Night after night, Brandon Prust of the Montreal Canadiens shows he won’t resist a challenge.
Photograph by: John Kenney, The Gazette
MONTREAL — No doubt this defies convention in a politically correct age, but since it’s a part of his game and a sizable part of his long-honed reputation, earning him respect both from teammates and the opposition, and since he’s not remotely a one-dimensional player, here goes:
Canadiens wrecking ball Brandon Prust is on the cusp of a milestone, one fight shy of his 100th in the National Hockey League.
I mention this to Prust — he was unaware of this history on his horizon — and I ask him whether he has any preference for an opponent for his 100th bout.
“Interesting … this may have to be strategically planned out!” he jokes in reply.
Based on entirely unscientific voting at hockeyfights.com, where fans view hundreds of videos and cast ballots, Prust’s won-lost-draw record stands at a robust 46-34-19. Told this Wednesday, Prust reacted like any fighter: “Thirty-four losses? No way. That’s B.S.”
His longest winning streak: six with the New York Rangers, to open the 2010-11 season. Longest skid: three, last season with the Habs.
(Prust’s 99 NHL fights trail by 36 the total of teammate George Parros, though Prust holds 112 games in hand.)
In fact, Prust’s next fight will be his 260th in hockey since he was an 18-year-old walk-on with the Ontario major-junior league’s London Knights in 2002-03.
His fight card, as it stands heading into Thursday’s game vs. the Flyers in Philadelphia: 98 in the NHL’s regular season, with one in the playoffs and 13 more in the preseason; 74 in the American Hockey League; 72 in the OHL; and one in major-junior’s Memorial Cup.
Put another way, Prust has served 1,295 of his 2,291 career penalty minutes — 56 per cent — for dropping his gloves in these three levels of hockey. That’s the equivalent of slightly more than 21½ games feeling shame before he gets free.
Prust fought 32 times for the Calgary Flames, with whom he broke into the NHL in 2006-07, then returned after a brief stint in Phoenix. With the Coyotes, five. With the New York Rangers, to whom he was dealt by Calgary in 2009-10, 46 times.
And with the Canadiens, arriving here in the summer of 2012 as a free agent, 16 times, including a team-leading six this season.
Prust’s last two scraps have been cardiovascular showcases, lengthy, lung-searing battles with first New Jersey’s Cam Janssen — with whom Prust has fought five times total, more than anyone else — and then Boston’s Shawn Thornton.
“Yeah, those boys like to go for awhile,” he said, his tremendous right uppercut on Janssen’s jaw proving to be hugely popular on the Internet.
Only twice in 99 fights has the 29-year-old dropped his mitts against the Canadiens:
On Oct. 6, 2009 in Calgary, Prust and Montreal’s Gregory Stewart had a go in one of Prust’s career-high 25 fights that season.
And on March 18, 2011, Prust and the Canadiens’ Travis Moen — a Prust linemate some nights now — made good on their “Ya wanna go?” banter that delayed the game’s opening faceoff, ultimately squaring off one full second into the game at Madison Square Garden.
“That was a battle!” Prust said of the exhausting tilt with Moen.
If nearing the century mark in fights is a milestone for Prust, so too was Tuesday’s Bell Centre game against the Los Angeles Kings. It was his 338th regular-season NHL game in a career that has flourished far more because of his heart and guts and the skill of doctors and athletic therapists who reassemble him than the rugged winger’s God-given hockey gifts.
Night after night, Prust shows he won’t resist a challenge no matter the bulk or brawn of his opponent, often fighting much heavier, longer-armed bombers against seemingly ridiculous odds and certainly against better judgment.
“I’ll engage anybody if I feel our team needs a spark or that (an opponent) is running around,” Prust told me when we sat over lunch in September 2012, two months after he’d signed his four-year, $10-million Canadiens contract.
“I’ve fought some big boys and I’ll never back down. … If there’s a need to, I’m going to do it.”
When the time comes to name the Canadiens’ next captain, Brian Gionta having been an exemplary leader the past three-plus seasons and his status here uncertain upon his contract’s expiration on July 1, I’d not be disappointed if a flipped coin landed to show either the face of Prust or defenceman Josh Gorges.
Banging and crashing, Prust gives the Canadiens industrial-strength work, often on the so called “energy” fourth line, though he does move up; his three goals this season show he can chip in offensively.
His leadership is extraordinary, given the walls he will skate through and the opponents he will tackle to defend a teammate or to wake up his bench.
“It’s just pain,” he famously said with a shrug three seasons ago, then a member of the New York Rangers, having skated with a rotten shoulder, banged-up hand and a foot that had ballooned from a puck to the skate.
Then seven months ago, during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final against the Ottawa Senators, Prust plowed into the corner boards, harpooning himself with his stick. He ignored the pain, playing with a damaged rib that ultimately would separate from the cartilage that holds it in place at the chest.
It was then he finally limped into the corridor behind the Canadiens bench and pressed his rib back into place by himself.
“I couldn’t move in the hallway,” he later said. “I couldn’t move, I couldn’t walk. I didn’t know my rib was out of place even though it was still popped out.
“I was in all this pain. I didn’t know what to do or what was wrong. A few minutes later I’m still in excruciating pain, so I kinda just pushed on it and it popped right in.”
That discomfort, he joked a few days later, still couldn’t compare with what he was feeling when he answered my postseason call — he was sitting in a big-box store on the South Shore, nursing his tender rib while his girlfriend, Marie-Pier, was interminably shopping for patio furniture.
There’s pain, and then there’s pain.
A year and change since he left the Rangers, Prust’s gritty absence is still felt in New York.
“The Rangers have no one to supply energy the way Prust did; no one to jump-start the team and infuse his teammates with hockey courage the way No. 8 did during his tour on Broadway that ran for less than 2½ seasons,” New York Post columnist Larry Brooks wrote on Monday.
“Never has a fourth-line Ranger had the impact Prust did. … What’s missing is the swagger Prust’s presence and persona brought to the Rangers.”
The Canadiens are more than happy to have those qualities in their dressing room and on the ice. And if Prust has to cool his heels and ice his knuckles in the penalty box from time to time, No. 100 coming probably sooner than later, that’s OK, too.
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