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But fights are part of the game’s appeal, much like NASCAR’s fender-benders or driver spats. While college hockey has made its punishments so severe that fighting has all but disappeared at that level, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has made it clear the fisticuffs will never disappear entirely from the pro game.

“We celebrate the big hit, we don’t like the big head hit,” Bettman said last month. “There is an important distinction because we celebrate body-checking.”

And the fighting does serve a purpose, players insist. There are only two referees and two linesmen, and they can’t see everything. Without that fear of retaliation, the violence could easily get out of hand.

“It’s a tool that you can use to help control what happens on the ice,” said Rob Ray, the Buffalo Sabres enforcer whose habit of taking off his helmet, jersey and pads during fights prompted the NHL to punish the practice. “Since they put in the ‘instigator’ rule, the levels of hitting from behind and head shots and dirty shots and that kind of thing have increased.

“I’m not sitting here saying fighting is the greatest thing in the word, but know it curbed a lot of that type of play,” added Ray, now part of the Sabres broadcast team. “If you were going to hit somebody like that, you knew there was going to be somebody you’d have to answer to.”

Added McCarty, “What’s going to stop a guy from slapping your best player on the wrist or being dirty when there’s no retribution to it?”

But as more is learned about the devastating impact of concussions and head trauma, there is growing concern about players’ long-term health. Sidney Crosby, the NHL’s marquee player, hasn’t played since January after absorbing hits in consecutive games. Boston’s Patrice Bergeron missed the first game of the Eastern Conference finals with a concussion.

There is no known concussion connection to Boogaard’s death, but his family donated his brain to the BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at his wish. Boogaard was approached by researchers after Probert’s death.

“You just wish somehow we could cut down on those concussions,” Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “Not necessarily for the game of hockey, but more for the individuals. We know how serious those things are, and somehow they seem to be creeping up in our game. We’re trying to find ways to minimize those.”

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AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen and Dan Gelston contributed to this report.

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Follow Nancy Armour at http://twitter.com/nrarmour