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Ottawa Senators' Chris Neil (24) takes a punch in the face from Boston Bruins' Milan Lucic during first period NHL preseason hockey action in Ottawa Friday September 25, 2009. THE CANADIANPRESS/Fred Chartrand (FRED CHARTRAND)
Ottawa Senators' Chris Neil (24) takes a punch in the face from Boston Bruins' Milan Lucic during first period NHL preseason hockey action in Ottawa Friday September 25, 2009. THE CANADIANPRESS/Fred Chartrand (FRED CHARTRAND)

Stephen Brunt

NHL thirsts after the same blood and dollars as UFC Add to ...

On April 30, mixed martial arts will produce the largest sports crowd and largest gate in the history of Toronto's Rogers Centre, 55,000 customers dropping $11-million.

Slap an asterisk next to those numbers if you like. Point out that one of the clever marketing innovations of the Ultimate Fighting Championships - promoter of the event and the dominant force in the game - is that it has created a travelling audience of zealots who follow its events from place to place.

So it isn't entirely a grassroots Toronto thing. It isn't in itself evidence that MMA has captured the mainstream. It is more like a mass gathering of the faithful.

But ask yourself what other sporting event could draw that many people paying that much money in Canada's largest market?

The correct answer would be nothing short of an Olympic Games or a World Cup or a Super Bowl, none of which is on the horizon.

Frame it any way you choose, but there is no denying that there is a strong and growing appetite for combat-as-spectacle right now, and don't think that the National Hockey League hasn't noticed.

Here is where we run into a rather stark cultural contradiction.

Never has there been more concern, more talk, more hand-wringing over brain injury in sport, whether in hockey or the National Football League or kids' recreational soccer.

Those in positions of power are being pressed to eliminate blows to the head, and to severely punish those who deliver them. The word "concussion" has popped up in the sports pages more in the last six months than at any point in history.

Meanwhile, anyone who watched UFC 126 on Feb. 5 will remember its most dramatic moment, when middleweight champion Anderson Silva - who vies with Georges St-Pierre for the title of best pound-for-pound MMA fighter on earth - kicked Vitor Belfort square in the chops and essentially knocked him cold.

That, folks, would be the dreaded concussion, frowned upon in one sports context, celebrated in another. That would also be a fight, an element of hockey from its origins (though hockey fighting's ethics and necessity have often been hotly debated).

This NHL season has seen a spike in fighting majors, and over the last little while (particularly in the Bruins-Stars, Bruins-Canadiens and Islanders-Penguins mass dustups), an echo of the kind of premeditated goonery of the 1970s, when winning by intimidation was all the rage. So appalled was icon/owner Mario Lemieux that he spoke out on the issue (and yes, perhaps he ought to have put his own franchise's house in order first), which coming from the guy who once dubbed the NHL a "garage league," thus spurring what became a watershed debate, carries no small amount of weight.

But other than Colin Campbell doling out discipline, with the usual outcry that he got it wrong, the league's head office has remained awfully quiet. No summit meetings are being called, and no one in New York has suggested, at least publicly, that all of these fisticuffs have to stop.

Meanwhile, if you cruise over to the league's official website, nhl.com, and click on the tab labelled "tough stuff," guess what you're going to find? Fight videos - and hit videos - that don't come with any kind of parental warning attached.

And, as has always been the case in the non-hockey-obsessed parts of this continent, fight highlights tend to get a lot more air time than footage of even the prettiest goal. It is one way the game is guaranteed to reach even the philistines.

The difference between the NHL and the UFC right now is that hockey games don't come with guaranteed fights, or guaranteed concussions, attached (though with the numbers this year, it's getting close). But if the sport is indeed lurching closer to what the abolitionist crowd would call "mayhem," there might be a few people with dollar signs in their eyes who don't think that's such a bad thing.

(As to whether an element of the core hockey audience might be turned off by more fighting, recent history, most notably the lockout that cost the NHL an entire season, has proved one thing: There's nothing that can drive away those who love hockey most of all.)

Of course, no one's going to admit to seeking out the audience that's drawn to the new blood sports.

But don't kid yourself. The NHL would love a piece of that action.

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