George Parros and hockey’s real code of fighting

Maple Leafs right wing Colton Orr fights with Canadiens right wing George Parros during NHL action Tuesday, October 1, 2013 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)
December 6, 2013, 12:00 PM

Our weekly look at the most interesting sports columns on the Internet.

Hockey’s smartest tough guy

Seth Wickersham has a fantastic piece on the fighting philosophy of Habs tough guy George Parros and how frustrated he is to now find himself the poster boy of an anti-fighting crusade he doesn’t support. It’s as impossible to dismiss Parros’s arguments as it is to dislike the guy—a wily fighter, both uncommonly intelligent and funny. Parros doesn’t believe fighting is primarily to blame for concussions, but still, his entire career has revolved around fighting smart enough to avoid that risk. “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,” Wickersham writes.

The story pulls back the curtain on the real code of fighting and those who ply its trade—an unwanted tango agreed to as a favour, screaming matches as fake as a WWE smackdown but important for keeping up appearances, very real punches levelled between good friends who will clink pint glasses in a couple of hours.

If Parros is the symbol of anything, it’s hockey players who are smart enough to make decisions about their own careers and brains. But it’s difficult to ignore the tragic tension between him saying that if tomorrow a study came out showing that fighting gives you sure odds of developing traumatic brain injury, he’d quit, while also admitting, “If I didn’t have to fight, I wouldn’t. If I could score goals for a living, I would. It’s a lot more fun, and I’d make a lot more money.”

Lighten up!

Dan Wetzel appeared to be the only football writer with a sense of humour this week. After the Patriots bounced back to beat the Texans last weekend, defensive lineman Antonio Smith suggested there was something “kind of fishy” about Tom Brady & Co. “Either teams are spying on us or scouting us,” he said. “I don’t know what it is.” He threw this out with arched eyebrows, a gleaming smirk and eyes squinting into the middle distance, like he was reading tea leaves on the locker room ceiling.

The man who’s dubbed himself Tonestradamus—a mystic alter-ego who wears black silk pyjamas, a conical straw hat, a scraggly white beard and paste-on eyebrows the size of bananas—was, as the British say, having a laugh. Wetzel points out the obvious: “Smith knew America couldn’t help itself, and this was sure to become a big headline and discussion point and the charge will stick with some no matter how dumb it is,” he writes. “Tonestradamus is funny. And this was his best joke.”

Except no one picked up on that—or they just ran with the story with huffy Boy Scout earnestness out of boredom. The Boston Globe reported “Smith did not offer specifics in regards to the changes the Texans made defensively.” The Los Angeles Times sneered, “A now 9-3 team led by a pair of future Hall of Famers…somehow found a way to overcome a 10-point deficit to defeat a now 2-10 team. Yeah, Smith may be on to something.” And Sporting News ran Brady and Belichick’s exasperated dismissals straight: “I don’t really think much of it, truthfully,” they quoted Brady saying. “I just kind of have moved on.”

Smith was forced to explain that he was only joking and then apologize, even while pleading with reporters, “Come on, don’t you have a sense of humor?” See, sports media, this is why we can’t have nice things! It would be a lot more fun it if the next time a player said something remotely colourful or off-the-cuff, we played along, grasped the joke or celebrated getting something more interesting than “Just gotta take it one game at a time” instead of clucking like church ladies with notebooks.

Bizzare-o world in New York

A pair of New York Times columns paints a warped portrait of the dysfunction that surrounded the Knicks and Nets heading into their Thursday night showdown. First up is Scott Cacciola on how the Knicks season has gotten so bizarre and futile that no one could quite tell if Metta World Peace was joking when he admitted getting into a pre-game argument with Kenyon Martin over pasta. The players talk openly about coach Mike Woodson’s job insecurity, Cacciola writes, and they don’t even try to cover the frustration and confusion over how brutally their stacked and pricey roster is performing. “A couple of weeks ago, Woodson talked about needing to ‘put the fire out.’ On Tuesday, he said he had to ‘stop the bleeding.’ The Knicks’ season has become a sliding scale of calamities (open wounds are worse than fires, apparently), and few seem to envy Woodson,” he writes, quoting deposed Denver Nuggets coach George Karl saying “I wouldn’t want to be in that hell for a million dollars.”

Harvey Araton traces the root of the problems to the two teams’ matching bookend owners: both filthy rich—Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov moreso than Knicks owner James Dolan—both obnoxious in their own way and determined to win this weird New York rich guy Mean Girls contest. Dolan, famously reticent, refused to talk to Araton, but Prokhorov casts deliciously bitchy side-eye at his cross-borough rival, making cracks about Dolan’s height and who has more money. As entertaining as the battle is, Araton argues it’s torpedoeing both teams. “Have they focused too much on the intracity rivalry at the expense of building a contender?” he writes. “With championship dreams all but gone, perhaps all that is left for the two to squabble over this season are New York bragging rights.”

Keep ignoring college sports, Canada

Cathal Kelly makes a case for the sane blessing of the “meh” attitude most Canadians have toward university sports, when compared to the American obsession. Giant football stadiums crouching over sad little high schools in the U.S. is weird, but he argues at least they create a rallying point for small towns. Not so for college athletics, where the student athlete product that brings in the money “is effectively held in indentured servitude.” An airline booting a planeload of passengers to commandeer the flight for the University of Florida men’s basketball team, as happened last week, isn’t even imaginable in Canada, Kelly says, and that’s something we got right that our neighbours to the south seriously messed up. “Every once in a while, someone with a pulpit becomes publicly wistful that, aside from those touched by the involved schools, no one really cares who wins the Vanier Cup or any other CIS trophy,” he writes. “We should instead be grateful.”

The roaring, mechanical ballet

Joe Posnanski looks at how Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, have built an insane run of NASCAR dominance—six Sprint Cup championships in eight years, one more needed to match Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most all-time—in a sport in which the rules and top brass do everything they can to blow the field wide open each year. The short answer: Johnson is as calm and nice as a day at the beach, Knaus is driven by an obsessive, gnawing inner engine, and when needed, they scrap like the world’s most stable and trusting married couple.

The central conflict in the relationship, Posnanski writes, is that every driver wants a car that’s comfortable and easy to handle, while every crew chief wants the fastest machine possible. It took a milk-and-cookies summit (with Mickey Mouse plates!) arranged by team owner Rick Hendrick when the partnership got off to a rocky start in 2005 for Johnson and Knaus to hash things out and learn to trust each other. “Johnson admits he knows almost nothing about the way the car is set up for any given race (Knaus says you can take ‘almost’ out of the equation; Johnson knows absolutely nothing about the setup),” Posnanski writes. “Meanwhile, Johnson… is constantly telling Knaus how the car FEELS as he drives it. Knaus admits being astonished at Johnson’s feel for a race car; he believes it is utterly unmatched.” And that’s how you choreograph an unstoppable, roaring mechanical ballet.

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