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George Parros named head of Player Safety for the NHL

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Is this putting the fox in charge of the hen house?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Noted NHL enforcer George Parros has been named head of Player Safety for the NHL.

George Parros

Parros, who played in the NHL from 2005 to 2014, hit a top mark of 78 games played in one season with the Ducks. His career NHL points rate is .08 per game.

His fight card at Hockeyfights.com is impressive. Or grotesque, depending on how you look at it.

Parros is not just a man who dealt out blows to the head. He also took some heavily damaging ones, including in the incident pictured above.

Here’s the whole long and fraught scene, if you’ve managed to forget it:

The heart and soul of the NHL is on display in that video. The rivalry between the teams, which is a marketing hook the NHL uses now, sets the stage. The history of the fights in the past, the endless post-whistle scrums around the goalies, all of that is part of the drama. Colton Orr is the man most urgently calling for medical help when it all goes horribly wrong. He stands for a moment watching his own recent experience relived.

Then you have Nazem Kadri, taking the honour guard position filled by the opposing team’s captain or highest ranking player on the ice as Parros is down. You have the ritual stick taps when he is revealed to be at least capable of movement. You see Kadri conversing with an official, and not at all in the way Naz usually does. The barriers are all down, the meaning of the coloured jerseys discarded, and everyone is on the same side.

But which side is that?

It is, and has always been, and will continue to be in some way the side that has ritualized all this dangerous violence in order to package it as entertainment. There’s also a cut to some boys in the stands during the preliminary bout with Carter Ashton. They’re loving it! If you need a reminder that this sells well, there it is.

So what on earth is anyone thinking putting Parros in the position that guards player safety? He was barely a hockey player at all!

Let’s go back in time. In high school, Parros scored at almost a point per game rate. In the NCAA, where fighting is technically banned, he scored at a rate of .47 per game and his penalty minutes barely outstripped his games played.

In the NHL he had 1092 PIM in 474 games played. And it’s then that the word played needs to get some scare quotes when discussing his career, prior to that, he was a winger who was tough, not a fighter who barely touched the puck.

The NHL doesn’t want to change

In 2016, the NHL had to fully release a big cache of emails as part of the lawsuit over concussions.

Colin Campbell, former player who was tough and now NHL Director of Hockey Operations was a quotable man from those emails.

He discussed the concept of the rule banning the removal of helmets during a fight in 2008:

Campbell:

... It is certainly scary ... Stand back a try and knock the guy out so he falls down on something as hard as concrete ... and to think they throw off their helmets lots of times!!!! I guess if I had real balls I would go public and go hard but I won't.

And in 2007, he openly discussed with the man who used to have his job, Brian Burke, that talk of fighting from the NHL was mere PR distraction from their intent to do nothing about it.

Campbell:

Before you call me a "Greenpeace Puke" I only asked the question before the greenpeace pukes accused us of ignoring the question.

Burke:

I never did-said you were in a position of authority and entitled to your opinion. Pointed out neither "stretcher case" was seriously injured-Fridge just fought the wrong guy. Hate to disagree with you publicly-but we have made this too public a part of our approach. So I have to, reluctantly.

Campbell:

I love a good fight ... If anything this debate "cleanses" our game and provides us with the defense that we did "ask the question". Let the players defend it. They won't take a stand otherwise. We need their support here. Say what you have to have no problem with that. You always will say these things respectfully. Just tell Thornton and Parros not to come and burn my farm down in the summer.

And many years later in 2013, Campbell, camped comfortably in his job as if it’s a hereditary title, said this about an NHL trainer who was fed up with the whole damn lot of them — officials, league and players association:

Since the Ottawa trainer indicted a lot of the other medical trainers I would like to see a show of hands (please write down the names) ... all those trainers who think the atrocious officiating is a major contributing factor to concussed players. Please tell them I want to know and if they don't like it then keep their stupid opinions out of mass distributed email.

The concussion lawsuit continues to churn on, and over the course of the last few years as rules to curtail fighting have been introduced in the OHL and the AHL, Player Safety has passed from Brendan Shanahan’s hands to Stephane Quintal, and now to the unlikely care of the man who was stretchered off the ice one October day.

Is Parros the man for the job?

Parros, as everyone is quick to mention, played his NCAA hockey at Princeton for four years. He’s the standard American tough-guy player. Not good enough not to have finished college.

He’s not what he seems in a lot of ways. Enforcer was a role he played in exchange for an NHL salary. He was the star of the ritual, one that has faded away over time. Parros himself has lived through that fading away of the enforcer show, and so he understands that the NHL can change. I’m sure he’s very aware of exactly who doesn’t have the balls to hurry that change along.

Rather than the fox in charge of the hen house, Parros is the ultimate insider, so versed in NHL culture he could likely teach a college course in it. He knows everything about the culture that leads to players trying to trade their safety and that of others for NHL money and fame, for just another season, for the attention of the coach, for another contract.

He has the respect of the officials as well. Part of the NHL culture that is very odd to look at from the outside is the way the referees treat the ultimate lunch-box players as honoured favourites. And considering the current state of affairs between the NHL and the officials union in the wake of the Wideman affair and the ongoing lawsuit, a guy who can stay friendly with all parties involved might be exactly who they will ultimately listen too when their heels are dug in hard.

The NHL emails showed a less than cordial relationship between Shanahan and Campbell as well as others at the league. Both he and Quintal are NHL insiders to be sure, smart guys who could take off the jersey and put on a suit. But it might also be true that both of them wore the suit a little too well. They were both tough enough, but they were always hockey players who spent a lot of time scoring and skating. Too much skill there to be really trusted or respected by a guy like Campbell.

Shanahan’s regime covered a period of massive changes in the NHL in attitude, if not in actual results, and his drive for rapid change didn’t make him popular. Quintal has presided over an era of dwindling suspensions, and he may even be guilty of letting the league backslide into some old attitudes. Bringing in Parros might look like more of the same is inevitable, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

In a post-retirement interview, he gives his feelings on fighting and the state of the NHL:

George Parros: In general, I think the league wants to get away from staged fights, even though that's kind of a bad description for them. We're kind of phased out. I think there is a certain group of fans that are bummed by that. The game is in a really good state right now. It's high scoring, fast paced. But I don't think fighting's going to go anywhere.

There's going to be a point where there are too few guys who will do anything about keeping people in check on the ice. When you have too few guys around like me, or the way I used to be, you're going to have guys that run around fearless and throwing some really aggressive checks to the head, back -- dangerous types of hits. That's where you're going to see more injuries because they're skating around unchecked. That's something that everyone needs to keep an eye on.

Roll your eyes at his ideas about the deterrence value of fighting, but he is zeroing in on the part of the game that Player Safety has not found a way to do anything significant about: dangerous hits to the head. If he genuinely wants to focus on that, while making Campbell and Bettman happy (for very different reasons likely) by ignoring the fights that still exist in the NHL, that’s a genuine step forward.

Campbell’s PR tactic of steering the talk to the issue of fighting worked. And it worked largely because the more difficult issue of boarding, blindside hits and checking to the head is a lot less easy to turn into a hashtag. If NHL insiders are now genuinely ready to tackle the tough issues head on, then that is good.

We shall see what Parros accomplishes. But we might have someone who is enough of an insider to really bring about change in the league from within.

Have we found the man with real balls at last? I sure hope so.