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Trevor Gillies #14 of the New York Islanders fights with Eric Godard #28 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during their first period of their game February 11, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Gillies and teammate Matt Martin were recently suspended by the NHL for their roles in a brawl during the game while Penguins owner Mario Lemieux has criticized the punishment as being too lenient. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) (Jim McIsaac/2011 Getty Images)
Trevor Gillies #14 of the New York Islanders fights with Eric Godard #28 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during their first period of their game February 11, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Gillies and teammate Matt Martin were recently suspended by the NHL for their roles in a brawl during the game while Penguins owner Mario Lemieux has criticized the punishment as being too lenient. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) (Jim McIsaac/2011 Getty Images)

ROY MACGREGOR

NHL engages ridicule defence Add to ...

Mario Lemieux, say hello to Senator Hartland Molson.

Some may imagine the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins is the first NHL owner to speak out against gratuitous violence in the game - "a travesty," Lemieux called Friday night's WWE match between his Pens and the New York Islanders - but Molson beat him by a half-century.

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Call me a "pantywaist" if you must, the owner of the Montreal Canadiens told his fellow NHL governors. But also call the rules. Put an end to the mayhem.

"I cannot see any argument," he said, "against criticism of unnecessary roughness."

No argument required, of course - his suggestions were beaten down by the same tool that is being used against Lemieux: ridicule.

Lemieux's tantrum - an Internet posting in which he said the Friday Fiasco made him wonder whether he even wanted "to be a part" of the NHL any more - certainly could have used a little self-flagellation over his own dirty team and, in particular, the antics over the past few years of Pittsburgh's serial offender, Matt Cooke. But simply to dismiss the Penguins owner as a hypocrite is too easy, too convenient for those who use ridicule to butt-end every mouth that opens against violence in hockey.

Speaking out is hardly new to this national game.

As far back as 1904, Ontario hockey head John Ross Robertson was warning that if they didn't clean up the game they would soon have to call in the coroner.

That happened three years later in Cornwall, Ont., when Charles Masson killed Bud McCourt with a blow to the head. The jury recommended that laws be brought in - not hockey rules, but real law - to ensure those engaged in foul play "be severely punished."

It never happened, of course.

As for NHL owners, few thought along the lines of Molson or Lemieux. New York Rangers boss Tex Rickard used to pay ambulance drivers to park outside Madison Square Garden on the theory that the promise of violence brought in the crowds.

Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe used the ridicule argument when he stated: "We've got to stamp out this sort of thing, or people are going to keep on buying tickets."

The closest the two differing views at the NHL board of governors table ever got to an airing happened in 1992. A new chair was in place, Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, with the arrival of a new commissioner, Gary Bettman, was still several months off. It seemed like a good time to discuss changing the violent culture of the game.

Harry Sinden, then-general manager of the "Big, Bad" Boston Bruins somewhat surprisingly suggested a complete ban on fighting. He argued the only way expansion was possible to untried U.S. markets and, in particular, to Europe, was if they cleaned up the "distasteful" side of hockey.

"I'll always love hard-hitting, physical hockey," Sinden said. "But I hate goons and I hate goon tactics."

The board responded by asking that two position papers be prepared for discussion, one "pro" fighting, the other "con."

The "con" side argued it would be in the league's financial interest to get rid of the thuggery. It was pointed out that huge potential sponsors (IBM was one) were shying away from hockey over this issue. European hockey thrives, they said, and doesn't allow fighting.

The "pro" side mostly ridiculed, particularly in its condemnation of European hockey.

Even so, at the next meeting of the board of governors, the "con" side believed it had made some progress. Proposals were tabled that would establish game misconducts for fighting, with an extra game added if the fight took place in the last 10 minutes of a game. They suggested linesmen be allowed to call penalties once play had stopped. They called for a bumping up of multiple penalties, such as cross-checking, to five minutes from two minutes. Penalties for infractions such as hooking and holding, they said, should run their full time allotment rather than end once the team with the advantage has scored.

Of course, nothing ever came of this. The hooking and holding, in fact, took such a strong hold on the game that star various players - Lemieux among them - spoke out about the state of the game and fans grew so increasingly disenchanted that, following the 2004-05 lockout, significant rule changes were made to open the game up again.

In 2010-11, another giant step is required to rid the league of headshots and, with luck, such "travesty" as occurred last Friday.

To simply ridicule and dismiss those who argue such change is necessary - as Hockey Night in Canada analyst Mike Milbury so loves to do on taking hits to the head out of the game - is to invite upon hockey a blow that could concuss the game itself. Minor hockey enrolment is down. By 2016, The Hockey News predicts, at least 30,000 fewer children will be playing the game.

That analysis was made before the current outcry against headshots. The undeniable medical evidence that concussions are life-long and life-threatening have parents everywhere rethinking their child's involvement in a game where, no matter what the lesser leagues do to protect heads, the players themselves continue to copy the open-season style of the NHL.

The league's refusal to act threatens future players and fans - surely it can see this.

However, it has ignored good advice before, such as the 1992 discussion paper against fighting that was prepared by Harry Sinden.

Oh, yes, and by his assistant, Mike Milbury.

But we won't accuse Milbury of hypocrisy.

That word has already been used against Mario Lemieux.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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