Ask any American sports fan to recall the most exciting hockey game he ever saw and chances are he'll say the US team's victory over the Soviet Union at Lake Placid. There were no fights in that game; just 60 minutes of exciting, hard-hitting, action-filled hockey.
Now ask any hockey expert which team has been the best in the world over the the past few years and he'll undoubtedly say that notwithstanding that one loss it has to be the USSR. The Soviets embarrassed the National Hockey League All-Stars in a three-game series at Madison Square Garden a couple of years ago, and they demonstrated their superiority again by humiliating another collection of NHL superstars 8-1 in the championship game of the 1981 Canada Cup.
These same Soviets, by the way, are a big draw at the gate and on TV, too. People enjoy watching their demonstration of skating, shooting, and stick-handling skills. And no one seems to mind the fact that there aren't any brawls breaking out every so often to ''enliven'' the evening's entertainment.
Meanwhile in the NHL, with its ''boys will be boys'' attitude toward practically any sort of mayhem on the ice, teams frequently play to half-empty arenas, and every attempt to set up a national TV network has been a ratings disaster.
The message seems pretty obvious, doesn't it? Sure, there's a certain element that likes to see the players fighting instead of skating. Anyone who has been to an NHL game realizes that. But given the greater popularity of other sports -- and even of hockey as played by the US Olympians and the Soviets -- it appears clear that all the goonery in the pro version turns off a great many more people than it turns on.
The NHL doesn't see it that way, though. While giving lip service to the idea that something should be done to curb violence, its apologists keep insisting that they can't ever hope to stop it altogether, because ''fighting is part of the game.'' They contend that the combination of speed, hard hitting, and close quarters in hockey builds up tensions to the point where players will inevitably let off steam by fighting now and then.
Furthermore, although the NHL people don't like to get into this part of it, they still think it sells tickets - and apparently haven't ever given much thought to the possibility that it drives away more people than it brings in.
No less an authority than Dave Schultz, the repentant former No. 1 bully boy of the Philadelphia Flyers, pointed this out while decrying the NHL's whole violent philosophy in his recent book, ''The Hammer.'' He noted various examples , topped by the fact that after a fight-filled game between Boston and Minnesota late last season the two teams met in the Stanley Cup playoffs -- a ''press agent's dream,'' according to the conventional NHL wisdom -- and wound up playing before thousands of empty seats.
But despite this and many other examples, the league's stone-age mentality endures -- as has been shown in two well-publicized incidents this season.
First Paul Holmgren, one of Schultz's successors in Philadelphia's ''animal act,'' varied the monotony of hitting other players by striking a referee. Now we all know that in most sports, this is an absolute no-no, punishable by the sternest of penalties. But the NHL handed Holmgren only a ''slap on the wrist'' five-game suspension.
Now we have the case of Paul Mulvey, who was thrown off the Los Angeles Kings after refusing to leave the bench and get into a fight. And even though the league has attempted to silence the subsequent outcry by moving quickly and severely to suspend the coach and fine the team, the very fact that the incident took place still says a lot about the way many NHL players, coaches, and teams view their game.
To put the whole situation in proper perspective, it is perhaps necessary to note a few basic facts.
First, sad as it may be, there's no question that North American pro hockey has long winked at violence. This is particularly true in the lower minor leagues, but it also extends to the NHL, which is really unfortunate. It doesn't show much confidence in your sport if you believe you need gimmicks like this to sell it, even at the major league level.
One rationale the NHL uses, as noted above, is that even though other rough sports like football and basketball manage with a minimum of such behavior, hockey players are somehow so fantastically more keyed up that the game just has to bring out a certain amount of spontaneous fighting.
Another is each team's alleged need for some tough-guy types, known in the trade as ''enforcers,'' whose main responsibility is to neutralize their opposing counterparts, or protect their more gifted teammates, or both.
Don Perry, the Los Angeles coach, had just such a job as a player in the old Eastern Hockey League many years ago. And to be fair about it, Mulvey had also played this role throughout his 31/2-year NHL career with Washington, Pittsburgh , and Los Angeles. The 6 ft., 4 in., 220-pound left wing set a team record for penalty minutes in a season while playing for Washington, and he was the Kings' leader in that category this winter.
Given all these factors, it is really not surprising that when trouble broke out in a game against Vancouver, Perry tried to send Mulvey over the boards to join in. But Mulvey had reached a point where he just couldn't take it anymore.
''I'm not going to be a designated assassin who just comes off the bench and fights,'' he said afterward.
''I'm a human being and I stuck up for my rights as a person,'' he added. ''I was being shoved out there as if I was nothing, with no respect for my hockey ability at all. I like to consider myself a hockey player, that I can play in this league, and I think I've proven that.''
The Kings apparently think otherwise. First Perry publicly chastised Mulvey and banned him from playing or practicing with the team. Next the club put him on waivers, and when he wasn't claimed by any other NHL team he was sent to L.A.'s minor league affiliate in New Haven. General Manager George Maguire insisted, of course, that the incident involving the fight had nothing to do with this decision -- that Mulvey was simply a marginal player who had been acquired in midseason when the team was shorthanded because of injuries and who was no longer needed.
Be that as it may, NHL president John Ziegler was upset enough about the whole incident to suspend Perry for 15 days and fine the club $5,000, indicating in his accompanying statement that while he tries to be understanding when things happen in the heat of battle, ''we cannot and will not tolerate premeditated attempts to ignore or act against the policy of the league.''
That, at least, is a start in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go - and nobody thinks it will be easy. Perhaps Terry O'Reilly, the rugged forward of the Boston Bruins, put it best among the torrent of quotations from all over the country in reaction to the whole incident.
''The league's showing signs of change, but it won't happen overnight,'' he said. ''If you're going to have a sophisticated game, the fans are going to have to be educated. In Montreal they are. If a guy can't skate, handle the puck, and shoot, he gets the rap. But I've come off the ice sometimes after scoring a goal or two and playing a real solid game and some fan shouts, 'Hey, O'Reilly, how come you didn't deck someone out there?' The mentality will have to change along with the game.''