DENVER - It wasn't that long ago that you heard Bob Clarke say the biggest problem in hockey wasn't the game, but the players. They had lost respect for each other on the ice.

Amid the nightly head-hunting in the NHL - and among the Flyers - the subject of respect has arisen once again.

"You see these devastating hits now from behind, and I think the respect in the game is at an all-time low," the Canadiens' Christopher Higgins said last week in an interview with the Canadian Press.

"Guys are going after the head because that's the easiest way to knock a guy out of the game," he said. "It's a guy's livelihood. It's a guy's life you're affecting each time you go to hit someone in the head."

Wild general manager Doug Risebrough turned on ESPN last week and tuned in the 1976 playoff series between the Flyers and Canadiens.

"I had never seen the tape until now," the former Canadien said. Was it physical? Yes. Any head shots? No.

Back in the day, players didn't wear helmets and no one went looking for a player's head with a check.

"For sure, there is no doubt about that," Risebrough said.

What has become of the respect factor in hockey?

"I think it starts with young players who play most of their whole career - until they get [to the NHL] - fully protected," Risebrough said. "If you watch kids, they race to the corner, hit each other over the head, and no one says anything because it has no consequences. They are protected.

"I think there is a bit of a lack of respect for the individual's head."

In the '76 Flyers-Canadiens series, "one of the reasons guys didn't hit each other in the head" was that "it wasn't accepted," he said.

"When I played," Risebrough continued, "if I hit a guy high with the stick - half the players in the league had no helmets - and if I did that, my teammate would come up to me and say, 'Good hit, kid. Keep your stick down.' He knows the consequence is going to be on him because he's not wearing a helmet."

Talk to any player in today's game and if he is honest, he'll admit that today's equipment allows players to take - and dish out - more punishment. The fear of injury is lower.

Some years later, after Risebrough had left Montreal, both Guy Carbonneau and Brian Skrudland were coming off severe eye injuries.

"They went to full shield masks," Risebrough remembered. "And during that playoff round, they carried their sticks higher than anybody. They didn't do it deliberately. They just lost the fear of getting hit."

Way back when, if a player went into the corner for the puck and knew he was going to be hit hard, he'd have his elbow and stick up high as a safeguard.

"That would slow a guy up because, more than likely, he would hit his head on your elbow," Risebrough said. "Or if you had your stick up, he'd hit that. Those are all penalties now. The problem now is, there is no way to protect yourself. We totally rely today on the officials to protect the players."

And the officials have proven incapable and even unwilling to do so. If there are 10 games a night on television, you can find instances in every one in which questionable high hits go unpunished.

The Flyers have come under the microscope because of five suspensions - and rightly so. For the remainder of the season, the margin of error for the Flyers will be nonexistent, whereas the margin for other clubs will be wider than the concourse at the United Center.

That's the consequence of the Flyers' undisciplined play. Still, there is a serious flaw in how the NHL administers justice. Scott Parker punishes Dion Phaneuf and nothing is called. Phaneuf destroys Jiri Hudler with a blind hit and nothing is called.

Rest assured, had Parker or Phaneuf been wearing Flyers colors, there would have been - in this order - a penalty, a game misconduct, and a suspension.

That's not to condone anything the Flyers have done this season. But the NHL often turns a blind eye toward justice when it comes to head shots and dangerous checks. It depends on which team is throwing them around.

That is why Paul Kelly, executive director of the NHL Players' Association, is right in saying the union wants to see greater scrutiny and harsher disciplinary measures against this kind of behavior.

Respect needs to be restored to hockey.

Quotable

Wild enforcer Todd Fedoruk was claimed on waivers from the Stars. Upon arrival in St. Paul, he found that his locker stall was right next to that of Derek Boogaard, who nearly ended Fedoruk's career last season in a fight. "It was a breath of fresh air when I got here," Fedoruk said. "I knew I would have to fight him again . . . because he did this injury to me and I'd have to show him up. I'm happy it didn't happen."

Contact staff writer Tim Panaccio at 215-854-2847 or tpanaccio@phillynews.com.