Item: The high school hockey tournament fills the Xcel Energy Center with fans and passionate, end-to-end play.

Item: Even in a down year for the Gophers, the WCHA frequently offers high-scoring games in which both teams create constant chances.

Item: Wild prospect Benoit Pouliot gets his teeth knocked to the back of his throat by a minor league thug, who picks him up by the neck and smashes his face in the ice while an official does nothing.

Item: The Wild trades for Chris Simon, giving the team three tough guys -- Simon, Todd Fedoruk and Derek Boogaard -- who contribute little to the scoring column (or any column) even when healthy.

Item: The Wild, despite spending much of its payroll on skilled players, can't score more than your average soccer team.

The conclusion: The higher the level of hockey, the worse the quality of play, and the more thuggery and defensive systems are rewarded.

That's why even here in the State of Hockey, where sellouts are guaranteed and fans continue to sip the organizational Kool-Aid, the NHL is becoming unwatchable.

If the Sharks and Wild, featuring a handful of the most talented players in the world, can play for more than two hours without producing a single pretty goal, then the NHL is not offering real hockey. It is offering figure skating for ugly people.

The league bosses talk every summer about increasing scoring and cleaning up the game, and then we get to the playoff chase and you see the Sharks packing into the defensive zone and the Wild working the neutral-zone trap and both teams waiting for a puck to bounce off someone's ankle and decide the game.

The Roseau varsity vs. the Roseau JV would be more entertaining.

The NHL is about dumping the puck, taking the opponents' stars out of the game, working a defensive system and waiting for a mistake that will create a scoring chance. If NFL coaches thought like NHL coaches, every team would punt on first down.

Take the Wild -- please. They're not just slumping -- they're boring. Because of the Wild's style and the NHL's emphasis on defensive systems, Marian Gaborik spends most of the game looking like a guy waiting for a bus.

Don't repeat the popular argument that he needs to work harder, needs to be more of a two-way player, blah, blah, blah. Gaborik is a scorer. When he scores, the Wild almost always wins. Ergo: Gaborik should spend his ice time trying to score.

That would be good for the fans, the team, the league. Instead, we get to hear Jacques Lemaire chide him about defensive responsibility.

What the NHL needs is far less defensive responsibility. And far less thuggery.

The punk who punched Pouliot should be banned from hockey, along with Simon. There is nothing theoretically wrong with a hockey fight. The problems lie in the realities:

• Most hockey fights involve lousy players. Who cares whether Boogaard can beat up George Parros? That's like caring whether Troy Williamson could beat up Cedric Benson.

• Most hockey fights are much more about jersey pulling and hitting someone in the back of the head than anything that could be mistaken for a real fight.

• Fighting favors unskilled players who should be working as plumbers somewhere. The NHL needs more skilled players and more goals, not more thugs who remind the casual sports fan that hockey still has one foot stuck in the primordial goo.

• Someone is going to die. Some hulk like Boogaard is going to hit an opponent in just the wrong spot, or the loser of a bout will land on the back of his head, and then the time-honored tradition of fighting on ice won't seem so quaint.

Hockey can be a beautiful, thrilling game, as the high school hockey tournament proved.

That's why it was nice of the Wild to hold a Sunday afternoon game -- so true hockey fans, worn out by all that scoring and playmaking in the high school tournament, could catch up on their sleep.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. •