Last Saturday’s Pittsburgh Penguins-Boston Bruins game, in which James Neal deliberately kneed Bruins winger Brad Marchand in the head, followed by Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton attacking Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, elicited strong negative reaction from NHL fans and pundits.

Like them, I also felt disgust over those instances, but it was quickly replaced by the knowledge that whatever punishment the NHL meted out to Neal and Thornton would do little to reduce the instances of dirty play in the league.

Before I go further, this isn’t a rant against physical play in the NHL. The game is played at high speed, physical contact is part of it and no hockey fan wants to see body-checking eliminated from the game.

I could rant about the supposed lack of respect the players have toward each other compared to years past.  But  there’s been plenty of instances throughout hockey’s history of cheap-shots and reckless play, so lack of respect among NHL opponents isn’t a new issue.

In recent year a number of players past and present have voiced concerns about lack of respect, yet no one in the NHLPA appears willing to take necessary steps among the PA membership to address this problem.  Oh, I’m sure it’s occasionally brought up during PA meetings, but it appears little of consequence emerges to force the membership to clean up its act on the ice.

Shawn Thornton's attack on Brooks Orpik was another example of a lack of respect among NHL players.

Shawn Thornton’s attack on Brooks Orpik was another example of a lack of respect among NHL players.

The league may take a dim view of dirty play, and to its credit has in recent years introduced rules to reduce blindside hits (especially targeted hits to the head), but instances of dirty play as demonstrated by Neal and Thornton still abound.

Neal ultimately received a five-game suspension and promises he’ll behave in the future.  Thornton’s actions were so egregious that, though he lacks a suspension history, he’ll probably received a punishment between 10-20 games  to make an example out of him.

Whatever Thornton’s critics think of him, he’s not a player with a reputation for dirty play. He’s no Matt Cooke or Raffi Torres, whose recklessness displayed so much contempt for the rules that it took lengthy suspensions and the veiled threat of permanent banishment from the NHL to change their ways.

Over its long history, the NHL has cracked down on some of the more violent aspects of the game. Wild stick-swinging incidents, prevalent during the Original Six era, are a thing of the past. Bench-clearing brawls, commonplace up until the 1980s, are non-existent today. Line brawls involving every player on the ice are rare.

The league can, and undoubtedly will, implement rule changes to reduce the instances of dirty play, but the question is how long will it take to sufficiently address the problem. League general managers believe the rules are working, but when instances such as those which arose in the Bruins-Penguins game occur, it’s difficult to accept those claims at face value.

A growing number of critics also want fighting banished from the game, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The majority of players believe it belongs in the game, but more importantly, so do a majority of hockey fans.

A long-standing myth among NHL fans is the belief commissioner Gary Bettman is trying to phase fighting out of the game. Bettman – who still gets wrongly blamed for the introduction of the “third man in” rule which ended line brawling (it was introduced the year before he became commissioner) – recently defended fighting, calling it a “safety valve” to release pent-up tension and emotion in the heat of a game.

If that sounds familiar to older NHL fans, that’s because former league president Clarence Campbell (who ruled from 1946 to 1977) used to say the same thing.

In 2009, Bettman and the NHL Board of Governors did attempt to eliminate staged fights between NHL enforcers, which almost always occurred early in a game , usually during a face off and ultimately had no effect upon the outcome of a game. The notion was shot down by the NHLPA, which wanted to protect the jobs of a handful of its membership renowned for their pugilistic skills than their playing ability.

Bettman doesn’t like the staged fights, but he obviously has no issue with heat-of-the-moment scraps. I also have no issue with those type of fights, but at the same time, I worry about the growing number of former enforcers now battling dementia brought about by years of repeated blows to the head. As more is known about CTE and its effect upon professional athletes in violent sports like hockey and football, the more pressure will be placed upon the NHL and the NHLPA to address the relevance of fighting in its product.

Hockey is also a very macho sport. The league and its fans revel in the toughness of its players. It’s often used as a selling point to attract new fans. League history is rife of stories of players who suffered serious injuries yet still laced up their skates, gritted through the pain, and kept playing. Hockey’s a tough sport, especially at the pro level.

The very thought of introducing rules to better protect the players is often derided by purists, who fear the “pansification” of the game. They claim the players need to police themselves, yet from what we’ve seen over the years, the players policing themselves usually results in dirty play like Thornton’s attack on Orpik.

The ongoing debate over violence in hockey won’t subside anytime soon. For every sensible argument raised against fighting and dirty play, counter-arguments are inevitably raised expressing concern that addressing one problem could give rise to a host of others.

Getting the NHL to implement significant change to its product is akin to turning a huge ocean liner. The league (when willing) is capable of change, but it is also very tradition-bound, meaning it takes years – even decades –  to implement rules which ultimately improve the game.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t take a crippling injury or a death resulting from a fight or a cheap-shot to hasten change.