s my job,” he said. “It’s a choice I’ve made. I love being in the NHL, I love sticking up for my teammates.”
Leafs coach Ron Wilson added that he has to trust Orr’s judgment.
“He says he’s ready to go and he’s fully prepared to live with the circumstances,” Wilson said. “I have a conscience. As a coach I’ve never put people in a position where they could possibly get hurt. That was part of the process [of holding him out]last year.”