Fighting the goon fight

  • Seth Wickersham [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN The Magazine | December 4, 2013

The ceiling. He remembers staring at the ceiling. That's about it. Wait -- he also remembers how it all started. Opening night, Oct. 1. Toronto at Montreal. It's his first game as a Canadien, and already once he has done what the team traded for him this summer to do: fight. He is a tough guy, George Parros, and in the third period he realizes that he must fight again. In front of the net, Colton Orr, the Maple Leafs enforcer and Parros' earlier foe, takes a few whacks at P.K. Subban, the Canadiens' All-Star defenseman. Parros can't allow that to happen, so he skates to Subban's defense, and the gloves drop.

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Almost immediately, Parros grabs the front of Orr's jersey and pulls hard, forcing Orr to bend at the waist. It's one of Parros' signature moves, a way to quickly neuter his opponent. He has a lot of tricks like that. At age 33, Parros is an elder statesman among tough guys, respected for many reasons: for his Princeton degree; for his significant hand in negotiating with the owners during last season's lockout; for the Stanley Cup he won with the Ducks in 2007. But Parros is admired most because in his nine-year career, he has been able to execute the most savage act in major North American sports -- hockey is the only game in which bare-knuckle fighting is permissible -- with a wisdom that to this point has spared him from a major head injury.

In the middle of a precarious time in violent sports, when players and parents and fans are re-evaluating everything, Parros seems to have it figured out. His face tells a story of punches avoided rather than punches absorbed. His eye sockets aren't pregnant with scar tissue. His teeth are his own, perfectly lined. His nose is narrow and sloped and doesn't even have the trademark flattened bump on the bridge. He entered opening night with 160 career NHL fights -- and not a single NHL concussion.

Parros lands a right to Orr's head. Then he rears back for the decisive blow, an uppercut. It is a favorite punch, and if he lands it squarely on his opponent's nose, it produces an effect akin to a perfect golf swing, with power that seems to be effortless and painless. "It's like butter," he likes to say.

But as Parros swings, Orr throws a wild punch. Then something unforeseen happens. Parros misses. Orr misses. The combined momentum sends both of them hurtling down in a sort of heavyweight death spiral. Parros' legs are in the air, above his head. Moments like this usually slow for him. All of the stories about concussions and CTE and painkiller addictions -- images of retired goons all but drooling on themselves -- flash in his mind. So he usually tries to twist to land on his shoulder and avoid, as he says, "risking the brain cells."

But this time, Parros is locked in a weird centripetal acceleration, too fast to adjust, and he lands squarely on his chin. The crowd roars, then quiets. Parros is crumpled like laundry, motionless. His eyes are closed. Blood begins to emanate from his face, like oil from a leaky engine. Orr stands up and motions for medical personnel. Teammates surround Parros in a mass of concerned solidarity.

Moments pass. With assistance, Parros stumbles to his knees. But his eyes are still closed, and his head wobbles, then he slips back toward the ice, like a drunk on a barroom floor. Medical personnel roll him onto his back, and it's then that he opens his eyes and comes to and sees the ceiling of the Bell Centre, its banners and steel grids and lights.

Parros feels a dull panic. He knows something happened, but he's not sure what. He is carried away on a stretcher and catches sight of his worried wife, Tiffany, as medical staff load him into an ambulance. He feels the panic again. In this moment, he is not worried that he has suffered a serious head injury. He is not worried about the blood on his face. He is not worrying about when he might play again. He is worried that Orr knocked him out, a tough guy's greatest indignity. Tiffany grew up in a hockey family -- they met when her brother, Josh, played in juniors with Parros -- and she seems to know what's on her husband's mind. So she reassures him. "You didn't get knocked out!" she says.

As the ambulance moves, Parros is relieved.


When Parros is released from the hospital a day later with a concussion, he returns to his home in Montreal and realizes that he has unwittingly become something that he has spent his whole career striving not to be: the poster boy for the anti-fighting lobby. Almost as soon as Parros' jaw hits the ice, hockey icons Steve Yzerman, Scotty Bowman and Ken Dryden call for a ban on fighting. During a Mayo Clinic hockey concussions summit in mid-October, researchers use the stark image of Parros lying in blood as their most recent evidence of the dire health risks. Suddenly, debate rages on airwaves and online, and to many Parros is no longer just a hockey player. He is a CTE case waiting to happen, an Ivy Leaguer who needs to be saved from himself.

Parros feels pissed off and powerless. He is not in denial about head injuries, but he has seen them as a potential cost of his job that he's been smart enough to avoid. That has brought him a strange peace. But now he has headaches and pressure in his skull, as if his brain is swelling, which it is. He has toddler twins, Lola and Jagger, who don't know and don't care and want to play with their daddy, now and forever. Parros often thinks about 2011, when he read the reports that surfaced after Boston University scientists studied Derek Boogaard's brain and found CTE, the tire tracks of perhaps 20 concussions. Like Parros, Boogaard was a tough guy. He was also a friend. After suffering from depression, dementia and memory loss, Boogaard overdosed at 28. "It was scary," Parros says.

Parros knows he could easily call it a career. He's made almost $1 million annually for the past few years and is financially comfortable. He could work in the front office of an NHL team or retire to his Hermosa Beach, Calif., home. Texts and voice mails pile up on his phone, including one from Orr, who says, "I hope you're doing okay." But all Parros keeps coming back to is how this fight was a freak thing. He wasn't knocked out by a punch. No matter. He has tests to take, symptoms to document, and for a witty guy with an endearing ability to find the irony in most situations, he tries not to dwell too much on this surreal one: The enforcer who turned fighting safer into an art form is now the symbol of why fighting should be abolished.

Just a few months before the season began, in July, the specter of a concussion still seemed to Parros as it always did: an existential threat. As the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, he is downing beers at a Hermosa Beach bar with Tiffany and his buddy Matt Greene of the Kings. Parros is happy. Days earlier, the Canadiens traded for him because they needed muscle, and that gives him a sense of triumph. For several years, he's been conditioned to believe that his livelihood was dying. Now he leans over a pint feeling as if he's beaten the system. "All of a sudden teams are gearing up with their warheads," he says.

When Parros entered the league in 2005, every team had an enforcer. He fit right in, fighting 140 times in his first six years, brawling the Ducks to a Cup. But then the NHL, under pressure from anti-fighting groups, slowly transitioned to a less brazen, more family-friendly form of violence. Teams opted for smaller scrappers -- "rats," as Parros calls them -- not only because they could score goals but also because they could lure old-school enforcers, desperate to earn their keep, into fights and draw five-minute major penalties. Rule changes such as a two-minute penalty for simply removing your helmet before a fight were enacted to deter -- or appear to deter -- the heavyweight goon. As Parros says, "I don't think the NHL wants fighting gone. But I think it's very concerned about how people perceive fighting, and it has to cover its ass."

All of this seemed to further empower those who want fighting gone. The research about repeated blows to the head in hockey is much like it is for football: that they can cause serious, lasting harm. But what's unknown -- what Parros and other tough guys often bring up -- is whether it's fighting, specifically, that leads to brain damage. "If a study came out tomorrow that said that fighting gives you a 100 percent chance of CTE, I'd probably stop," Parros says. "But it's probably not the fighting. It's the other hits. Most fights end in a draw, without serious injury."

So in a sense it's not shocking that fighting was up in the NHL last season after dropping for three straight years. The Bruins advanced to the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals with a big, physical team that fought a lot. The Canadiens were just one of many teams that acquired a heavyweight over the summer.

Before the season, Parros' main concern wasn't his head but his surgically repaired right rotator cuff. It was torn in a fight, of course -- a skirmish in March that bore an eerie resemblance to the later one in October. Parros was tangled with Islanders left winger Eric Boulton, and they slipped. Parros' legs shot into the air, above his head. Falling face-first, Parros braced himself with his right arm. Boulton crashed onto him. In the penalty box, Boulton yelled to Parros, "You land on that funny?"

With many fighters, Parros wouldn't disclose an injury, knowing that they would use it against him. But Boulton, Parros says, "is a stand-up guy." So Parros replied, "Yeah, it's f---ed up."

It was a quintessential Parros fight. Once again, he had avoided an injury that could cost him later in life. Brain injuries scare him only enough to reinforce a goal that seems impossible: to fight in a way that allows him to live well when his fighting days are done.

He has his own tough-guy methodology, a science of its own, and as he explains it over beers, it's sensible enough to almost make you believe it will work. Parros fights primarily to protect teammates. He fights to pump up his team and to calm it down. Parros usually fights on his first shift if he's outsized -- if, for instance, he's facing Buffalo's John Scott, a 6'8" missile. Parros fights after he misses a goal, as penance, and after he scores, striving for the Gordie Howe hat trick -- a goal, an assist and a fight. And Parros sometimes fights as a favor to other fighters. As Scott says, "In one of my first fights, my team was down three goals in the third. I said to George, 'You wanna go?' George said, 'Not really. But you'll owe me one.' Now anytime he wants to fight me, I will."

But the reasons Parros doesn't fight are more essential to his long-term health. For one, he doesn't fight if he's angry; that would lead him to take wild swings and leave his body exposed. For another, he doesn't fight because he needs to, as if satisfying a barbaric urge. "If I didn't have to fight, I wouldn't," he says. "If I could score goals for a living, I would. It's a lot more fun, and I'd make a lot more money."

Strangest of all, he doesn't fight to win. He wants to win. He definitely does not want to be knocked out. But he won't fight until the bloody end. Former NHL enforcer Ryan Flinn, Parros' mentor, once told him, "As long as you show up and do your job, it's good enough."

Parros has always showed up. He grew up in Morristown, N.J., wanting to be a physical scorer like Eric Lindros. But his size -- he's now 6'5", 224 pounds -- made him a target in juniors, where fighting is allowed, so he saw that he needed to learn how to scrap. Problem was, he had never been in so much as a playground scuffle. So he practiced basic moves -- grabbing the collar, jabbing the chin -- with Jeff, his younger brother. In juniors, Parros suffered his only other concussion. It was in 1999, and it wasn't in a fight. His head hit the crossbar. "Back then," he says, "concussions didn't really matter." There was no protocol. Nobody worried that he puked and suffered splitting headaches and felt nauseated. And nobody worried that he returned to the ice too fast.

That year, Parros left juniors for Princeton and the fighting-free college game. He graduated in 2003 with an economics degree, and the Kings, who had drafted him in 1999, assigned him to the AHL. Overmatched from a skills standpoint, Parros realized that his only hope of playing in the NHL was to fight. So he watched fights on film and took boxing lessons but realized that what worked in gym shoes -- a simple head fake, for example -- caused him to lose balance on skates. He had to learn his craft the scary way: by fighting. "You're bare-knuckled fighting, and it's nerve-racking," he says. That fear led him to develop his rules, a stab at wisdom in mayhem. Those rules became prescient as the dangers of fighting settled into public consciousness, and Parros made a name for himself as not only the smartest enforcer but also a lovable one, with long black hair and a Kourosh Yaghmaei mustache that he shaves each November to raise money to kill cancer.

He embraces the cartoonish aspect of his job. A few years ago, Greene, one of his best friends, checked one of Parros' teammates too hard. Parros got in Greene's face. "We're having a talk right now!" he said. "You know that we're having a talk right now!"

"Oh, we're having a talk?" Greene said.

"Yeah, you better make it look like we're having a talk!" Parros said as the crowd stirred. "'Cause we're having a talk! And I'm gonna slash ya!"

So Parros slashed Greene. Gloves dropped. Parros decked Greene in front of the bench. That night, they downed beers as disbelieving fans looked on. "They think it's fake," Greene says. "'Oh, you're probably pulling punches.' No. We're trying to knock each other out."

Of course, Parros has knocked guys out. He has likely inflicted pain that his opponents will contend with later in life. "The fights where I have hurt someone, I feel really bad about it," he says. Yet he strongly believes that fighting has a rightful place in hockey and is "a means to an end" that he'll likely keep doing as long as he can. "I've never been one to say either he's going down or I am," Parros says over his pint. "That's not my style. I want to keep fighting, and it doesn't do anyone any good if I'm knocked out and gone with a concussion for three months."

But then something unforeseen happened: He was knocked out.

On a late October morning, Parros is at Madison Square Garden for the Canadiens' skate-around. This is his first road trip since his concussion 28 days ago. Every Canadiens player wears a red practice jersey -- except him. His sweater is blue. That means he's not to be touched, and he's scratched for tonight. Parros participates in a few drills but mostly watches from the boards. He stays on the ice after the team leaves, working on his shot. Though he's scored only 18 career goals, he's proud of his shot; he says he won the Ducks' accuracy competition back in the day. Then he skates to an assistant coach, stops hard and drops his gloves … to help pick up the pucks off the ice.

After practice, Parros sits on the bench and tries to make sense of the past month. Unlike his first concussion, "there was a lot more song and dance involved" with this one, he says. Every twinge of pain, every abnormal sensation was documented. Curiously, the symptoms were less painful. He didn't puke. He didn't lose balance. He had pounding headaches rather than debilitating ones. And, as Parros says with a laugh, "I couldn't tell if the headache was from the concussion or from being around the kids."

After a week, the headaches stopped. He was allowed to exercise lightly, then to skate. If the symptoms had returned, he would have had to go back a step. They never did.

Of course, the biggest difference is that after his first concussion, nobody used it as a rationale for changing hockey. That he has become the face for a movement he disagrees with seems to frustrate him more than the concussion itself. He has no intention of changing how he plays. But he also knows that he's more likely to suffer another concussion now that he's had one. He knows that later in life he might be addled, with an invisible disease in his brain. But he's wired to fight, and if he stops, he would lose his job. "It's a choice I make," he says.

A neuroscientist might see that as denial. But Parros is tired of defending himself and his trade, tired of reminding people he wasn't knocked out by a punch. "I'll have that fight a thousand times and not have that happen," he says. But no matter how smart of a fighter he is, it's still a fight, still beyond anyone's control, still the target of the Mayo Clinic and Boston University, still an issue that Gary Bettman will probably decide on long after Parros is retired, living with the choices he makes today.


Parros returns to the lineup in early November. Five minutes into his second game, against the Avalanche, there's a collision along the boards. A few elbows are thrown. Parros sees this from across the ice and knows he's being called to duty. He drops his gloves and cruises toward Patrick Bordeleau, Colorado's goon. Fists are raised. Parros tries to grab Bordeleau's jersey, his old trick. But he's rusty. Instead, Bordeleau grabs Parros' sweater, turning the tables on him, and whacks the back of his head, then the side, then his cheek. Reeling, Parros tries to return fire, without luck. They spin in circles, a blur of punches landed and missed.

The crowd gets rowdy. It's a long fight, over 20 seconds, and Bordeleau seems to want it over. He tackles Parros around the neck and throws him toward the ice. Parros is hurtling face-first, the one-in-a-thousand long shot again. His legs are in the air, above his head. Parros manages to twist himself and land on his shoulder. He flops on the ice but rises quickly to his feet, a subtle act of defiance and resilience. He fist-bumps a teammate and settles into the penalty box, still a symbol, he insists, of nothing.

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