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Montreal Canadiens' George Parros, left, fights with St. Louis Blues' Ryan Reaves during first period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Tuesday, November 5, 2013 (The Canadian Press)

Montreal Canadiens' George Parros, left, fights with St. Louis Blues' Ryan Reaves during first period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Tuesday, November 5, 2013

(The Canadian Press)

Eliminating fighting in the NHL wouldn’t make game safer, players say Add to ...

Montreal’s George Parros and Toronto’s Colton Orr kicked off the 2013-14 NHL season by dropping the gloves twice, but the second time, one man ended up in the penalty box and the other in the hospital.

It was opening night in the NHL, and the debate over fighting’s place in the game was already raging.

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Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery fuelled the fire last week when he skated the length of the ice to fight an unwilling combatant in Braden Holtby during a third-period brawl.

Any time fighting is in the spotlight, the conversation moves toward abolishing it at the sport’s highest level. The discussion could continue for years before it’s gone for good, but some in the hockey world do believe that fighting will eventually become a thing of the past.

“It’s a different world today. Things are changing,” said Hall of Fame defenceman Bobby Orr. “That new fan we’re trying to attract, they don’t want violence. ... (But) that fear of getting beat up is a great deterrent.”

Fighting’s elimination may not be imminent, even after Parros’s concussion and a societal shift away from the acceptance of line brawls like the Flyers and Washington Capitals engaged in last week. But rock ‘em sock ‘em hockey isn’t the norm any more, and it’s becoming increasingly possible to imagine the NHL without fighting.

“Some people would probably like it,” Buffalo Sabres tough guy John Scott said. “It’d be a little more skilled and flowed and probably less hitting and more transition play, probably like games in Europe.”

In European leagues and tournaments regulated by the International Ice Hockey Federation — like the Olympics — fighting is punishable by ejection along with a five-minute major penalty. Going that route in the NHL, and perhaps considering suspensions, would prevent, or at least drastically reduce, ugly incidents related to fisticuffs.

But there’s no guarantee that it would make hockey safer. Many players and hockey officials argue that eliminating fighting will lead to a chippier game.

“The fact of the matter is I think this game is safer with fighting in it,” said Brian Burke, the Calgary Flames’ president of hockey operations. “The amount of fighting in the game has been reduced dramatically, and that’s a good thing. It’s not going to go up, but I think it’s a central part of player safety.”

In recent years the NHL has taken steps to improve player safety, mainly related to head shots. Rule 48 made hits to the head illegal, and suspensions increased to serve as a deterrent.

Fighting doesn’t carry the same standard. There were no rules in place to suspend Emery beyond a game misconduct and 29 penalty minutes, even if the league doesn’t support a player landing a dozen punches to an opponent’s head.

But the NHL has taken steps to reduce fighting without banning it. The instigator rule was instituted in 1992 to punish players who clearly initiate fights, leaving the bench to join an altercation carries an automatic 10-game suspension and so-called “staged” fights are becoming less popular.

“I was happy when (staged fighting) was gone because that was just a waste of time, that doesn’t change momentum. People have moved past that,” said Bob Kelly, a member of the Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” teams of the 1970s. “Two players collide, get up and want to have a fight, there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever.”

That seems to be the consensus around the league. Current players would have to support rule changes that increase the punishment for fighting, and despite the recent public outcry most are in favour of keeping it. A 2011 NHLPA/CBC poll found that 98 per cent of players were against abolishing fighting.

Sabres captain Steve Ott fears that it would lead to so-called “rat” players taking over the game, while Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators figures there will be more illegal stick work.

“I think there would be a lot more guys running around, a lot more high-sticks, a lot more hits from behind,” Dallas Stars centre Shawn Horcoff said.

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