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NHL to look into fighting, not ready to drop it

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MONTREAL (AP) -NHL commissioner Gary Bettman returned to the site where the NHL was founded and where he took over 16 years ago, and showed no sign that the league's board of governors were ready to change hockey by eliminating fighting.

Following a meeting Saturday of the board during All-Star weekend, Bettman addressed the renewed concerns about fighting and the risks it now presents more than ever as players get bigger and stronger.

The recent death of a Canadian senior amateur player and the hospitalization of an AHL fighter, who had a seizure after a bout Friday night, have raised concerns that fighting has become too dangerous to still be considered a useful part of the game.

"It's a fascinating question," Bettman said at Le Windsor, where he stood in 1993, days after becoming commissioner, and where 76 years earlier the league was founded. "I think it's become integral in terms of how the game is played. I think it acts as a bit of a thermostat, if you will, as to what takes place on the ice. And I believe that most of our fans enjoy that aspect of the game.

"I don't think it's the be-all and end all of our game. I always believed it is an incidental part of the game. But it is a part of the game."

That might have been the case over time, but many fights now occur between each club's designated enforcer in seemingly premeditated fashion and not necessarily as the result of hand-to-hand combat when tempers simply boil over.

Don Sanderson, a 21-year-old Whitby Dunlops defenseman hit his head on the ice after losing his helmet while fighting Dec. 12 in an Ontario Hockey Association game, and died on Jan. 2. It has become a code of ethics for players to remove their helmets before punches are thrown to protect fists from striking them.

It took a long time for the NHL to adopt a rule making helmet-wearing mandatory, and Bettman wasn't ready to demand they also stay on during fights.

"We're not going to have any immediate knee-jerk reactions," he said. "We're going to have to study things before we make changes, if we decide to make changes. I don't think that there's any appetite to abolish fighting from the game, and there are lots of reasons for that, including the fact that it's been a part of the game.

"I do think what we're going to have to take a good, hard look at is what I described to the board is, for lack of a better term, the rules of engagement, how a fight gets initiated, what happens with chin straps and helmets, what happens with takedowns."

Longtime general manager Brian Burke, who recently took that role with the Toronto Maple Leafs, has been a longtime supporter of fighter and has never lacked muscle on his rosters.

"What happens when you have a tragedy of this nature, and that's what it was, a tragedy, is there tends to be an overreaction in the media," Burke said. "Our job is to make sure this game is run properly, not to overreact, so I intend to listen. Any discussion about the elimination or abolition of fighting will be a very brief one. I don't think there's any support for that whatsoever, of a meaningful nature."

In other developments from the meeting, Bettman admitted that the NHL isn't growing as much as last season or to the level the league had anticipated. The players have been putting 13.5 of salaries into escrow accounts, but Bettman disputed that the number would need to grow to 25 percent this season as the players' association has considered.

In the 3 1/2 seasons of the league's salary cap system, players have paid into the escrow accounts, but recouped all their money because salaries haven't exceeded the prescribed percentage as is written into the CBA.

That won't be the case this season.

On Friday, the NHL Players' Association turned down the opportunity to reopen the collective bargaining agreement that instituted a salary cap for the first time and ended the yearlong lockout in 2005. The move assured labor peace between the league and its players for at least two more seasons.

"We had always anticipated that this would be a six-year agreement," Bettman said. "It was important for the game, and particularly for our fans, not to have the distraction of collective bargaining."

One day after NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly said he wouldn't be surprised if at least one - and maybe more - of the league's 30 clubs would relocate within five years, Bettman challenged the claim and said he believes and expects every team to stay right where it is.

"I don't know what he's basing that on, and I'd be surprised if he has a bigger body of information with respect to our franchise operations than I do," Bettman said. "I'm not so sure that that type of conversation by anybody is constructive as it relates to the ongoing operations of our clubs.

"Fans invest in our clubs financially and emotionally, and anytime somebody casts doubt on a franchise's viability, I don't think that's good for the franchise and I don't think it's fair to our fans."

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