- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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Shawn Thornton has made his mark in the NHL with rugged play, relentless physicality and, yes, sometimes the blunt force of his punishing fists. So it's tough for the 36-year-old Bruins forward to envision a league without fighting.
"I'm fairly biased. I think you'd see a lot of guys taking runs at each other. I think you'd see a lot of sticks high," he told ESPN.com, expounding on a subject in which he is well-versed.
"Maybe I'm old school," Thornton mused, "but I think the thought of getting punched in the face by somebody can be a deterrent to dirty play."
That one of the league's most fearsome punchers feels this way is, as he noted, no surprise. Fighters want to protect their stake in the game. But for how often the enforcers are asked how they would feel if fighting was removed from the game, how about the skill players?
After all, it is the skill guys for whom such hulking pugilists such as George Parros' and John Scott's protection affords. What if those guys were no longer a mainstay on the roster, or at least an option for a chippy match?
"I know sometimes the game needs to change, and I agree with that, but in this instance, I really feel like it needs to stay in the game," Montreal Canadiens forward Daniel Briere told ESPN.com when reached by phone. "As a skill player, I always preferred having some tougher guys around me in case something happened out there."
Briere rattled off some of those guys he has had around him during his career -- Jody Shelley in Philadelphia, Andrew Peters in Buffalo, George Parros in Montreal -- and what terrific teammates they made. It wasn't just those players' willingness to fight (the three have a combined 3,232 penalty minutes) but the way they made their teammates feel safer simply by being on the bench.
"It's kind of the subtle ways in a lot of the ways," Briere explained. "Someone will come up to you and say, 'Keep your head up tonight. I'm gonna take you out,' and just knowing you have someone on the bench there in case something happens makes everyone feel a lot bigger and stronger on the ice." Shelley's name instantly popped up for Rick Nash, too. The imposing brawler became fast friends with Nash during their time together in Columbus.
Nash and Shelley hung out together outside the rink often and, even though they were rarely on the ice at the same time -- Nash is a two-time 40-goal scorer, while Shelley scored 18 his entire NHL career -- he always knew he had someone looking out for him.
"He was the first one, if someone even made a big hit on me or came after me, he was the first one out there on the bench, on the ice, yelling at them making sure that they know that there were going to be consequences," Nash told ESPN.com.
It happened so frequently, Nash had trouble pinpointing one distinct moment he was particularly thankful to have Shelley around.
"There were probably too many," he said.
The support from marquee players such as Nash and Briere is not merely anecdotal. There is evidence to suggest that the overwhelming support among the player's union does not discriminate by age, position or pay grade. The most recent poll conducted by the NHLPA found that 98 percent of its constituents wanted to keep fighting a part of the game.
In a time when head shots and dangerous hits are becoming an increasing concern, players still view fighting as the best way to keep guys honest. Whether fighting remains a part of the game for years to come, self-policing has always been an important element among the rank-and-file. Fighting is still perceived as an effective deterrent.
Winnipeg's Andrew Ladd is a bit of a rare specimen. Though he is regarded as a skill player, he's also not afraid to drop the gloves. Seeing it from both sides, he said he has a "profound respect" for fighters, who hold what he considers "the toughest job in our game."
"I think there's a certain amount of emotion it brings to the game, which individually or as a group you can feed off of, to get yourself to different levels during the season. Not to mention the fact that I think it just keeps guys honest," he said.
"I think [if] it's out of the game, there's going to be a lot more dirty stuff where guys don't have to answer the bell," Ladd continued. "It's easy to take a one- or two-game suspension. I think it's a little tougher to go face-to-face with someone."
Brad Richards has been on the receiving end of some vicious hits. One particular blow from behind by Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta last season had him seething after the game and questioning the repeat offender's place in the game (Kaleta was waived by the Sabres this year and demoted to the minors before suffering a season-ending knee injury). Kaleta was suspended five games for the hit, but what would have happened if one of the most oft-criticized "rats" had absolutely no fear of retribution? Would that lead to the proliferation of acts like these?
"The accountability with some players is already, uh, a little strange at times," Richards told ESPN.com on Monday, "let alone if they know nothing's going to happen to them. So, that's the part that is scary."
There is also another reason that fighters receive such universal support. Often times, they are the "glue guys" in the dressing room, the type of high-character presence that serves as the necessary bond among the group.
"Every team that I've been on, fighters have been the guy that calls people out when they're not doing something right and the guys that appreciate it when guys do good things," Nash said. "You need those guys in the league and on teams."
Briere has had only three NHL fights, but those have been enough for him to realize it is a supremely unenviable task.
"Every time, I've left the ice completely exhausted and wishing the game would just be over. I can't imagine going into every game thinking that, tonight there's a good chance I'll have to fight," Briere said. "It's a really, really tough job. You don't get a lot of rewards for it, but you can see it in your teammates' comments.
"Most of your teammates would be the first to defend those guys because they know they've been there for them. We all realize how tough of a job it is."
So while the media, league officials and various executives around the NHL pontificate about the pros and cons of keeping it as part of the game or eradicating it completely, fighting still has an almost unanimous level of support among those in the trenches.
"Definitely, with the players," Thornton said. "The players don't want it to go anywhere."