How Crosby’s Retirement, or Worse, Could Bring Out Best in NHL

By Jason Menard

For true fans of the game of hockey, the second-best thing in the world would be that Sidney Crosby is forced to retire at the age of 24 due to continuing concussion complications.

The only thing better? Crosby’s death.

Now, please, please, please realize that when I talk about what it would take to make things better, I’m doing so in true Swiftian, “A Modest Proposal” fashion.

In reality, I hope Crosby goes on to live a long, healthy, and successful life. I love watching him play and he seems like a good, polite, respectful kid with a good head on his shoulders. Unfortunately, that good head has been rattled by too many questionable hits.

However, many of us who love the game of hockey are frustrated by the lack of action towards hits to the head and concussions. The NHL has made baby steps towards protecting its players, but seems to be afraid of taking any sort of drastic measures that would help to prevent serious injuries in the future.

The best result for all is that the league starts coming down hard, enacting and enforcing rules, to protect its players and ensure long and healthy careers. Unfortunately, it appears that someone’s going to have to die from a hit to the head before the NHL removes its own head from its ass and brings about the changes needed to create the “best” game for its fans.

No one should have to die in order for the league to come down hard on players. Improvements in equipment have turned protective gear into armour that can be used as an offensive weapon; a focus on nutrition and conditioning have rendered today’s hockey player bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before. Combine those factors and you have the equivalent of Sherman Tanks racing around a track at F1 speeds – and the only thing relatively unprotected are the drivers’ heads.

I would suggest that the only true surprise to date is that we haven’t yet seen someone die on the ice.

Some reports suggest Crosby suffered a setback in his comeback from a January 2011 concussion. His agent denies it. The truth is out there, but no one’s sharing it. I don’t have any direct pipeline to Crosby myself, but I do own a calendar. When I flip it, I see a lot of pages between January and August. By now a player should be able to perform at full speed, with contact. If he’s not able to – regardless of whether you want to call it a setback or not – it’s not a good thing.

There are those who suggest that stricter rules on hits to the head and body checking will neuter the game. These people call themselves traditionalists and point to the history of the game. Yet I don’t see those same traditionalists calling for a return of the rover, the re-abolition of the forward pass, or even allowing players to ditch their helmets.

A respect for tradition doesn’t mean a blind adherence to the past and ignoring any advances since. To me, the biggest tradition that the NHL has is that it’s the place where the world’s best compete on a nightly basis. And that’s the tradition that must be protected.

If the NHL and its players won’t care enough about the human aspect of this equation, then perhaps appealing to their business interests will. When you start looking at the bottom line, changes to the game start adding up.

I want to see the Crosby’s of the world weave their magic on the ice. The game is better with players like Pat Lafontaine and Eric Lindros on a roster instead of prematurely retired. People pay to see the best play, but if the best are on the injured list because the league can’t adequately prevent shots to the head, then, as a customer, I’m less interested in your product.

For the most part, the guys who have had their careers cut short due to concussions have been marginal guys, third-and-fourth liners, and players near the end of their careers anyway.Crosby is different. He’s the league’s best player and he hasn’t even entered into the prime of his career.

Ideally, I hope this ends up being just a scare – and that fear alone is enough for the league to make significant changes to equipment and enforcement. In a my ideal scenario, Crosby makes a full recovery, dominates the league, and never suffers another concussion, partly because the league — hopefully seeing how much they almost lost — will take the steps need to avoid actually losing a player of this magnitude.

After all, Crosby was supposed to lead the NHL into future. However, instead of re-writing the record books, maybe Crosby’s defining legacy will be a re-writing of the rule books with stricter rules and regulations designed to prevent long-term injuries to the head.

And while that may be a more valuable legacy long-term, it will be a shame if that better future is paid for by Crosby’s health and career.

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