NEWLY-ACQUIRED Montreal Canadiens forward Max Domi acted like a first-rate goon last week. And while he’s hardly the first NHLer to do so on the ice, it was disconcerting to see such an ugly spectacle kick off a season in which the Habs aim to improve their record.

As many fans who follow the league know by now, Domi, 23, was suspended for the rest of the pre-season after he sucker punched Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad. The 22-year-old blue-liner, who apparently suffered a broken nose, was checked for a concussion and cleared.

The Canadiens defended Domi, saying he plays with “emotion,” the kind of player the team has been looking for.

Playing with emotion is one thing. But in last week’s incident — during an exhibition game, with nothing at stake — Ekblad clearly wasn’t interested in dropping the gloves: he didn’t take the bait when, before said sucker punch was delivered, Domi popped him in the head. Twice.

Domi disgraced himself by socking him anyway, committing an act that, off the ice, would reasonably have resulted in a charge of aggravated assault. A pre-season suspension is hardly a sufficient penalty; that part of the schedule is nearly over anyway.

Blood-thirsty fans may have loved the narrative: Domi the rough customer flexing his muscles; and Ekblad, acting like a coward and not responding in the way that any self-respecting NHL defenceman should. No wonder he got punched out.

Others, who can still recall the mindless goonery associated with the Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s, might have shaken their heads in disgust. Why does this still go on, and why does the league appear to tolerate it?

Former Boston Bruins defenceman Bobby Orr, one of the greatest players to lace up a pair of skates, has defended fighting in the NHL, calling it a necessary evil. Orr, who was no shrinking violet in his day, argued that cheap-shot artists would get away with murder if enforcers weren’t around to “lay down the law,” as he put it.

Ironically, by the time a chronic knee injury cut Orr’s career short in the late 1970s, more players were emulating the style that made him such a marvel — an emphasis on speed and puck control, not fisticuffs.

In his prime, Orr was a harbinger of the European influence that pervades the NHL today. It’s arguably what makes even regular season games between two mediocre squads much more fast-paced and exciting.

Presumably, the NHL’s board of governors will react to what a majority of fans demand. That apparently includes an allowance for fighting, concerns about concussions and the poor example it sets for minor-league players be damned.

As the level of play gets better and better, this becomes harder to fathom.

The bygone era that featured mindless goons with nothing better to contribute than a slug-match seems beneath modern-era players and fans alike.

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