Column: NHL Increasingly Popular, Out of Control

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"I don't know if it's a trust factor. It's a tough job. Whether it's blatant, on purpose, or not. It's tough to get that read up there," Smith said. "Obviously, the head hits have to be cut down. It's people's livelihoods, not hockey ... people have families and kids at home and wives, and when we're getting into head and concussion issues around the whole league, I think we need to put a stop to it."

But the NHL's commitment to limit concussions is either full time, as it has been for the past few seasons and most of this one, or it's not. The league knows the difference, but it also knows that pandemonium on the ice is a lot easier for plenty of viewers to follow than a puck. Sold-out arenas and through-the-roof TV ratings across the board, including towns like Phoenix — whose Coyotes may well be playing in another city next season — are a testament to that.

In January, even as the league was touting the fact that fights-per-game had dropped to low levels not seen since the mid-70s, Toronto general manager Brian Burke groused out loud about having to send his enforcer, Colton Orr, down to the Leafs' American Hockey League affiliate.

Burke, who once held Shanahan's job, said his team was barely able to use Orr — he appeared in just five of Toronto's 39 games — because hardly anyone wanted to fight him. He predicted that abandoning the code that governed who fought and when would result in more players taking cheap shots and seeking revenge in even more dangerous ways.

"I wonder where we're going with it, that's the only lament I have on this," he said at the time. "The fear that if we don't have guys looking after each other, that the rats will take this game over."

Too late. They already have.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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