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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 ...

“He tapped me on the shin pads and asked me if I wanted to fight,” David says. Staged fights always begin with this sort of gentlemanly invitation.

“I said no,” David remembers. The puck hadn’t dropped yet. But something changed in the next split-second of meditation. “I sat there and I thought about it. I went over and confronted him and we ended up by squaring off.”

What does a rookie contemplate in that crucial moment of analysis? “Just emotions, and we were on a couple-of-games losing streak and I thought it would be a good time to do it – get the first NHL fight out of the way.”

It’s the simple hockey logic that might have made sense in the moment, when a young player has to answer an unexpected question that could determine the rest of his career.

But it didn’t wash with Darian. “Oh my God, do I have to teach that kid everything?” he asked his mother. The feeling among his family and friends is that David didn’t recognize McLaren or his reputation, though he maintains he knew he was up against a tough guy – because who else taps you politely on the pads to arrange a pugilistic play date?

“David obviously didn’t understand that he didn’t have to accept a fight against a tough guy like that,” Murray says. “Maybe we didn’t sit him down ahead of time and talk and tell him you don’t have to do that.”

In large parts of their narrow world, hockey players grow up at a very young age – leaving home in their teens, putting their bodies at risk, testing their self-confidence before thousands of screaming people. By the time they reach the NHL in their late teens or early 20s, players are treated as adults capable of making their own decisions. But there’s also a great deal of personal development that these young and often poorly educated athletes have missed out on in their single-minded pursuit of a dream, and a job.

The Dziurzynski fight has caused Bryan Murray to rethink the traditional hands-off approach. “I think when we bring young guys up, the guys who are players and have certain roles on the team should be told clearly that you don’t have to prove anything to us by taking on a heavyweight. Job descriptions have to be defined more clearly. We think Dave’s going to end up being a really good solid role player in the league, so this is a way for him to have a job description that fits his ability level.”

When he was a coach, Murray used to tell players publicly that he’d fine them $500 if they took on another team’s tough guy. “What you’re really doing is letting a player off the hook in front of his teammates, so he doesn’t feel obligated to fight a guy. And David, maybe he needs that clearly defined for him.”

‘He’ll stick up for his teammates’

Growing up in Big River, Sask., the Dziurzynski brothers were renowned for their fearlessness. “They were riding dirt bikes by the time they were 7 and 9,” Janet remembers, “and they just weren’t scared.”

Her father ran a logging business where her husband found work, spending a week of 15-hour days in the bush away from his growing family. They’d had two daughters as teenagers before marrying after Janet finished high school – Chelaine, now 27, and Rachelle, 25, whom Darian and David liked to call “the bastards” once they’d figured out the wedding-anniversary math.

Jovial derision is a way of life in the hypercompetitive Dziurzynski household. When David decided to get glasses recently, he pretty well knew that the opening line from his brother would be, “You’re wearing glasses, you’ve got no teeth, you’re a mess at 23.”

When David was in Grade 4, Lauren grew tired of being an absent father and decided to relocate to a place where his children would have more opportunities. He settled on the burgeoning town of Lloydminster, three hours away, and found a job the first day. Within a few weeks, they’d sold the house in Big River and started a new life in Lloyd.

“That’s where the boys get the side of them that’s not scared to try something new,” Janet says. “But I thought he was totally crazy.”

At first, the children missed the easy freedom of Big River – “Everyone knows everyone,” David says. But hockey proved to be a great connector for the boys, who rapidly got recruited as hired guns by travelling teams.

“People would call and say, ‘Can your boys come and play in this tournament and we’ll pay your hotel room and your expenses?’” Janet remembers. “So my kids wouldn’t know anyone, and they’d go walking into a dressing room of Team so-and-so, and where most nine-year-old kids would say, ‘You have to come with me, Dad and Mom,’ they’d say, ‘No, don’t come in.’”

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