Fighting the goon fight

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.

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.

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