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05/25/2012 03:46 EDT | Updated 07/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadians are more in love with hockey than ever but increasingly want the game to be less dangerous, a new survey suggests.

The results of a poll done for the Environics Institute indicate a growing percentage of Canadians regard the sport as "a key part of what it means to be a Canadian" — 46 per cent of respondents in 2012 said they totally agree, up from 35 per cent in 2010.

Views of general violence in hockey hadn't changed much since 2010, with hard-core NHL fans less likely to disapprove.

But rising concern in the past year about concussions and injuries to stars such as Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby appear to have changed people's thinking.

Eighty-seven per cent of respondents now support taking "every step possible to prevent concussions, even if this means changing the way the game is played."

The divide between hard-core fans and Canadians who are "occasionally interested" is less severe when it comes to making hockey safer.

"Even huge hockey fans express overall support for changing the game to prevent concussions [80 per cent], although they are less enthusiastic, with only 43 per cent expressing strong support," the institute says.

88% back banning head shots

That includes banning all head shots and — again, to a lesser extent among hard-core fans — eliminating fighting altogether in the NHL, as has been done in other professional sports.

Banning head shots is supported by 88 per cent of respondents, even those who think big hits make for more exciting hockey, the report said.

Putting an end to fights in the NHL remains more controversial, depending on whether you are a "huge fan" of someone who's an occasional watcher.

Forty-eight per cent of serious hockey fans in the respondent group said they favoured ending fights, whereas the number rose to 73 per cent among occasional watchers.

Men were twice as likely than women to say they love hockey, the survey found, but the gap is narrowing as women get more interested.

Hockey's fan base is biggest in British Columbia and lowest in Quebec, the institute said. The areas of greatest growth are Atlantic Canada and Western Canada.

As well, Canadians prefer watching NHL hockey to Olympic hockey by a 2-to-1 margin.

Iconic status rising

The sport has risen steadily as a symbol of Canadian identity since 1997, the report says.

"Hockey remains in the lower tier among 13 symbols, but has strengthened its position relative to such icons as bilingualism and the CBC."

At the top of the list of 13 symbols are the health-care system, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian flag. The Queen is at the bottom.

The survey was done between May 2 and 7. It involved an online panel of 1,000 people balanced for age, gender and region. Because it does not involve a randomly selected sample, no margin of error is offered, the institute says.

The Environics Institute is a non-profit organization led by Michael Adams (co-founder of Environics Research) and its mission is to promote "relevant and original public opinion and social research on important issues of public policy and social change," its website says.

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