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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)


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.

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.”

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