If the NHL's opening game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens demonstrated anything, it was that designated enforcers—hockey players of marginal ability who excel only in their ability to fight others of the same description—don't serve a purpose and come with a terrible cost.
A little over 12 minutes into the game, Toronto forward Colton Orr landed a heavy hit on Montreal star Max Pacioretty. It wasn’t a dirty hit—Orr glided in rather than taking a run and the play went unpenalized—but Pacioretty left the game for a time before returning.
More importantly, the idea of Orr injuring Pacioretty is inherently repugnant, not just because injuries are repellent in their own right but also because of the two players involved. Colton Orr has played 422 NHL games and has 24 career points; Pacioretty matched that total in assists alone during a lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Pacioretty is a star, while Orr is only able to hang on to an NHL roster spot because he fights.
The hit was more remarkable because of who Montreal had dressed for the game: George Parros. Like Orr, Parros is a modest scorer—35 points in 452 career games—with more than 1,000 penalty minutes in his NHL career. He was brought in over the summer specifically to play the role of bodyguard for a Montreal team loaded with undersized skill players.
Parros and Orr have a history. They have fought multiple times in the past, and it was a fight with Parros in January 2011 that jeopardized Orr’s career:
Orr missed the last 36 games of the 2010-11 season with a concussion, and after six consecutive years in the majors he spent most of 2011-12 in the minor leagues. He didn’t re-establish himself as an NHL'er until last season.
Despite the history with Parros, Orr didn’t hesitate to hit Pacioretty. Perhaps it was because his NHL career hinges on his ability to be a physical player. Maybe it was because Orr had already faced Parros in a fight since the injury. Either way, the presence of Parros did nothing to deter Orr from playing physically against Montreal’s best players.
Parros, naturally, couldn’t allow the hit on Pacioretty to go unchallenged. So he went after Orr, and after a relatively uneventful fight, Parros took Orr down in a reasonably convincing win:
Orr was undeterred. Early in the third period, he was part of a two-on-one with teammate Carter Ashton, with the latter carrying the puck. Orr went hard to the net. In defense of his goaltender, another Montreal star, P.K. Subban, grabbed Orr from behind and started wrestling him away from the crease. Predictably, Parros skated over to help Subban out. Just as predictably, it ended with Orr and Parros fighting again.
Impossible to foresee was the horrifying result of that bout.
How serious is George Parros' injury? At this point, that's an unknown. Parros was taken directly to the hospital, and the Canadiens confirmed to TSN's John Lu that Parros did suffer a concussion, but the full ramifications will only be revealed in time.
In the aftermath, though, the real question that needs to be asked is whether the benefits of having players like Orr and Parros in the league outweighs the costs.
The typical argument made in favor of pure fighters is that they help protect star players and prevent injuries because they represent such a physical threat—a player going after Pacioretty knows he'll have to face Parros later on.
Games like this highlight the problems with that theory. Few players know the cost of tussling with Parros better than Orr, but at the same time his hopes for continued NHL employment require him to do things like finish checks. So that's what he did. Then, even after taking the worst of a fight with Parros earlier in the game, and with Parros on the ice, Orr again made the choice to put physical play ahead of his own well-being.
Games like this also show the occasionally terrible cost of icing players like Orr and Parros. On the league's opening night, with a wide-open contest between two of the NHL's most high-profile clubs, the focus should have been on the excellent hockey being played. Instead, it's overshadowed by concern for a player facing an extremely serious injury.
Given the questionable benefits and the all too tangible consequences, why does the NHL continue to tolerate players at the end of the roster whose sole purpose is to fight? It doesn't make sense.