THE FLYERS are the most penalized team in the National Hockey League. This is just a fact.

The Flyers already have 25 major penalties this season. That is more than the number of majors committed by the Kings, Islanders, Sabres and Thrashers combined. It is more than 30 percent higher than the next-worst team.

Three Flyers are in the top 13 in penalty minutes in the NHL - Riley Cote, Ben Eager and Scott Hartnell. Cote has been on the ice for a bit more than 58 minutes this season and in the penalty box for 51 minutes.

Just facts.

On the day when Hartnell became the fourth Flyers player to be suspended by the NHL since training camp because of an on-ice incident - this one for two games after Hartnell's hit along the boards Monday night left Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Alberts with an unspecified head injury - all of this naturally becomes mixed together: the suspensions, the tougher team image the Flyers obviously have tried to build and, yes, the franchise's ancient tribal history.

There needs to be an untangling. Each is an independent thread. Oh, and good luck with that - because it is quite a tangle and because people really don't want to hear it. The Flyers are stuck with their image. Given everything, it is beyond exhausting to try to argue the other side.

"We want to be a hard-working team, and that leads to physical play sometimes," general manager Paul Holmgren said. "But we play better when we use our speed. That's our No. 1 strength, I think.

"We want to be a team that sticks together and works hard. If you look at the Stanley Cup finalists last year [Anaheim and Ottawa], those were the two hardest-working teams, the two most competitive teams. That's what we want to be."

You ask Holmgren on the phone whether he is worried about the whole image thing, the whole Broad Street Bullies redux thing, and he says, "No, I'm really not." He said that Colin Campbell, the NHL's dean of discipline, has never brought it up in their series of hearings this season. In fact, after one of the hearings, Campbell went out of his way to say the Flyers were not a problem organization for the NHL, and after the last two, he suggested the Flyers' players were not trying to hurt anybody.

The first two suspensions - 20 games for Steve Downie as a result of an airborne head shot he delivered to Ottawa's Dean McAmmond in a September exhibition game, and an NHL-record 25 games for Jesse Boulerice after he crosschecked Vancouver's Ryan Kesler in the face in October - were well-deserved. The actions of Downie and Boulerice were ridiculously dangerous.

Next came the two-game suspension received by Randy Jones for a hit from behind into the boards that he laid on Boston's Patrice Bergeron. A month later, after suffering a serious concussion and other injuries, Bergeron still isn't playing and might not return this season. Upon issuing the suspension, Campbell said, "While it is my determination that Jones did not intend to injure his opponent, he did deliver a hard check to a player who was in a vulnerable position."

Hartnell did not take a full-speed run at Alberts, who was on his knees and near the boards. As Campbell said, "It appears that Mr. Hartnell was attempting to let up on delivering a check to an opponent that was in a vulnerable position. However, at the point of contact, he did deliver a blow to the head of Mr. Alberts that resulted in an injury."

Downie had nothing to do with Boulerice, who had nothing to do with Jones, who had nothing to do with Hartnell. These were independent actions - and, in the case of Jones and Hartnell, reckless, but with no malice aforethought.

"[Hartnell] clearly slows up - you can see the snow coming off of his skates," Holmgren said. "It's frustrating. The suspension is difficult to accept, but it's difficult to argue against. I don't know. As a league, we're trying to get rid of [hitting] people in vulnerable positions and hits to the head. At the same time, we're trying to keep hitting in the game."

But when it isn't even December and you have had four players suspended for on-ice stuff and the rest of the league combined has had only two, you know what people will think. When you lead the league in penalty minutes and majors, you know what people will think. When you are the Flyers, and even if you are so far removed from the old days that some current players are young enough to be the grandsons of some of the original Broad Street Bullies, well, you know.

You know what people will think - and the Flyers had better get used to it.


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