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Chicago Blackhawks' Marian Hossa is taken off the ice on a stretcher after being injured following a check by Phoenix Coyotes' Raffi Torres during Game 3 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final playoff hockey game in Chicago, Illinois April 17, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young

JIM YOUNG/Reuters

That high-pitched sound you hear is Canadians blowing the whistle on their most beloved sport.

Not that they want to transform their national game, but they are wide open to changes that might improve player safety at the National Hockey League and major junior levels. Despite the multiple commentators who say the game should not be tampered with, nearly nine out of 10 Canadians say they would accept the game being played differently if it means fewer concussions and head injuries.

This is just one of several findings in a survey conducted May 2 to 7, early in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, by the Environics Institute in collaboration with The Globe and Mail.

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That Canadians are head-over-blades in love with their winter sport is not debatable. Two-thirds of the adult population follow hockey, with a quarter of that group calling themselves "huge fans." Only one in 10 actively dislikes the sport, while more than eight of 10 of those surveyed feel that "Hockey is a key part of what it means to be Canadian" – a rise of 8 per cent from the last time the question was posed two years ago. Among those who "totally agree," the increase was even more dramatic: up 11 per cent.

Hockey is also rising in a list of national icons Environics has been tracking since 1997, with Canadians now seeing the game as more symbolic than the CBC, bilingualism or the national capital. But does that mean it is sacred? Untouchable? Not according to the results of the Institute's on-line survey of 1,001 citizens aged 18 and over, a sample that is balanced both geographically and demographically to mirror as best as possible the population at large.

– 90 per cent of respondents support banning all shots to the head – even those that are accidental.

– 87 per cent want to see every step possible taken toward the prevention of concussions – even if it means altering the manner in which the game is played and officiated.

– 72 per cent are for a ban on fighting, as in other pro sports where body contact and hits are part of the play.

The Institute's executive director, Keith Neuman, found that the national appetite for changes to the game was "stronger than expected – I would have thought more would say 'Don't change the game whatever you do.'"

The survey also found numerous other shifts when compared with what Canadians said in a similar survey in January, 2010.

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Contrary to popular thinking, anglophones are now slightly bigger fans of the winter game than are francophones. Women are more likely than men to want to see a Canadian team win the Stanley Cup, though seven out of 10 adults feel "It matters a great deal that a Canadian team win the Stanley Cup" – something that has not occurred since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens defeated Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings.

Canadians generally prefer NHL playoff hockey to Olympic hockey by a margin of 2-to-1. And – despite all the talk about injuries, including those to the head – they still see the game as an excellent activity for their children.

Many of the findings are not surprising: Men like the game more than do women, and those males aged 30-49 are most likely to be the keenest fans. Since the last survey in 2010, interest has declined in Quebec and Montreal – as, surely not coincidentally, have the fortunes of the hallowed Canadiens. More curiously, interest has declined slightly for those adults under 30, considered to be a key marketing target for sports advertisers.

Perhaps this aging core audience explains why there are as many ads during breaks in play for erectile dysfunction as there once were for beer.

As for recent issues in the game, when participants were asked what stood out in the early going of this year's playoffs, nearly one-third mentioned the aggressive play, fighting, injuries and suspensions. A clear majority agreed with the statement "I am uncomfortable with the violence in hockey."

When it comes to matters such as fisticuffs and "big hits," those who describe themselves as "huge fans" are far more accepting of the violence than are more casual or non-fans. In fact, the institute found that "Hockey's core fans are as positive as ever about the game, and most do not appear to be having second thoughts about aggressive play, fighting or even big hits as important parts of the fan experience."

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Still, the fact that overwhelming majorities want all headshots and fighting banned from the professional game says a great deal about a shifting society and an openness to change. And while the hard-core audience remains faithful to Don Cherry, the controversial voice of Coach's Corner on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, more Canadians now disagree with the bombastic "coach" than agree with him. When asked to respond to the suggestion "I like what Don Cherry has to say," only 13 per cent of respondents said they "totally agree" – versus 31 per cent who "totally disagree."

As Mr. Cherry loves to say, the time has come for hockey to " Listen up!"

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A FIGHTING DEFENCE

Players and coaches often say a fight can spark a team, as when stars Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh and Claude Giroux of Philadelphia squared off in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"That's really playoff hockey, isn't it," Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said at the time.

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In the playoffs this year, the number of fights – 15 – is ahead of last season's 11 at the same point (going into Wednesday night's game). The pace has slowed considerably as the teams advanced toward the Stanley Cup final with just one fight since May 6, according to the website hockeyfights.com.

Last year, after May 21 just one fight took place, between Ryan Kesler of Vancouver and Dennis Seidenberg of Boston in the final.

Over all, fights in NHL games have been declining since the 2008-09 season. Fights per game have dropped from 0.60 to 0.58 to 0.52 to 0.44 in consecutive seasons. The number of games with fights have declined from 509 to 423.

Staff

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