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opinion

Tony Keller is editorial page editor.

Once upon a time, the law was something you had to enforce yourself. A thousand years ago, if you lived somewhere like Anglo-Saxon England and someone wronged you, you were supposed to take the administration of justice into your own hands. If they spilled your kin's blood, then you were expected to track them down and spill their blood. Justice was served and order maintained through vigilante violence. It was not the best legal system, but it was better than nothing.

On Tuesday, e-mail exchanges among senior National Hockey League executives were released as part of a lawsuit filed against the league by former players. The case concerns concussions and brain injuries; a frequent subject of the e-mails is fighting and its possible connection to those injuries. The most talked-about set of e-mails is a 2011 exchange among league executives sparked by a Globe and Mail article under the headline "Getting rid of hockey's goons."

Why is there fighting in hockey? It's been part of the game since almost the beginning, and many players, coaches and managers believe it serves a purpose beyond entertainment – that it actually protects players. Bobby Orr has argued as much. So has Jarome Iginla. So did Bobby Smith, a former star player, general manager and current owner of junior hockey's Halifax Mooseheads, writing in this newspaper a few weeks ago. "We have a better and safer game when players are held accountable by their peers," Mr. Smith said, "and fighting remains an important part of our sport."

To a lot of readers, that probably sounds slightly insane. But if you are living in the semi-lawless neighbourhood that is our national sport, it has a compelling logic.

Hockey is a dangerous game with a thick rule book, but the NHL and its junior development leagues until recently were not interested in enforcing all of the rules, all the time. Referees were clearly discouraged from calling too many penalties, and in important games, the ref may put away the whistle and "let the players decide things." No other major professional sport – not basketball, not football, not baseball – does this.

Imagine a society with police and courts, but where the authorities do not like investigating some crimes, or crimes at inconvenient times – like, say, during the playoffs. As a citizen of such a society, you would eventually find it prudent to hire people to provide the protection that police refuse to offer. Enter the enforcer: If someone on the other team breaks the rules, retribution will be exacted.

Or instead of defending against hockey's lawless zones, maybe you want to take advantage of them? The Broad Street Bullies, aka the Philadelphia Flyers, won Stanley Cups in the 1970s by literally beating other teams bloody. The goons begat enforcers; hockey crime begat hockey vigilantism. There was a legal vacuum, and the law of the jungle filled it.

Many of the NHL's most memorably violent incidents, such as Todd Bertuzzi 's blindside attack that ended Steve Moore's career, itself likely retribution for an earlier hit by Mr. Moore on one of Mr. Bertuzzi's teammates, came about because players were taught it was up to them to be the judge, jury and executioner of hockey's code. So many of hockey's injustices come from players trying to navigate a state of affairs that is itself not just.

The league could address all of this, tomorrow. Remember how the NHL reacted when Sean Avery decided to screen an opposing goalie by facing him while waving his stick in the air? The league immediately made that a penalty. What happened? The practice stopped. Calling penalties is an amazing deterrent. And nobody had to rip Mr. Avery a new one.

In contrast, if you see Sidney Crosby getting roughed up, pushed around or given a face wash after the whistle, the old-school hockey response is to say that the Pittsburgh Penguins should really get tougher (and Mr. Crosby should stop being a whiner). You will not hear many voices stating the obvious: The better solution would be for the NHL to enforce its rules. NBA stars like Stephen Curry are not given face washes by opposing players, because it's a foul. In the NBA, the enforcer is not a teammate. It's the referee.

Bobby Smith is probably right: Ending fighting, while changing nothing else, would not make hockey a safer game. But ending fighting as part of a commitment to fully enforcing hockey's rules, including stronger prohibitions on hits to the head and other actions likely to injure, would make hockey safer, more beautiful – and more just.

If you live in a society where law enforcement is sporadic, and violent crimes often go unpunished, where justice is not given but must be taken, then arming yourself and becoming a vigilante is a rational response. But the best solution to a state of lawlessness is not to encourage everyone to buy a gun and hire bodyguards. It is to replace the lawlessness with law. That is what separates modern society from the Dark Ages. And more than any other major sport, hockey is still stuck in the Dark Ages.

NHL unsealed email

The recent cache of unsealed, internal NHL email that was released during an ongoing lawsuit launched against the league by former players