sanderson-don-090102-306

Whitby Dunlops defenceman Don Sanderson died after hitting his head on the ice during a fight. ((Canadian Press))

Despite the death of Ontario Senior AAA player Don Sanderson after hitting his head during an on-ice scuffle with an opposing player, fights continue to be on the rise in the National Hockey League.

In an upcoming program scheduled to air Friday night (CBC, 9 p.m. ET), the fifth estate examines why no action has been taken to remove fighting from the game of hockey.

There were more than 900 fights in the NHL last season, an increase of about 40 per cent from the prior year. This season, the league is on pace to surpass 1,000 fights.

Some would argue fisticuffs have increased because the parity in the NHL is so strong while others suggest more players don't take kindly to receiving hits. Many supporters also think the code and culture of fighting belong in the NHL.

Regardless of the reason for the increase, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke believes fighting is not a problem.

"I fear for my athletes in this game," Burke told the fifth estate's Bob McKeown. "I wake up in a cold sweat probably six times a year and jump up in bed and sit up because I think one of my guys had a serious injury, but it's never in a fight.

"I've never once woken up in a cold sweat because one of my players was in a fight."

Former enforcer Nick Kypreos, an eight-year player with four teams, said the game's support for fighting begins with the general managers and coaches charged with running the teams.

"They'll argue that it's absolutely part of the game," said Kypreos. "It's essential. As much as [hockey is] based on passing and shooting, checking — it's based on intimidation, and that's how they view the guys that do that job."

Sanderson, a member of the Whitby Dunlops, lost his helmet during a scrap with Cory Fulton of the Brantford Blast on Dec. 12, 2008. As both players fell, the back of Sanderson's head hit the ice, and he fell into a coma. The 21-year-old died nearly three weeks later.

His death raised varying opinions on fighting's place in the NHL. The issue is to be addressed at the next general manager's meeting in March. However, Burke said the conversation will be a short one.

"If I thought we could eliminate fighting without affecting the way the game is played, I would go for it," said Burke. "I don't believe it's possible."

Bob McCown, a Toronto sports talk show host and a long-time detractor of fighting, said Sanderson's death only reinforces the damage players can do to one another.   

"I said somebody is going to get killed in a fight," he said. "It's an inevitability. And when it happens, we'll see the hockey world turn upside down. There are 60 jobs in the NHL for guys who can't play but can fight, and that's what's wrong."

In a recent Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll taken during the NHL all-star weekend, 54 per cent of the Canadians polled wanted fighting banned, a statistic that doesn't sit well with CBC's Hockey Night In Canada commentator Don Cherry.

"That means we're going to ban fighting for the people that aren't involved in hockey," said Cherry. "That makes sense, doesn't it? That's silly."