If sport has its origins in combat, if hockey is just a commercialized version of war with better sightlines, then, yes, maybe brain damage is an essential component of our national game.
How else to explain the cult of the concussion that prevails in the National Hockey League? Brutality-loving general managers rule the professional game, and they have consistently refused to banish the head shots that compromise players' lives and livelihood. In the NHL, where celebrated players such as Eric Lindros, Pat Lafontaine and Keith Primeau have had their careers cut short by attacks to the head, it's still considered acceptable, even desirable, to drive your body armour into an opponent's skull at high speed in order to hasten his postretirement dementia. Big, hard hits are praised for creating "momentum," hockey's proud euphemism for the energy boost that comes from watching a fast-skating opponent knocked senseless by a blow to the head.
What should be considered a medical travesty and a national disgrace is instead positioned as a point of pride: Canada's game is inherently violent, and only real men need apply. "If you don't want to get hurt, don't play the game," said CBC commentator and former general manager Mike Milbury recently, the kind of know-it-all response that hockey neanderthals like to offer up whenever their blood lust is called into question.
It's not as if the NHL were ignorant about the damage concussions create: The league administers a state-of-the-art policy to diagnose players who have been concussed and assist them in their recovery. This program has served as a model for the National Football League as it tries to make up for its own inattention to brain injuries.
The difference with the NHL is that, while it's prepared to help players after they've been hurt, it doesn't do nearly enough to prevent them from entering that brain-damaged state in the first place - "getting their bell rung," as commentators like to say with sports-fan glee.
Medical professionals unconnected to the NHL have long urged the league to change hockey culture and institute a zero-tolerance policy for head shots. Impossible, say the national game's self-appointed gatekeepers, who have staunchly opposed what Mr. Milbury has called a "pansification" of the sport's exaggerated macho masculinity. Yet, this is exactly the kind of protective protocol that will be followed at the Vancouver Olympics, where the style of play is governed by the enlightened free thinkers of the International Ice Hockey Federation - a Europeanized body long suspected by old-school commentators of trying to devalue hard-nosed hockey.
Does any hockey fan, let alone any medical expert, seriously believe that the calibre of Olympic hockey will suffer because the best players in the world cease to be moving targets for headhunters? Will well-heeled spectators demand their money back because Team Canada's best are unable to create momentum through hits to the head and have to rely, instead, on the ancient arts of skating, passing, shooting and checks to the body?
Yet, at the same time that the Olympics are delivering undeniable pleasure through hockey's unbeatable combination of speed, skill and toughness, the NHL brain trust will be preparing for a round of meetings in March designed to sort out good head hits from bad. Like abstruse medieval philosophers, the league's general managers take pride in discerning minute differences between brain-jarring attacks that are a proper part of the game and those that may no longer suit the sensitivities of the times.
Blame the pedestrian
A concussion is a concussion, you might well say. Why not listen to the doctors and do everything in your power to look after players' brains - or at the very least treat them as long-term economic assets deserving of stringent protection? Yet, the NHL's decision-makers have long maintained a blame-the-victim strategy that essentially says to its legion of concussed puck handlers: You should have seen it coming.
Or to quote Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, a Harvard Law School graduate, one-time college hockey player and former vice-president in charge of discipline for the NHL: "We've always said, if a player puts himself in a vulnerable position, that's his fault." Apply this argument to the real world, and imagine what you'd get - where vulnerability is somehow made to equal culpability, it's open season on momentarily distracted pedestrians for any speeding driver who wants to feel the thrill of a bone-jarring collision.
The only way to be invulnerable in this version of hockey is to take your eyes off the puck or the pass and be constantly on the alert for the disabling bodycheck that is the trademark of the tough-guy NHL - and the pride of many Canadians who have come to believe that the ruggedness of our game is somehow proof of a superior national character.