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Montreal Canadiens' goaltender Carey Price, left, keeps an eye on the play as Canadiens' Josh Gorges defends, centre, as Edmonton Oilers' Luke Gazdic loses his helmet during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Tuesday, October 22, 2013. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Montreal Canadiens' goaltender Carey Price, left, keeps an eye on the play as Canadiens' Josh Gorges defends, centre, as Edmonton Oilers' Luke Gazdic loses his helmet during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Tuesday, October 22, 2013. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

When helmets come off prior to a fight, officials will step in Add to ...

Hockey helmets are an excellent hedge against skull fractures, but they can be an occupational hazard for those who regularly drop their gloves.

It’s why many players shed them before they start throwing punches – a practice the NHL is going to new lengths to curb.

Linesmen have been directed to step in where possible whenever would-be combatants toss their helmets away, which is exactly what they did amid much puzzlement from fans and players at the Bell Centre on Tuesday.

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As the Edmonton Oilers’ Luke Gazdic and the Montreal Canadiens’ Travis Moen dropped the gloves and discarded their hats with just over a minute to play in the first period, linesmen Steve Barton and Michel Cormier quickly intervened before any punches were thrown.

The confused players were led to the penalty box and given unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

“It was surprising,” Moen said. “I understand the reason behind it, guys fall down and you want to have their heads protected. I’m not against it, I’m not for it, I’m one of those guys who’s like: ‘Whatever the league decides, they decide.’<TH>”

And what the league has decided is this: On-ice officials will intercede more aggressively in cases like this, where Moen and Gazdic circled each other from a distance.

“I asked the [general managers] and coaches, on the beginning-of-season conference call, to ask their players not to remove their helmets in a fight – because it’s dangerous,” said Colin Campbell, the NHL’s senior executive vice-president of hockey operations. “Then, I instructed – through Stephen Walkom [NHL’s supervisor of officials] – that when the players take their helmets off to fight, if the linesmen can intervene safely, safely for them, safely for the players, they should do it. This is nothing new. Linesmen are out there to break up fights.”

The problem with players taking the “buckets” off is people can get badly concussed or even die – as Ontario senior league player Don Sanderson did in 2009 – from hitting their heads on the ice during a fight.

Still, there appears to be a certain gallantry to hockey fisticuffs; Moen said Gazdic, who like all NHL rookies is obligated to wear a visor, removed his helmet “out of respect for me.”

“You take the helmet off to protect the hands, if that makes any sense,” he said, adding the linesmen were apologetic at jumping in and told him they were simply following orders.

As Habs teammate Ryan White, who has a sore right hand courtesy of an encounter with Winnipeg Jets forward Eric Tangradi’s visor, put it: “Those guys have bosses, too.”

While there might be a tendency to see last Tuesday’s event as a subtle shift in the league policy toward fighting – one could argue any move to regulate or limit fights, whatever the reason, is a step in the direction of abolition – that’s not how it’s being depicted.

Rather, league officials say, this is about player safety and enforcement of the rules.

In the NHL exhibition season, players either removed each other’s helmets – there was an odd collegiality to the way the New York Islanders’ Brett Gallant and New Jersey Devils’ Krys Barch gently lifted the lid off the other man’s head before proceeding to pound on each other – or tacitly agreed to doff their own helmets simultaneously so both would incur the extra penalty.

According to Campbell, the league’s officiating department saw how players were trying to circumvent the new rule and sought ways of plugging the loophole.

While cynics may suspect the league’s move is motivated by questions of insurance and liability, that doesn’t appear to be an issue. According to an executive at a company that insures several hundred NHL players, there’s no specific language in the various policy regimes requiring players to wear helmets at all times on the ice.

“Actually, I think they’re doing this for all the right reasons,” said Greg Sutton, president of Sutton Special Risk.

The league and the players’ union continue to be preoccupied by player safety, but there is also an internal debate going on in the NHL about the future of fighting. The doves would like to see it banned altogether; the hawks believe there is a place for it.

But Campbell said even the GMs who may advocate fighting cannot find a rational way of defending the act of taking a helmet off to fight.

“If someone wants to defend fighting in the game, this is the last thing you want to have happen – to have a player fall and get seriously hurt because he isn’t wearing a helmet. The ice is hard,” he said. “If someone wants to debate me about the culture of fighting, I’d like to have that debate. This culture now, where a guy has to fight if he’s thrown a good hard check, I don’t get that. When did that start? Whatever happened to Gordie Howe’s, take a number, catch you later?

“I know making fighting safer sounds like a contradiction, but you can do it. Even for the pro-fighting people, this should be a no-brainer. It’s idiotic for anybody to take their helmets off, which is there to protect their heads, to get into a fight.”

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