NHL vice president Colin Campbell doesn't think John Stevens is sending out players to hurt opponents.

And neither does he believe the Flyers have returned to the days of the Broad Street Bullies.

"People might suggest that the Flyers circa 1970s are back, which is something that I have heard,'' Campbell said. "But they did a lot more fighting back then and I don't think that's the case."

But Campbell, who is in charge of enforcing the rules and suspending players when they step out of line, thinks that it's time that the Flyers be put on notice to get things under control. Yesterday, he suspended Flyers forward Riley Cote for three games for a head shot to the Dallas Stars' Mat Niskanen on Saturday night.

Cote became the fifth Flyers player suspended by the league since the preseason for a dangerous head shot to an opposing player.

Campbell said last night that he and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman "thought it was time we questioned the circumstantial aspects to suspensions when it comes to five suspensions at a quarter of the way through the season.

"Are we saying there is any directive? I would not think either [Stevens] or [general manager Paul Holmgren] are instigating this. We're not suggesting that there is any direction, but [the Flyers] certainly are not behaving the right way."

Which is what the league told Holmgren yesterday. According to Campbell and Holmgren, Bettman called the GM after Cote's suspension and put the team on notice.

"I talked to [Bettman yesterday]," Holmgren said. "He thinks, like I do, that these are different coincidences, different situations, that have to be viewed differently, but the question was raised about ramifications if it happens again. So obviously we're under watch."

The Flyers have lost 52 man games to suspension this season and have brought a reputation upon themselves as being a dirty team.

The first to be suspended was Steve Downie, who received 20 games for a head shot to Ottawa's Dean McAmmond during a preseason game. He was followed by Jesse Boulerice, 25 games for a cross-check to the face of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler on Oct. 10, and then Randy Jones, who got two games for a check from behind to Boston's Patrice Bergeron, Oct. 27.

Last week, Scott Hartnell was suspended two games for checking Boston's Andrew Alberts in the head while he was on his knees.

The Flyers have insisted that each incident is separate and they do not coach their team to take out opposing players, but with each incident they are losing the image battle.

"That's something that has been addressed [with the team] and will continue to be addressed," Holmgren said. "We want to play hard, we want to play a physical style, but we've got to play within the rules and this is just going to have to stop. The way it's going, it's going to have to stop."

Holmgren said the hits have been discussed between the coaches and players, and management and the coaches, but that the warning by the league would bring a new meeting.

"It will be discussed," Holmgren said. "Whether or not it's fair, it's out there so we need to take a look at it and discuss it, and we will."

Head shots have been a topic of attention since last summer, when the league decided to crack down. In addition to Cote, Campbell suspended Nashville's Scott Nichol five games for cross-checking Montreal's Patrice Brisebois in the head on Saturday night.

Campbell said the league sent tapes of 52 hits that could be seen as head shots to all the coaches and asked for feedback.

"John went through each hit," Campbell said. "He was the only one to do that."

The suspension and the loss to Dallas on Saturday had the Flyers' emotions a little high at practice yesterday, to the point that a brief fight broke out between Daniel Briere and Sami Kapanen.

During a contact drill in the corner by teams of two players each, Kapanen and Briere went at each other and then started swinging at each other until teammates jumped in to break them up. After practice, Briere and Kapanen downplayed the incident but admitted tensions are high.

"It wasn't much," Briere said. "It was a battling drill, and I think he got a shot from somebody and he gave me a shot and I pushed back. It wasn't much.

"It was just a couple pushes back and forth. We're obviously not happy with the way things are bouncing up and down. I've been playing for many years. You always see [a similar incident] a few times a year."

Kapanen said the two had talked and there were no hard feelings.

"I think it's just the frustration about the last game and the way we played," Briere said. "We had a little meeting and we brought some things out onto the table, and going into practice everyone was a little ticked that things are not going the way we want at home.

"I'm a little frustrated myself at the way we're playing, and putting those things together it just happened. We talked it over and everything is fine."

While the players were still on the ice, Cote left and went up to Holmgren's office for a conference call with the league. He came out with the news that he was sitting for the next three games.

"I had a chance to plead my case about the way it happened,'' Cote said. "[Holmgren] talked, my agent talked, and just explained the play. I wasn't out there to hurt anybody.

"We were down 4-1 and we tried to get something going and it was unfortunate the way it turned out. I knew for sure I was going to get a couple, just the way things are going, just our reputation.

"It is what it is. It's unfortunate that I put my team and the organization in this situation again." *