Paying the price

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.

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