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Smerconish: Hockey: Better with the gloves on

Even when the home team loses, a good fight can justify the price of admission. Still, these playoffs have proved that hockey should ban fighting.

GOING into last night's Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, the Flyers' critical playoff statistics included:

14 wins.

73 goals scored.

195 points.

622 shots on goal.

But the most stunning was the number of fights:


The Flyers are brawling less and winning more. And while I'm not arguing cause-and-effect, I believe the caliber of the game gets better with less fighting.

Go ahead and call me a middle-aged wimp. And yes, I was here in the early 1970s.

As a kid, I loved the Broad Street Bullies and can still picture the team poster that hung in my bedroom. I idolized those guys - especially Bernie Parent.

And after watching HBO's excellent documentary of the same name, I was recently reminded of how rough the game was then.

But that doesn't make it right.

I don't know what I was thinking as a teenager, but I know that, as an adult, I appreciate a fast, physical but non-fighting brand of hockey. I also know that makes me unusual.

The Wachovia crowd seems to feed off the fighting. And even when the home team loses, for many fans, a good fight can justify the price of admission.

Still, these playoffs have proved that hockey should ban fighting. That doesn't require the elimination of the game's physical side. As Parent, the legendary goaltender from those 1970s championship teams, observed that during these Stanley Cup finals, "the game has switched from fighting to hitting."

"There's some good hitting out there, and that's what people love," he said. "I've seen the game at times during the season where the play would go back and forth for five minutes and the building was quiet. And as soon as you got a good hit, the building would come alive. And that's what's happening now."

Indeed, no one who's watched the playoffs could argue that the game needs fighting. The game has plenty of appeal without it.

Remember, hockey ratings spike during the Olympics (where fighting is prohibited) and the cup playoffs (where it's a rarity). Of course, part of that is because the stakes are higher. But it's also a function of the reduced level of outright violence taking place during the games.

Some will say that the threat of throwing down still acts as a legitimate deterrent on the ice. Make a dirty play - especially one involving the other team's star player - and you can expect an enforcer to come after you. That's part of the game in the same way that pitchers protect their teammates by brushing back an opposing batter.

True. But baseball doesn't use bench-clearing brawls as a marketing tool. The NHL does - implicitly, at the very least.

The emphasis on fighting seems odd in light of the NHL general managers' recommendation last week that the league toughen the game penalty for blows to the head. In March, another culture shift was initiated when the same group voted in favor of prohibiting blindside shoulder checks to the head.

Each is a welcome adjustment, especially as the NFL and other contact sports come to grips with the long-term severity of head injuries and concussions. I just don't understand how body checks generate enough concern to warrant rule changes, while similar premeditated blows to the head - in the form of bare-fisted punches - are allowed to remain a major part of the culture of the sport.

Especially when many of those fights aren't necessary. I'm thinking of the brawls that break out immediately after the opening faceoff. Even the Flyers' lone fight this postseason - a multiplayer skirmish that resulted in penalties for Scott Hartnell and Roman Hamrlik - occurred in the waning moments of the Montreal Canadiens' 5-1 victory in Game 3 of the conference finals.

In other words, the game was out of reach. Still, the sparks flew.

WHY? I'M guessing players want to give the opposition - not to mention the people watching the games - something to think about after the final horn sounds.

Too bad a well-played, physical game isn't always enough.

Hockey's highest-profile skates are the ones without punches - proof the sport doesn't need to lose the gloves to gain appeal.

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