IKNOW that what I'm about to say will earn me a Philly razzing.

Wimp, you'll call me. Maybe use the word Vince Fumo used to describe Sen. Jubelirer a few years back. Or even the moniker of the Soprano mobster killed on Tony's boat a few seasons ago.

But I'm going to say it anyway:

There's way too much fighting in professional hockey.

It's a brawl dressed up as a hockey game. If I wanted to see a fight, I'd go the Blue Horizon or Atlantic City - not the Wachovia Center. Hockey should be a game of skill and finesse, like baseball. But it isn't. It's often barbaric. Even football is a more controlled form of violence.

I didn't used to think this way. Like everyone who grew up here, I was raised loving the Flyers and have vivid memories of the Broad Street Bullies. The 1973-74 and '74-75 seasons were a critical part of my youth. I idolized Bernie Parent (still do), Bobby Clarke and the rest of the team - even Dave "The Hammer" Schultz.

Street hockey was my game after school, and I was the neighborhood goaltender. One Christmas, my parents surprised me with a goalie outfit, complete with Bernie's jersey and a set of Mylec leg pads. That was the year the Flyers won the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups.

Now my oldest son is in sixth grade and recently caught Flyers fever. His interest and enthusiasm renewed my own after many years away from the sport. We watched most of the playoffs together, including Game 2 of the conference finals against the Penguins.

That game featured a bout that didn't have quite the buildup of Rumble in the Jungle. In fact, Kennedy-Upshall seemed as if it came out of nowhere.

The Pens' Tyler Kennedy and the Flyers' Scottie Upshall simply threw off their gloves and went at it after a face-off about four minutes into the game.

Kennedy landed the first punch - a left jab - then grabbed Upshall's jersey and pounded him with his right hand. Both actually hit the ice momentarily, but continued throwing punches before the refs could separate them.

Sitting at home watching with my son, I turned away. What was taking place at center ice wasn't hockey. It was more like the Ultimate Fighting Champions. But I could hear the roar of the Pittsburgh crowd.

This was what they'd been waiting for. And what the Flyers had promised.

I say that because of the remarkable Flyers billboard I saw as I drove up I-95 on my way to Game 3 here in Philly. On it is a player whose eyes are black-and-blue. He has no stick in his hands. And how could he, considering his fingers are curled into fists like he's posing for a boxing poster?

Worse, the slogan that accompanies the image is one single word: "Vengeance." I pulled over and took a picture of the billboard with my BlackBerry.

We arrived at the game as the Flyers took the ice, greeted by a team highlight film that I'd estimate featured 50 percent hockey and 50 percent fighting. Which do you think gets more of a rise from the audience?

The Flyers lost that game, 4-1. And with just minutes to play, my son turned to me and said, "What we need is a good fight."

I asked him why. He said, "Well, we're going to lose, so we need to leave them with a little something to remember for the next game."

FAST-FORWARD to Game 4. It was Upshall who instigated the series' second skirmish with less than a minute left in a game whose outcome was hardly in doubt.

Upshall slammed a Pens' forward into the boards, igniting a brawl from which Derian Hatcher and Ryan Malone emerged.

They took turns pinning each other against the boards, and the fans on the other side reacted in kind, pounding and shaking the glass as Hatcher and Malone tugged at each other's jerseys until the linesmen intervened.

On this night, they got what the billboard and the highlight reel promised. What a shame to see and hear such a thirst for blood. Maybe the Flyers would attract a different type of fan if they didn't cultivate that image. Maybe they'd still fill those seats if only they relied on the basics of the game.

It occurs to me that in a society where concerns are often raised about video games and rap lyrics, no one seems to care that professional hockey features - even promotes - a patented brand of violence.

I know what you're thinking. It's been that way for a long time. Hockey is a rough sport, and fighting is part of the culture of the game.

And I'm not saying the game has changed.

I guess I did. *

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.