Their comments were disturbingly frank and remarkably similar, as if all involved had seen it several times before.
One player after another from the opposing team expressed concern for George Parros, the Montreal Canadiens well-liked, mustachioed enforcer who left Tuesday’s game on a stretcher after he was knocked unconscious in one of the uglier scenes to open any recent NHL season.
After falling awkwardly and hitting the ice face first, he was taken immediately to hospital in an ambulance, his arms restrained from movement by the medical personnel on hand as he left the ice. The Canadiens announced Wednesday morning Parros was released from hospital and is out indefinitely with a concussion.
“Basically he just hit his face on the ice and obviously the ice doesn’t have much give,” Toronto Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said. “Hopefully he’s alright.”
“It just happened fast,” added Leafs heavyweight Colton Orr, the one who had been grappling with Parros, for the second time of the night. “I slipped and he came over top of me. It happened real fast.”
The fight was one of five in what was otherwise a spirited, entertaining affair, as the Canadiens lost their home opener in a wild 4-3 Leafs victory at the Bell Centre.
Two of those bouts were between Parros and Orr, two behemoths of men who are veterans of the designated puncher role, the “toughest job in hockey” that occasionally carries such devastating occupational hazards.
They are also, in many ways, so unnecessary in the game, big men playing bit parts, skating in limited minutes to enforce hockey’s curious “code” and ostensibly protect their teammates by punching one another.
In fact, the danger they present to each other far, far exceeds the tangible value they bring to the sport.
And that’s a real problem.
It has become cliché whenever these types of incidents happen to bring up the “what if” scenario of a death on the ice, something that has never occurred in an NHL game as the result of a fight but which nonetheless shocked the hockey world when it occurred in an Ontario senior league with 21-year-old Don Sanderson nearly five years ago.
What’s remarkable, however, is that such devastating injuries continue to be so quickly glossed over by the combatants in the NHL, mainly because many fighters have been through similar – albeit less devastating – situations and understand the risks they take.
“You wish that you had more protection in situations like that,” explained Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser, who earlier in the game removed his own helmet to fight, despite the fact he spent the summer recovering from a skull fracture caused by a slap shot to the forehead during last year’s playoffs. “But unfortunately that does happen. When you’re fighting guys who are well over 200 pounds and you get caught with one [punch] or one guy slips and falls, I mean, we’re fighting on blades on ice. It’s important to keep your balance… but you’re out there on ice. It’s tough.”
“That risk is kind of the unexpected one,” added Toronto’s Troy Bodie, Parros’s close friend from their days together in enforcer-filled Anaheim. “You expect to get hit in the face with a punch, that’s what you’re out to do, so you prepare for that. You don’t prepare to hit the ice like that.”
It is, in other words, unpredictable. It’s dangerous. And despite protestations to the contrary, it’s become a relatively small sideshow that has been marginalized to the point there is on average less than one fight every two NHL games.
Those throwing punches, meanwhile, play such fringe minutes they often are referred to as grocery sticks – i.e. the warm bodies that serve to only separate other players on the bench.
Despite their infrequency, these small slips and awkward landings remain a significant concern, especially as those swinging away wildly have gotten bigger and bigger over the last decade or so, with Parros and Orr both listed at 6 foot 3 (or taller) and 220 pounds (or heavier).
Many are even bigger than that.
As for the entertainment value of the spectacle, well, the full extent of the damage done to Parros is not yet known, and the 10 minutes or so he remained on the ice were some of worst that can be experienced by anyone at a professional sporting event.
That certainly has to detract from the “take fans out of their seats” factor many refer to whenever the fighting debate comes up.
Part of the reason fighting is down to where it is now, nearly 30 per cent lower than a decade ago, is that the league has attempted to curtail it, make it safer and limit its liability. There have been measures such as the instigator penalty (first introduced 20 years ago) and now a new penalty to players who remove their own helmets, one that fighters have been skirting throughout preseason and, with Fraser’s recent showdown, into the games that count.
Even so, there’s always that possibility that one of these tumbles is going to be worse than it’s ever been in the past, even worse than when Orr was on the wrong end of a fight with Parros back in January of 2011 and missed nearly a year of hockey with a severe concussion.
(Imagine, for example, if Tuesday’s proceedings were reversed and it was Orr on the wrong end of yet another fight gone bad?)
Then – and probably only then – will there be a firmer crackdown on the game’s one-dimensional punchers, either through suspensions for hitting double digits for fighting majors or some other creative measure.
It won’t take fighting out of the game, but it’ll still be long overdue. And it’ll come at the expense of the health of someone like Orr, or Parros, a bright man who graduated from Princeton and is universally lauded as one of the great personalities in the game despite making his living in such a brutal, unforgiving way.
“You know, it is kind of déjà vu,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, who was behind the Anaheim bench when Parros was punching for his side and Orr suffered his devastating head injury. “It was the same type of thing. It wasn’t a punch. The guy fell down and unfortunately hit his chin and stayed on the ice. It’s unfortunate. Those are tough things.
“We know what kind of person George Parros is. He’s spent a number of years defending his teammates. He’s a great person, a great guy to coach, and it’s unfortunate this situation happened.”
And it is. But what’s even more unfortunate is that a sport built on speed and skill and brawn and full of amazing moments allows it to happen again and again to great people like Parros and justifies it as part of the game.
It’s kind of like déjà vu.