No one learns these nuances early in their hockey careers because almost no one grows up aspiring to be an enforcer. "None of us dreamed when we were little boys of fighting at center ice in Maple Leaf Gardens," says Kelly Chase, a former Blues tough guy. "You grow up dreaming of scoring a goal in the Stanley Cup finals." The higher up the pyramid players get, the more they realize that everybody had been the best player in their town. "And so the question becomes, What are you willing to do?" says Jim McKenzie, an erstwhile enforcer who retired seven years ago. "Are you willing to kill penalties? Block shots? Are you willing to play on a checking line? Are you willing to be a tough guy?"
Are you willing to fight? Rare is the young man unwilling to make that Faustian bargain, if gooning it up means the difference between making an NHL roster and going back to the family farm or, in McKenzie's case, enrolling in basic training to become a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as his father had before him.
Instead, they steep themselves in this unnatural, deceptively difficult craft of brawling on ice. "The most important thing you can learn," says Kings tough guy Kevin Westgarth, "is that it doesn't hurt to get hit. At least during the fight it doesn't hurt."
Westgarth is both friend and frequent fighting partner of Parros. Both are products of Princeton. (Between those two and the Canucks' Aaron Volpatti, a Brown alum who had one of the most impressive knockouts of the preseason—read on—the Ivy League is suddenly looking like the Gleason's Gym of NHL tough guys.)
Midway through Parros's fight with the Rangers' Mike Rupp on Oct. 8, Rupp fell to his knees. Parros stopped punching long enough for his foe to regain his feet, then won a lopsided decision with a flurry of rights to the body. "I know him to be an honest player," says Parros, explaining why he let Rupp up. "He's a stand-up guy, so he's gonna get a stand-up fight. If somebody else was running around, causing trouble, then maybe I wouldn't have been so nice."
Shawn Thornton sounds like an A-list actor who did a few blue films in his younger days just to pay the rent. "I had to do it earlier in my career, to get me where I am," says the Bruins' fourth-line winger and most frequent fighter. "But I was never O.K. with it." Now a nine-year NHL vet whose line provided Boston with a crucial jolt in last season's Stanley Cup finals, Thornton is understandably proud of his ability to rise above the role of pure enforcer.
"I have a tough time just sitting on the bench," he says. "I tried to work my ass off to make myself a better player, so I could contribute in other ways."
Whereas Parros averaged 6:25 minutes per game last season, Thornton logged 10:05. He epitomizes the NHL's modern enforcer: a hard-nosed, well-rounded player who, when the need arises, can punch a bully's lights out. "I take it personally when people take liberties with my teammates," he says, "but going into games, I'm not one of those guys Youtubing the other team's enforcer to see how he fights. When our line is out there, I'm thinking about us trying to score a goal, putting pressure on the other team."
Thornton hails from the blue-collar city of Oshawa, Ont. He'd put in nine years in the minors when, in 2006, he told his wife he wanted to give it one more year. After signing with Anaheim, he was sent down at the end of training camp but called back a month later. Ducks tough guy Todd Fedoruk had squared off with Boogaard, who caved in the right side of his face.
"It's kind of unfortunate," says Thornton, "but that's how I got my foot in the door." He won a Cup with the Ducks that season, then signed with the Bruins, where his toughness, intensity and fighting prowess quickly made him a fan favorite. After making Thornton a healthy scratch in the first two games of last spring's Cup finals—both losses in Vancouver—Boston coach Claude Julien turned the 6'2", 217-pound dynamo loose for Game 3. In his first shift Thornton delighted the crowd and awakened his teammates when he freight-trained Alex Burrows, loathed by Bruins fans for his unpenalized biting of Patrice Bergeron in Game 1. Thornton brought that spark to every shift for the rest of the series, which Boston won in seven games.