The game will get better.
Most important, however, it's time to think about our sports a different way.
What would hockey look like if it were played in a “head smart” way? If the safety of the brain was central to the rules? What about football and other sports?
What would we have to do differently? When do hits to the head happen? In what circumstances? In what parts of the ice? Against the boards? Against the glass? By whom? With shoulders? With elbows or sticks? They don't happen often. During most of the game, with most of the players, they don't happen at all. Why then? Why them? What about the big hits?
What would we need to do to minimize the risk? Because this isn't about no risk. It's about smart, informed risk. How would we make hockey safer? What would need to change? How would this game feel different to play? To watch? What would be lost? Unable to do some of the things they did before, what would players do instead?
My guess is that a lot less would change and for many fewer players than we think. My guess is also that many of the changes would make our games better, and not only for reasons of safety. If some rules are changed, players and coaches will find ways to adapt and to gain a competitive advantage, because that's what players and coaches do. They're dreamers and imaginers. They're competitive. They need to win.
Once, players and coaches came up with the forward pass in both hockey and football and gave flight to sports that had become a static snarl of bodies. They'll do it again. The mediocre will dig in their heels – they fear they can't change – and usually that's enough to stop everything in its tracks. But this time we have no choice. Not everyone will be affected the same way. Some things will change more for young kids but not for adults, or for girls and not boys, or for boys and not girls. The crucial point is that at every age and every level “head smart” will become the way we play.
This “head smart” movement should be global, not North American. We all face the same problems. Efforts might begin by gathering the most thoughtful coaches and players of a sport – in an area or in a country – and the best head-injury experts to begin putting together a “head smart” model for their sport. These models, as well as those created by other individuals and groups, would be put forward to the public and tested and debated through websites and later through local and international workshops and conferences. “Head smart” models generated in one place and in one sport would challenge and inform models in others, to make each model continually better.
The NHL, NFL and other sports leagues would engage with these efforts, sometimes as partners (in studies, in testing out proposals), sometimes financially, always in promoting the importance of the work.
The Crosby press conference suggests an opportunity. The future doesn't have to be one of pointed fingers and shouted denials. None of us knows the answer. All of us know the problem. We are all in this together. We love our sports. We love to play them and watch them. We love to argue over them. We love the inspiration and the excitement they bring. We want sports to be part of our lives forever. We know that sports will not go away, but we also know that the role they play in our lives is at risk. This is a fearful time, but it can be an exciting time.
The NHL and Gary Bettman and the NFL and Roger Goodell have an opportunity. This is the moment.
Ken Dryden, a lawyer and ex-MP, is a former NHL goaltender and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
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