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on second thought

NHL the league that continues to fight itself

Flyers goalie Ray Emery (left) went after Capitals goalie Braden Holtby during a Nov. 1 game in Philadelphia. The Capitals won, 7-0.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Flyers goalie Ray Emery (left) went after Capitals goalie Braden Holtby during a Nov. 1 game in Philadelphia. The Capitals won, 7-0.

The Bruins had a couple of fights with the Panthers Thursday night, neither of them significant, which is to say it was a standard NHL game. The fights are far fewer in number than they used to be, rarely if ever influence the final score, and truly don’t police the game, the myth that the lingering and vocal fight advocates continue to perpetuate, clinging to the threadbare, moldy blankie of vigilantism they keep in their equipment bag.

Flyers goalie Ray Emery had a humdinger of a bout Nov. 1 in Philadelphia. Actually, it wasn’t a fight, because his victim in the assault, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, wanted no part of it. That’s a different kind of hockey fight, a mugging, which is quite rare. But it happens. And why? Because the NHL not only allows it but aids and abets it, for reasons that in 2013 are nearly impossible to reckon.

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His Flyers getting hosed, 7-0, Emery bolted from his net when a small fight erupted, raced to the other end of the ice, and proceeded to beat the horsehair (Original Six reference) out of an alarmed and all-but-disengaged Holtby. Most hockey players who end up in a tussle have some sense of its origin. Holtby was minding his own net, some 180 feet from Emery’s doorstep, when something wicked his way came. He got himself rolled at the far end of Broad Street, plain and simple.

The NHL’s answer to this mugging was, once again, a shoulder shrug. It ultimately fell at the feet of Brendan Shanahan, the onetime tough guy himself who now is the head of the league’s Player Safety Department. Shanahan has done a fine job in that office, but he booted this one, badly, by not slapping Emery with a stiff suspension.

In Shanahan’s defense, there is nothing in the NHL rule book that would allow anyone the right or wiggle room to suspend a goalie who skates the length of the ice, collars his counterpart, then attempts to hammer him senseless. Some rule book, huh? Parents, sign your kids up today. What darling, red-cheeked mite could resist such anarchy?

Bruins fans will remember Colin Campbell, Shanahan’s predecessor as head of player safety, saying the same when then Penguin Matt Cooke blindsided Marc Savard and essentially ended the crafty center’s career. It took another concussion to make that official, but Savard’s trip down Queer Street that day in Pittsburgh essentially punched his ticket to a rocking chair. He spends his days now trying to feel better. Brain injuries are like that.

Campbell first riffled through the rule book, then stuck both hands in his pockets, shrugged, and Cooke stayed in the Penguins’ lineup. Same for Shanahan with Emery. In the Cooke-Savard case, the game’s general managers and owners finally amended the rule book, making headshots punishable. And now, beginning with a GM meeting on Tuesday, it’s a good bet a paragraph or two soon will be added, prohibiting miscreant goaltenders from going on such bizarre, ludicrous tours de force.

It will be yet another example of how the NHL, which clearly lacks faith in its game’s ability to be mainstream, bends over backward to retain fighting. Its rule book is dotted with language that restricts it, yet allows it. Now the Lords of the Boards will make room for an “Emery Rule,” when the easiest, cleanest, and smartest thing to do would be simply to get rid of fighting outright.

Rather than just get to the right answer, the NHL dithers away by adding layers of rightness, displaying both a lack of faith in its game’s marketability and, most of all, a void in vision and leadership.

Fighting is obviously a safety issue. Contrary to its supporters’ protestations, plenty of players are injured while fighting. Case in point: Boston’s Shawn Thornton, one of the game’s top-notch pugilists, concussed during a fight last season by Buffalo’s John Scott — the same useless load of vulcanized rubber who this season knocked Bruins newcomer Loui Eriksson silly with, yes, a Cooke-like cheap shot to the head.

If fighting weren’t part of the game, does 6-foot-8-inch, 259-pound John Scott have a job? Uh, no. Thankfully, the Scotts of today’s game are fewer and farther between, but they’re still in it, and usually with bad teams like the Sabres who feel they have little else to engage their audience. Teams that can do, skate. Teams that can’t do, fight.

Fighting is, without a doubt, a marketing issue. The advocates among the fans, of course, say they’ll walk away for good if the fights go away. Nonetheless, they continue to fill up the seats and turn to the TV during playoff season, when the more skilled teams are still playing and the all-but-useless fighters are told to stay in the dressing room.

What the NHL never asks itself about fighting, and the same is true of virtually all fight advocates, is what might the game be without it? They fear it would collapse. Seats would be empty. TV ratings would plummet. Who knows, maybe the water wouldn’t freeze.

To which I say, ridiculous. Yes, hockey is a violent game, one that requires tempers to be controlled, steam to be released. The NFL, the mightiest, most successful, and most lucrative of all North American sports, is even more violent. Fighting is not allowed in the NFL.

Ridiculous, outrageous actions (see: Emery) on the football field are met with immediate ejections and often followed with stiff fines. So, when the fight crowd notes that NHL players prefer fighting be left in the sport (what else do players know?), are we to surmise then that if NFL players wanted the same in their sport that commissioner Roger Goodell should urge his GMs and owner to rewrite the rule book?

Oh, the added value of two NFL players tossing down their helmets at midfield, urging each other to engage in fisticuffs. Oh, and wait, for added drama they might each first take a few seconds to rip off shirt and shoulder pads for a bare-chested tussle. The suspense!

National advertisers no doubt would be eager to pour in more millions for that kind of stuff.

Every other non-fighting sport we know prohibits fights through its leadership, its rule book, and its in-game officials. The NHL’s main competition, the NFL and NBA and Major League Baseball, all survive quite well without it.

While the NHL continues to permit it, it leaves open the door to incidents as ugly and image-damaging as Emery-Holtby.

And what the NHL never quite gets to, like someone stuck in a bad job or locked into a nowhere marriage, is to ponder what it could be without it? In business for nearly 100 years now, it’s time to let it go. It’s time to thrive.

But while it suffers the indignities of the likes of Emery, it instead opts to embrace the pain and never allows itself the potential pleasure. It is a sport with vision, forever looking backward.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s ‘‘On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.
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