“I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out,” Rodney Dangerfield was known to joke.

The late comedian’s sentiments were in attendance Saturday in Los Angeles, when the Kings’ victory over the Chicago Blackhawks was overshadowed by a serious head injury to left wing Ryan Flinn.

The cause of the injury? A blow to the back of Flinn’s head, which struck the ice as he fell backward. The cause of the hard fall? A fight with Blackhawks defenseman Jim Vandermeer. The cause of the fight? Who knows. In hockey, it doesn’t ever seem to matter.

In 1,230 games played during the 2003-04 NHL season, there were 780 fights – approximately two fights per three games. If you head down to MCI Center to catch a Washington Capitals contest, odds are that you’ll witness a tussle. In hockey, teams seem to value their “enforcers” about as much as their goalkeepers.

How could something so apparently inherent to the sport be so dangerous? Flinn, just returning to the big show after a stint with the American Hockey League, was carried by stretcher toward County USC Medical Center before an arena of stunned observers. When Vancouver Canucks right wing Todd Bertuzzi clocked Steve Moore last arch, the Colorado Avalanche center secured two chipped vertebrae, a concussion and facial lacerations. To this day, Moore does not remember the altercation.

And to this day, after years of Hanson Brothers imitations by scores of adrenaline-high dunderheads and a few close calls along the way, not a single death has been recorded. Yet this is less a sign of fighting’s tameness than a clean-slate chance for hockey to abandon its silent endorsement of on-ice violence.

It took the death of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil for the NHL to figure out that installing netting above opposite ends of the ice would protect fans from flying pucks. Other than lacrosse, hockey is the only professional sport that fails to eject players for simple fighting; why should it take another tragedy for the league to come to its senses this time around?

Proponents of the hockey-boxing amalgamation argue that thrown punches and tugged jerseys are intrinsic to the sport. NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, for one, told USA Today that “maybe at some point in time [fighting] will be banned. But right now, it’s part of the game, except to the point where it’s penalized.”

But those very penalties, begun in the early 1970s and extended thereafter, are the downfall of such claims. As hockey began to crack down on its players with rules such as the ejection of the third man to join a fight and a 10-game suspension to the first bench-clearer in a brawl, fighting fell.

When the NHL enacted a game misconduct penalty for one-on-one instigators in 1992-93, fighting majors rode a 19-percent reduction to their lowest level in 16 years. Not to mention that the 10-game suspension almost immediately rendered bench-clearing brawls an endangered species.

The NHL proved it could control fighting if it wanted to, and despite the drop in scuffles, hockey was every bit hockey. The sport witnessed some of its greatest modern moments, from the 1993-94 New York Rangers’ nailbiting return to prominence to the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils’ Stanley Cup upset of the Detroit Red Wings. NHL history has always been defined by the drama of last-second slapshots, not well-timed sucker-punches.

Yet the league replaced its game misconduct penalty with a softer 10-minute violation in 1996-97. Some faithful fans see a method to the NHL’s madness, a league strategy not to limit clashes because ticketholders glean a certain degree of appeal from on-ice aggression.

But really? Do they actually know what the typical hockey fight consists of? Fans bang the glass feverishly for a front-row glimpse of two “tough guys” tugging at each other by the shoulders until one of them falls to the ground and the referees scramble on top.

Such scraps are more common than the bare-fisticuffs alternative, and often more dangerous, as was the case Saturday with Flinn and Vandermeer. In a game defined by checks and collisions, most hockey fights combine the peril of Russian roulette with the catharsis of squeezing a stress ball.

A recent survey supports fans’ desire to curb the combativeness. Among 1,500 Canadians interviewed in the joint study, conducted by Decima Research and the NHL Fans’ Association, 65 percent of “typical” fans approve of the NHL’s new rule that imposes a one-game suspension on instigators in the final five minutes. The 57 percent of “hard core” fans who disagree, meanwhile, shouldn’t be a cause for gate-receipt concern.

Not that it should matter if hockey fandom felt otherwise. Is attendance any justification for compromising the long-term welfare of a Steve Moore?

The final class of proponents says that fighting does the exact opposite. They assert that the threat of wrestling with an “enforcer” prevents defenders from decking smaller, more vulnerable players, like Nashville Predators left wing Paul Kariya and New York Rangers right wing Pavel Bure, who can’t convert their agility into goals without sufficient space.

But it’s not the fighting that defensemen are afraid of. It’s the same flagrant fouls and cheap shots that they themselves would be exacting – techniques that are already illegal and in no way exacerbated by the NHL’s slap-on-the-wrist method of prosecuting fracases.

If we want to curb gratuitous decking, let’s curb gratuitous decking. Let’s not give players the vigilante authority to limit violence with violence. If a coach wants to skirt the rules by having his benchwarmer knock down the other team’s star, let’s extend the punishment to coaches, too.

In college and international hockey – not to mention every other major American sport – simple fighting leads to simple ejections and/or suspensions. The game may be all about checks and crashing into the boards, but even in a not-so-contact sport like baseball, collisions at home plate are expected and rarely warrant punishment.

As for the fans, they’ll adjust. When the league imposed a netting requirement after Brittanie Cecil’s death, NHL executive vice president Bill Daly told USA Today that “we have no illusions everybody is going to think this is the best thing since sliced bread.”

But, like Daly predicted, it did “become standard and accepted as part of the arena environment” – and probably more quickly than he would have ever expected.

Fewer fights will be accepted by the viewing public, whether the NHL chooses to believe it or not. At this point, the league’s policies on safety protect the fans but not the players they cheer for. It’s about time the league put them on equal footing, before tragedy forces them to.

As Rodney might say, it’s about time they got some respect.

Alex Fumelli is a sophomore in the College and features editor. He can be reached at fumellithehoya.com. The Mendoza Line appears every other Friday in Hoya Sports.

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