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Michael Haley #59 of the New York Islanders fights Maxime Talbot #25 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third period on February 11, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Jim McIsaac/2011 Getty Images

Settling in on the couch to watch hockey should be a relaxing way to unwind with the family, right? These days, it can be anything but.

Just ask Theresa Dostaler of Madoc, Ont., who watched highlights of the ugly brawl during the recent and now infamous Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders game with her hockey-playing sons, ages 6 and 8.

The boys were agog, asking her, "Why? Why are they doing that?"

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She replied as best she could, saying that the brawl was over-the-top and they should not try to emulate it on the ice.

It came at a time when they were already asking daily about the health of their Penguins hero Sidney Crosby, who is nursing a brain injury.

"Especially my six-year-old wants to know, 'Will he be back? Will he be back for the playoffs?' They miss him." Ms. Dostaler said.

While the National Hockey League is facing intense scrutiny over a recent cluster of blindside head shots, undiagnosed concussions and bare-knuckle brawls, parallel conversations are unfolding in homes and hockey rinks across the country.

Even the most die-hard hockey parents are wondering if violence and unsafe behaviour are becoming the hallmarks of the sport at the professional level. If so, where does that leave kids who worship those players and, realistically or not, aspire to join them?

In Dan Collison's Toronto home on Tuesday night, dangerous play was also a conversation starter.

Mr. Collison's sons, 17 and 14, yelled "Nasty hit!" at the television screen as Toronto Maple Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski took two dangerous blows.

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Moments like these can be a catalyst to talk about safe play, says Mr. Collison. "It comes up more when hockey is on TV or the news. It's there, it's visual."

Of course in Mr. Grabovski's case, the fact that he staggered back into play and scored the winning goal complicated the message for parents. Was he brave for going back on the ice? Or should his handlers be chastised for not taking a potential head injury seriously?

For Nicole Reuer of Medicine Hat, Alta., it was the Penguins game that prompted her to post an angry comment on a Facebook page Theresa Dostaler runs, called Hockey Mom In Canada, saying the game "makes me rethink my desires for my son." Later in the week, she was still fuming.

Her seven-year-old was equally appalled, saying, according to his mother, "If all they want to do is fight and hurt each other then they should just quit and become boxers." Ms. Reuer herself, meanwhile, is souring on the idea of NHL players as role models.

"We shouldn't have to monitor our children when they're watching hockey, but that's what it's coming too. I don't want my son thinking that it is OK to play dirty," she wrote in an e-mail.

The events of the past week have prompted introspection among players and their families over whether allowing body-checking in youth hockey opens the door to NHL-style bad behaviour. Warnings from concussion and child safety experts are starting to gain traction, and some observers foresee an uptick in interest in non-contact leagues.

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One Toronto mother, though, is hoping her son will learn as much about sportsmanship, compassion and the art of a clean hit when he enters a contact league next year as he does about stick-handling and scoring goals.

"One of life's great lessons is how to handle yourself when your emotions can take over," she wrote in an e-mail, asking that her name not be used. "This is an opportunity (not always taken) to learn how to do that."

Jeanna Oke, a hockey coach and mother of three hockey-playing boys, says she often finds herself having to curb her charges' enthusiasm for the thrill of the hit.

"Especially with kids when you watch that first year they're allowed to start hitting, sometimes you'll see a kid skate from one side of the ice to the other just to hit a kid when really it wasn't necessary," says Ms. Oke, who lives in Marmora, Ont.

"You should be hitting someone to separate them from the puck, not to injure them or take them out of the game."

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