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The finding comes at an uncomfortable time for the NHL, which is dealing with a growing number of concussions and still reeling from the deaths last year of three former enforcers, whose fates _ at least one prominent neurologist suggested _ may have been linked to repeated fighting. Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, the league tweaked a number of rules to speed up the game and cut down on fighting, all the while mandating changes in equipment, rinks and medical regimens to make the game safer. And they’ve worked, to considerable effect.

“There have been no fights whatsoever in 66 percent of our games this season. That percentage is a five-season high,” spokesman Frank Brown said Thursday. “The average number of fights per game this season is 0.8. The last time we were that low for a full season was 1974-75. While we have not seen this individual’s report, we are at a loss to understand his explanation for momentum swings in the 66% of our games when there isn’t a fight to support his theory.”

Yet the presence of an enforcer on the bench of just about every NHL team suggests coaches and general managers already believe what the research has concluded: But just like the number of fights, the number of enforcers in the league has been steadily dropping. Even so, fighting won’t go away easily or anytime soon. Earlier Thursday, Toronto general manager Brian Burke groused about sending his enforcer, Colton Orr, down to the Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate.

Burke previously served as the league’s chief disciplinarian, a job now held by former player Brendan Shanahan. Burke said the 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 worried that this would result in more players taking cheap shots and seeking revenge in even more dangerous ways.

“I wonder about the accountability in our game and the notion that players would stick up for themselves and for each other,” Burke said. “I wonder where we’re going with it, that’s the only lament I have on this. The fear that if we don’t have guys looking after each other, that the rats will take this game over.”


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at) and follow him at