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In this file photo, Montreal Canadiens Max Pacioretty lies on the ice after being hit into a glass stanchion by Boston Bruins Zdeno Chara during the second period of NHL hockey play in Montreal, March 8, 2011.  Pacioretty suffered a broken vertebra and severe concussion on the play. (Shaun Best/REUTERS)

In this file photo, Montreal Canadiens Max Pacioretty lies on the ice after being hit into a glass stanchion by Boston Bruins Zdeno Chara during the second period of NHL hockey play in Montreal, March 8, 2011.  Pacioretty suffered a broken vertebra and severe concussion on the play.

(Shaun Best/REUTERS)

ROY MacGREGOR

Player safety: The elephant in the NHL negotiation room Add to ...

There is opportunity here.

In all the dreary nuts-and-bolts talk about a new collective agreement between NHL owners and players we hear endlessly about share of revenues and the length and structure of contracts – but nothing at all about what, only one year ago, was hockey’s biggest issue:

Player safety.

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Perhaps the problem has been a failure to connect players’ heads to owners’ to pockets – something that just may occur Tuesday in New York as a half dozen owners sit down with a half dozen players in what may be a desperate attempt to salvage what increasingly appears to be a doomed season.

Among the players will be Sidney Crosby. It is now one year, almost to the day, that Crosby returned to the game after missing more than 10 months while struggling with concussion symptoms. He soared brilliantly in a four-point debut against the New York Islanders and, seven games later, crashed again following what appeared to be a fairly minor hit to the head against the Boston Bruins.

Crosby will be a voice in the meetings, but he should also be a physical reminder of hockey’s top potential as well as its bottom line. His contract extension is scheduled to pay him $12-million a year beginning next fall. He can well be worth that, and more, to a league struggling to maintain and even gain on its fan base.

Not playing, however, he still costs that – and a great deal more. There is, of course, the price of replacing him. There are also the league-wide losses from empty seats and lost souvenir sales if, heaven forbid, he were once again injured for a length of time.

Without a Matt Cooke incident to remind the NHL every so often how hideous as well as ridiculous injuries to the head are, not much is said during labour negotiations about player safety.

This is unfortunate, as research is still ongoing even if NHL hockey is not.

Last month there was a major symposium at Toronto Western Hospital’s Krembil Neuroscience Centre. Marc Savard, the brilliant Boston Bruins centre who appears to have lost his career to a headhunter’s foolishness, has joined the advisory board of the Canadian Sports Concussion Project headed by Dr. Charles Tator. Other athletes, from football and hockey, are increasingly stepping forward in this project to tell their stories of the struggles they and their families have faced in dealing with the long-term effects of severe blows to the head.

And on Monday, Brain, a leading scientific journal, carried a report on the world’s largest study on concussions. Scientists at Boston University studied the brains of 85 athletes involved in high-impact sports and determined that 68 of them – including those of hockey players Reggie Fleming, Derek Boogard and Bob Probert – were found to show signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The long-term effects can be devastating.

“I don’t think we can ignore it any longer,” Lead author Anne McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at the U.S. school told The Globe and Mail. “It’s not going to go away if we pretend it doesn’t exist. It does exist.”

It does, and here is where it relates directly to the NHL’s ongoing negotiations.

Reports continually say that the two sides, owners and players, are $182-million apart. Given that at certain points last year half the Philadelphia Flyers seemed to be out with concussions and, according to one report, there were days when as much as $50-million in salaries was sidelined by head injuries throughout the league, that $182-million would be quickly covered and more if the league would only move to ban head shots entirely.

Concussions would still happen through accident, but this is so in every game from soccer to schoolyard swings.

Can it be done?

Paul Kariya says yes, it can be done. Kariya is a future hall-of-famer who won Olympic gold for Canada and had a perfect point-a-game average (989 points in 989 games) with Anaheim, Colorado, Nashville and St. Louis. He was also, long before Crosby’s 2011 injury, the NHL’s best-known casualty of the head shot.

Kariya believes that it is entirely possible to rid the game of this continuing blight. He points to hockey’s once-infamous bench-clearing brawls, so common a generation ago but unknown today in a time of severe penalties and fines.

“This,” he says, “is how the league got rid of bad behaviour before.”

In Kariya’s opinion, a head-shots discussion within the realm of the labour agreement is neither anti-owner nor anti-player, but completely pro players safety and future revenues. Healthy players, especially when they are the calibre of a Crosby, means a healthier bottom line.

In other words, the timing is perfect for both owners and players to talk about hits to the head as well as hits to the pocketbook.

“The last lockout, horrible as it was, had a positive note that when the game came back it was better, a much-improved product,” Kariya says.

“Hopefully, something else good can come out of this.”

Hopefully.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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