In the latest edition of The Hockey News, writer Adam Proteau tackled the hot issue of concussions and head shots, surveying a group of experts from across the spectrum in an attempt to cast light on what can be done to curb the malady.
But I’d like to take the argument to a place that is truly near and dear to many of those who run the game: the pocketbook.
There is a visceral financial component to consider in the concussion debate and Patient Zero is No. 87 on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby. It goes a little something like this: What if Crosby can’t return to the NHL, ever?
What if, at the tender age of 23, the most marketable star in hockey – captain of a popular American team (Penguins jerseys in general are best-sellers right now), catalyst of a Canadian Olympic gold medal on home ice and winner of a Stanley Cup, not to mention numerous individual awards – can’t play anymore?
The NHL is courting new partners for American television; think the shine comes off a little for ESPN or Fox when the biggest marketable star in the sport is taken out of the equation? What about that $375-million deal with Molson-Coors last week? Think Sid’s name came up once or twice? Even if you prefer Alex Ovechkin to Crosby, admit that Ovie’s wild-and-crazy guy persona requires the perfect foil of the humble, boyish Sid to work as well as it does. Add in the fact Crosby is fluent in both French and English and it’s no surprise his influence on hockey’s off-ice landscape is just as prominent as it is on the rink.
And as loveable as Ovechkin is, he didn’t win Canada a gold medal in Vancouver. That’s the kind of feat I’m sure the execs at Tim Hortons love about Sid, who is their most bankable pitchman. Same goes for Reebok and Gatorade, when it comes to hockey players.
With the NFL and NBA embroiled in labor strife and lockouts possible for both, the 2011-12 NHL campaign has the possibility of being the most important since the end of the lockout for the sport, maybe even more so. Canada is basically maxed out when it comes to hockey fans, but Americans are still being drawn in – and that’s a much larger pool to draw from. Not having Sid on board should terrify the NHL.
So there’s the biggest scare tactic to curb concussions short of a player dying on the ice. Is there a solution? That, of course, is the vexing matter. Players certainly don’t want the NHL to treat them like children, but then Trevor Gillies comes out for a shift and you wonder if a Nanny State solution may be required. Ultra-long suspensions hit the offenders in the pocketbook and send a consistent message, something the NHL is horrible at right now. Any argument about taking away a player’s livelihood is nullified by jeopardizing the livelihood of he who has just been elbowed into next week. If the NHL and the Players’ Association – which has just as important a role in the matter – really want to eliminate the grey areas, then perhaps penalties or even short suspensions for players who put themselves in danger are necessary.
Turn your back when a forechecker is about to fill you in? That’s two minutes for being stupid. You wouldn’t call it that, but I think you catch my drift. Do it a couple times and you’re turfed for a game. Learn from your mistakes. Treat it like diving where both parties get penalized and give the refs a mandate to use strict discretion on whether or not the player put himself in harm’s way.
Back in the day, players were more aware of these things. I highly doubt anyone turned his back when a Bobby Clarke or Tim Horton was bearing down on him in the corner. So legislate it out. Sorry, players - you can have your leeway back when you deserve it.
Foremost for safety, but with an eye on the grim, capitalist realities of the game, it’s gotta be done.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays, The Hot List appears Tuesdays and his Rookie Report appears every other Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter on twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.