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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 ...

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.

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