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Reg Fleming, New York Rangers
Reg Fleming, New York Rangers

STEPHEN BRUNT

Hockey not in crisis, nor should it be Add to ...

In 1909, 26 American football players died of injuries suffered in games.

Twenty-six. Dead. Over the course of a season, that's about two a week.

They were killed in different fashion, some by spinal breaks, some by blood poisoning after the fact, and some - the largest number - because of blows to the head.

That final gory toll came at the end of what would become known as the "Football Crisis," a five-year stretch during which many outside the sport demanded action, a time when the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, threatened to ban the game because of its danger and inherent violence. Rule changes, finally, were brought in to make the sport safer (most notably the elimination of the "flying wedge" and the incorporation of the forward pass), and in the end saved football from itself.

That would indeed be a crisis.

What we have ongoing in Canada right now when it comes to hockey and concussions is something less, spinning off in a wide variety of directions, at times comparing apples with oranges, and fuelled - as is always the case when the national game is involved - by our tendency to use it as a forum for fretting, and hand-wringing, and especially painful self-examination.

In the past, that has taken the form of agonized debates over how our players stack up against those in the rest of the world, over how the NHL enforces (or doesn't) its rules, and over that great perennial, the place of fighting in the sport.

So this has been like a perfect storm: Reggie Fleming's brain, Bob Probert's brain, the best player in hockey felled for much of the season by a head injury that may have initially gone undiagnosed, Matt Cooke and his predatory cheap shots, Max Pacioretty lying facedown on the ice, a wave of anecdotal material about head injuries at all levels of the game and a new willingness to listen to the available science - all of which suggests concussions are a very bad thing indeed, with potentially grave long-term consequences.

And now, perhaps it's time to take a deep breath, and step back. Even the best causes and best intentions can occasionally tip into overkill, if not into hysteria.

Professional hockey players, who are paid handsomely, in part to endure significant risks, are not minor-hockey players. Some of what is done in their workplace would be considered a crime on the street - but it is not a crime in context, because of implied consent. In any case, what they do to each other, no matter how violent, is not the same thing as a 10-year-old being run over in a house-league game by another 10-year-old who weighs twice as much.

When it comes to children's hockey, and to children's lives, the first question might be just how dangerous the sport is relative to minor football, or skateboarding, or cycling, or gymnastics, or skiing, or soccer (Can't happen? Ask Chelsea's Peter Cech) or sitting in the passenger seat of a moving automobile with a parent on the way to practice. All of those things, children are going to continue to do. And in all of those activities, they are occasionally going to suffer brain injuries.

If the world were run by neurologists, many things would be deemed unacceptably risky - just as, if the world were run by oncologists, smoking would surely be illegal. That's as it ought to be. That is their job, and their ethical responsibility.

As has been noted before in this space, when it comes to paid sports entertainers, we in fact give considerable sway to individual choice, and we are, in fact, quite willing to let athletes risk concussion for our amusement, at times to revel in the very moment when it happens: the knockout blow in boxing, or mixed-martial arts, or football, or, yes (think Scott Stevens on Eric Lindros) in hockey.

Next month, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship comes to Ontario for the first time for a mammoth show at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, it might as well be billed as Guaranteed Concussion Night.

What are you going to? Ban it, having just made it legal?

This is an important conversation. Understanding what the research tells us, considering how head injuries can permanently change lives, is knowledge we all ought to possess. And there are legitimate talking points.

Fighting? That's still No. 1, even if there remain those in the game who believe making it easier to punch players in the head will in the end make the game safer.

Equipment? Let's take a look at hard-shell body armour.

Rink design? Obviously.

Minor hockey? Safety has to be the priority over "development."

The NHL and its rules? Emulation aside, that's a very different discussion than talking about children, and the players themselves ought to have the strongest say.

In the end, though, hockey won't ever be entirely safe, not when played at high speed, on ice, with skates and sticks and pucks and body contact. It won't ever be without risk. Some are going to get hurt, their knees and their shoulders and their brains. And they will continue to play, and we will continue to watch them.

That is not a peculiar to hockey. It is peculiar to human beings.

 

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