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Head Coach Steve Leslie speaks with his Bantam House players during practice at Cole Harbour Place in Cole Harbour, N.S., Jan. 4, 2011. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail/Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)
Head Coach Steve Leslie speaks with his Bantam House players during practice at Cole Harbour Place in Cole Harbour, N.S., Jan. 4, 2011. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail/Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)

The Game Changer

Concussion is now ultimate work-place safety matter in hockey Add to ...

It’s not too much to say that Sidney Crosby has been an agent of change, despite sitting on the sidelines helplessly as the Pittsburgh Penguins season and his career go by in the fog that is post-concussion syndrome.

Has Crosby’s idleness raised awareness about the effect of concussions in all sports? Absolutely.

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Has his status as the most marketable Canadian hockey player – his ‘every mother’s son’ image – made parents and coaches more vigilant on Saturday mornings at rinks throughout the country? You’d like to think so.

Mr. Crosby's health status has become a kind of thread through a series of events including last summer’s shocking suicides of NHL enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak; the release of research from the Boston University School of Medicine showing evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE, or “punch-drunk syndrome”) in the brains of former NHLers Rick Martin, Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert; and an increasing number of man-games lost in the NHL due to concussion, 548 games through Tuesday, according to statistics compiled by CBC.ca.

Mr. Crosby’s return to the inactive list on Dec. 5 after an eight-game return, coupled with the news that he has expanded his treatment team to include Joseph Maroon, the Pittsburgh Steelers neurosurgeon, has reinforced the mystery of brain trauma. Mr. Crosby started experiencing headaches after a practice on Dec. 7, and there is no date for his return. This has become, frankly, an all-too-long teachable moment.

Elite players such as Shea Weber, Chris Pronger and Jeff Skinner are also sidelined, their return dates unknown. Ryan Miller, Claude Giroux and Mike Richards are among other star players to have missed time this season with concussions.

The NHL is not even at its all-star break and the list keeps growing, crossing all sizes, styles of play, positions and levels of experience.

One year after Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning slammed Mr. Crosby into the end-boards in a game between the Penguins and Lightning – exacerbating a concussion Mr. Crosby had suffered four days earlier when he was hit by the Washington Capitals David Steckel – the NHL remains under the concussion cloud. Only during an eight-game spell, when Mr. Crosby made what was ultimately a still-born return to the game, did it seem the cloud had lifted.

The NHL remains conflicted: Players are shielded by ultra-light armour. Rules about boarding and illegal checks to the head are tightened and more strictly enforced. Safety precautions include “quiet rooms,” where players suspected of sustaining a concussion are examined by a doctor before returning to action. Well-regarded former player Brendan Shanahan, hired as vice-president of discipline, dispenses justice in quasi-legal videotape presentations.

Yet the NHL remains the only professional league that actively markets fighting, allowing players to risk concussion by punching each other without threat of banishment from the game. It is an integral part of the game, a staple of video screens at arenas around the NHL.

And there remains a disturbing element of self-regulation, shown last month when Colby Armstrong of the Toronto Maple Leafs withheld his concussion from the team until becoming nauseous while riding an exercise cycle. For all those man-games counted as lost, there is the suspicion that plenty of third- and fourth-liners aren't reported as concussed.

Renowned coaches such as Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues are learning a new way to care for players. “You are way more careful,” Mr. Hitchcock said on Wednesday. “It’s almost as if you talk to the player as a comrade. Rather than ask them ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ you use the well-being of the team for common ground,”

One of his best players, forward David Perron, returned to the lineup recently after missing 97 games with a concussion that predated Mr. Crosby’s. Mr. Perron, with 13 points in 14 games, has said that watching Mr. Crosby’s adherence to doctors orders made his recovery easier; that it was very much a matter of “if it’s good enough for the best player in the game, it’s good enough for me.” One wonders whether Mr. Hedman, who delivered the telling blow to Mr. Crosby, feels the same way. He, too, is out of action after sustaining a concussion as the result of a fall into the boards.

This battle is out of Mr. Crosby’s hands. Concussion has become the ultimate work-place safety matter in the sport, and addressing it is now the responsibility of doctors, equipment makers, league representatives and the National Hockey League Players Association.

Players, too, must adapt as must thinking fans. The league can revisit rules designed to speed up the game. Even with a healthy Mr. Crosby, culture change would have been needed. When the sport's brightest star is in the dark about his future, the need for change is more pronounced.

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