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My comfort with fighting shattered by bloody preseason bout

Ever been in a situation where what you've believed for so long is suddenly compromised? Well, that's the experience I had this weekend.

Saturday night, I chaperoned a team of 11-year-olds in Nashville as the Predators took on the Columbus Blue Jackets. We were the guests of forward J.P. Dumont, who had primary assists on the Predators' tying goal and the game-winner by Shea Weber. The kids got to cheer wildly for the local team and their gracious host. Perfect.

The kids had a great time together watching NHL hockey, wolfing food and mugging for arena cameras in hopes of appearing on the scoreboard. (Unofficially, there were four such shots garnered by them for jumping/dancing/waving excitedly). Weber's last-minute blast provided the dreamy, dramatic outcome. (Okay, it was just a preseason game, but still...) It couldn't have gone any better . . . except for that nasty, scary moment in the last minute of the first period when Jordin Tootoo felled the Jackets' young hopeful, Tom Sestito.

Sestito is a 21-year-old tough who stands at 6-feet 4-inches and weighs in at 209 pounds. The Utica, NY native was a third-round pick by Columbus in 2007 largely based on his size and willingness to drop his gloves. Sestito amassed 399 penalty minutes in his three seasons of junior hockey with the Plymouth Whalers. He followed that with 370 PIMs for the Jackets' AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, over the past two seasons. His one and only NHL game thus far featured a fight with D.J. King of the St. Louis Blues, and 17 minutes in penalties in just 4:36 of total time on ice.

On Saturday night, Sestito challenged a proven pugilist in Tootoo -- a very common occurrence in preseason games as it is a way for a young player to show his coach that he's ready to fulfill a role on the team. Tootoo obliged, which is also common practice for players of his ilk. It's an unspoken bond of mutual respect. How else is a kid like Sestito gong to show his mettle if vets decline the willing challenge?

Not surprisingly, the fans rose and cheered as the two exchanged punches. Sestito had an early advantage, raining blows on the smaller Tootoo. But, as so often happens, the veteran weathered the onslaught and started to pummel the wearied youngster, whose helmet came off.

Then it happened.

Tootoo landed the knockout punch, maybe another as well. The pair fell. Sestito's unprotected head hit the ice. A pool of blood began to immediately spread. At that point, the cheering turned to uneasiness. Fans wanted to acknowledge the KO by their hometown tough guy, but the sense that his fallen foe was in serious distress overwhelmed the impulse. At ice level, trainers from both teams rushed to Sestito's side and EMTs hurried the stretcher out as well. After a lengthy span of waiting and hoping, Sestito came-to, and three players helped their visibly shaken and wobbly teammate to the locker room.

It was a scary scene that happened so quickly. The entire episode played out like so many before it that I never anticipated its effect as the kids peppered me with questions:

Is he going to be OK?

"I hope so."

What happened?

"It looked like he was knocked out before his head hit the ice, that's why he didn't protect himself as he fell."

Tootoo will be kicked out of the game, right?

"I don't think so. He didn't do anything wrong. He'll get five minutes for fighting, that's it"

And there it was: He didn't do anything wrong. My honest answer to an 11-year-old hockey player who was trying to process what he'd just seen and reconcile it with my explanation. Mine is a lifetime of growing up with the incongruity of the beauty and brutality that the game harbors while coming to understand that hockey is at once dazzling and dangerous because of its skill, speed and physical nature.

Fighting? I've never had a problem with it. I like it, actually. It's always been there and I've always felt that the NHL should quit apologizing to outside entities for the vagaries of pugilism. Embrace it as part of what makes the game great. It's who we are -- warts and all -- critics be damned! But I've never had to try to explain the need/role/importance of fighting in the game of hockey to a group of eager 11-year-old hockey players while an NHL player lay motionless on the ice -- not as the result of a check, move, or play.

For that team of first-year peewees, the impression will register longer than my lame explanation. They could embrace fighting and see it as part of the game, as I have since my formative years. It could spur them to realize how tough you have to be physically and mentally to compete effectively.

The memory could also just scare them, like it did me. Hopefully not. The game has too much to offer. I can, however grudgingly, see why some folks have a hard time accepting the purpose of the pugilism. I sure won't be as dismissive of their viewpoint, especially when you consider my activity last Friday.

I was a co-presenter at a USA Hockey Coaching Certification program in Atlanta. The Thrashers' Hockey Development Team organizes and runs the certification events in the southeast region, getting the volunteer coaches into the system and providing materials and support as they head out onto the ice to help the young players in their charge. In that setting, I was fervently espousing the importance of skill development at all levels of youth hockey.

I left that event with a sense of all that is good in our game, fueled by the passion and volunteerism of the attendees. The next night, an ugly incident had me conflicted. And on Sunday, I ran into Stu Grimson at a local youth hockey rink. Was this some kind of sign, as I wrestled with Tootoo--Sestito set-to?

Grimson was a notorious fighter during his NHL career, and he went by the great moniker "the Grim Reaper." He was there coaching a youth team and totally at ease with his post-playing life as an attorney. If ever an NHL player had put many and often ugly past bouts behind him and moved on, it was Grimson.

There's a lesson and a message in there somewhere, but I'm still trying to figure out how to express it to kids.

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