Fighting the goon fight

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.

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