Ever since the tragic death of minor hockey player Don Sanderson earlier this year during an in-game fight, the fighting issue has been debated around the game of hockey as much as the U.S. economic stimulus plan.

While we’ve heard the opinions of people in the NHL upper offices, NHLPA head Paul Kelly and numerous NHL “enforcers,” few of the game’s biggest stars have spoken about the topic. And when you think about it, who’s affected more by the fighting than the game’s biggest stars? Fighters make sure opponents don’t take liberties with their team’s stars. And some stars even like to stick up for themselves once in a while.

One such player who has been known to drop the gloves in defense of himself or a teammate is Boston Bruins defensemen Zdeno Chara, whose occasional fisticufs haven’t prevented him from also playing at a Norris Trophy-caliber level this season and in years past. Chara’s beatdown of Atlanta’s Boris Valabik earlier this season was almost as memorable as some of his goals, assists and key defensive plays.

When it comes to fighting, and in particular the “staged” bouts that Kelly has talked about weeding out of the game, Chara think there’s a misconception.

“I don’t think it’s ever at a point where it’s staged fighting. Even if nobody’s hitting anybody, those guys are out there doing the toughest jobs in the NHL, and they either try to make a point or try to get momentum for their teams, change momentum from the other team to their team,” Chara told earlier this week. “So I think sometimes people don’t recognize that it’s not just staged fighting. It’s something that there’s a lot of pride in. Guys are maybe saying, ‘Ok, you won the last fight; I want to show that this time I can handle you.’ Or they’re just trying to get the momentum from other team. I don’t think it’s necessarily, ‘hey, let’s fight for fun like that.'”

With that in mind, however, Chara does want safety to become a guiding force in the hockey-fight game. Recently Montreal Canadiens tough guy Georges Laraque expressed his desire that linesmen break up fights as soon as one player’s helmet comes off. Although he’s not 100 percent sure how to enforce such a guideline, Chara is certain that fighters should not be permitted to remove any of their gear.

“It’s obviously very sad what happened (to Sanderson). I think that when people are taking their gear off, which the helmet is part of it, the ice is not going to give. If you do something, maybe a rule that you’re not allowed to take your helmet or your gear off … sometimes you see guys taking off their elbow pads, and they land and they break their elbows,” explained the Bruins’ captain. “I don’t think you should be able to take off your gear. That’s the No. 1 rule.

“I know guys that have a visor, they try to be fair and take off the visor. It’s very unfortunate,” he continued. “It’s one of those things where if you’re the type of guy who doesn’t mind dropping the gloves … it’s kind of (defeating the purpose) because you want to protect your face and then fighting you’re taking the whole thing off and you are totally exposed. It’s something that you should probably keep the helmets on.”

Chara said he wasn’t sure if taking helmets or other gear off should be a penalty. He just knows that it has to be stopped.

But one thing he was certain didn’t need to be ruled out is fighting as an integral part of the game. A large man who fears very little, Chara would hate to see the “Wild West” atmosphere he thinks would prevail if players were no longer allowed to drop the gloves.

“It’s been (reduced) before. You see the guys on the teams, you used to see at least three or four guys (who fought). Now you don’t have as many on teams … but I really think that there’s always going to be room for guys like that on a team because they police everything,” Chara said. “Just think, if you take those guys away, then it’s going to be a lot of dangerous stuff people are going to be doing.”

Most star players like Chara would have to agree. And if it’s open season on the best players alive, then what does the league have left?