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Why does NHL still allow bare-knuckle fighting?

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Concussion concerns and questions (1:10)

Barry Melrose discusses the concussion situation in the NHL. (1:10)

It occurred to me the other day as I observed the fuss in Montreal over whether the Canadiens had properly followed concussion protocol with Nathan Beaulieu after he took a hard punch in a fight with the Columbus Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno. (The NHL said the Habs properly followed protocol.)

What I couldn't help but think in the days afterward was that the wrong debate was being held. Shouldn't we be asking why the NHL still allows bare-knuckle fighting?

At a time when we know so much more about brain damage in sports, are we really still debating the merits of fighting in hockey?

There is no question fighting is way, way down and appears headed toward extinction, eventually. The game is about speed, and traditional enforcers can't keep up with the pace, so fights are disappearing by the day.

But why not push it there more quickly? Why not throw two combatants out of the game for a fight? Period. That would push it down to a sprinkling of fights a year.

I've said this before, but it just seems so hypocritical to have introduced Rule 48 (illegal hit to the head) in 2010 but still allow bare-knuckle punches.

We know so much more now about head injuries and concussions.

The NHL and NHL Players' Association have come a long way since forming the original concussion working group in 1997.

"I think there is no question that the concussion protocol is working," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the board of governors' meeting wrapped up on Tuesday. "The spotter program as we refined it is working. The board was showed a couple of videos: (1) was what we use to educate the players on concussions and (2) what we use to educate the spotters. We're proactive in dealing with this issue, and I think the board was very comfortable with what they were hearing."

For my money, it's still not where it needs to be.

My hope is that independent concussion spotters appointed by the league will completely replace team-appointed spotters by next season. (This season, the league hired concussion spotters for all 30 arenas, but it's up to the teams to decide if they use them or use their own.)

In the meantime, there is the current litigation that remains in front of the courts from a group of former players. The players allege that the NHL did not do enough to protect them from head injuries before it created the 1997 concussion group. And the players charge that even afterward, the concussion group's findings were not adequately shared with players.

Personally, I'm torn on this. I feel so badly for those former players who are still suffering today from head injuries incurred when they played and want them to get the help they need. Whether that's financial help or otherwise, you want these guys taken care of.

On the flip side -- and this is where I struggle -- do I really think that the NHL is guilty of the lawsuit's specific charge?

I think it is giving the league way too much credit to think it orchestrated some detailed cover-up to keep players in the dark on concussions. It's not important what I think about the lawsuit, however; we'll let the courts decide it.

What matters most to me is the education that must continue to happen, not just at the NHL level, but certainly in minor hockey and beyond.

Former NHL star center Keith Primeau was a major force in concussion awareness when head injuries forced him to retire prematurely.

He feels the NHL has come a long way.

"I do," Primeau said over the phone from Philadelphia, where he coaches junior hockey. "We all want instant change. But it doesn't happen overnight. It's a process. I can certainly say I'm much more pleased with where the league stance is on this compared to where it was six, seven years ago.

"And to me, the grassroots level is even more important. Parents and coaches are learning that you have to take your kid out after a head injury or scare. It's real. And to me that's real change, that's very important."

Primeau has stayed away from taking part in any of the lawsuits against the NHL. Citing that the game has been good to him, Primeau said he has a number of reasons for abstaining from legal action but mostly feels he made his own decisions when he played and was cognizant of it.

Still, he pays the price even today. He had become pretty healthy, noting that he had two really good years when he felt good. But in August 2014, he banged his head on a dressing-room door, which led to a tough winter last year.

"I had headaches and fatigue, didn't have the same pep in my step. But I'm feeling better now," Primeau said.

Like all the players from that era who suffered from head injuries, Primeau will carry that with him, to some degree, for the rest of his life.

"Every time I see a story like Steve Montador, it saddens me," Primeau said. "I was in tears when I read the Mike Peluso story. It's just heartbreaking."

But again, the hope for Primeau is that he feels both the NHL and grassroots hockey have made important strides in the right direction.

I know for myself, as a journalist in my 21st year covering the NHL, I've traveled a long road toward understanding more about it. I truly didn't grasp the full level of gravity when Marc Savard was hit by Matt Cooke in 2010. I have a different sensibility to it now with the hindsight of knowledge.

Make no mistake, Rule 48 has changed the game. I'll never forget when a prominent power forward, about a year after Rule 48 came into effect, told me he was passing up those big, open-ice hits, the ones that are meant to do damage. Even if the opposing player had his head down, this player told me, he would make sure to dislodge the puck from him but no longer was looking for the big crush job.

You see it in today's game. Head shots are down. Players are adapting.

Yes, a game with less fighting and fewer bone-crunching hits is not what many of us grew up with.

But today's game is also light years faster; the players are bigger and speedier than ever.

This is the salvation for the NHL as we know it: a game based on speed and skill, less so on hitting -- to a degree -- and almost devoid of fighting.

The alternative would threaten the sport's survival. I truly believe that.