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Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins gets ready to take a face off against the Phoenix Coyotes on December 20, 2010 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images) (Jamie Sabau/2010 Getty Images)
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins gets ready to take a face off against the Phoenix Coyotes on December 20, 2010 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images) (Jamie Sabau/2010 Getty Images)

JEFF BLAIR

The NHL needs to protect its stars Add to ...

The Pittsburgh Penguins have it right. There is no point in giving daily updates on Sidney Crosby's recovery from a concussion, because that can only raise or dash hopes, in addition to raising pressure on Crosby.

Crosby will return to practice when he's ready to practise. End of story. That is how the Minnesota Twins handled the season-ending concussion of star first baseman Justin Morneau.

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The issue for the Penguins and the National Hockey League, however, is that as long as Crosby is out, the league's inadequate protection of its players is going to be on the front-burner.

This is like shooting fish in a barrel, frankly. NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell was long ago exposed as someone incapable of fostering the development of a more respectful culture among the league's players, which is what this whole issue is about.

The NHL makes a habit of taking a black-and-white issue - in this case, head shots and blindside hits - and turning it into a bunch of grey areas, as former players and executives add their two cents worth and fuss about whether a player had the puck at his feet just before he was crushed, or couch it in the language of "finishing a check."

Rubbish.

The vast majority of blindside hits or head shots, especially the ones delivered by the modestly talented fourth-line goons, are irrelevant to the flow of play.

Draconian changes could have a real impact: Limit rosters to do away with jobs that are given to the more thuggish element of the game (lopping off five players would help in the salary-cap era, no?), or take draft picks away from teams that accrue a certain number of major penalties, a twist on the whole "fair-play league" element of soccer. Those won't happen, of course. No way any players' union would agree to a move that results in the loss of so many jobs.

The truth is that this is on the players themselves. Even if they were something other than apparently genetically incapable of doing the right thing, owners and general managers and the league office can do only so much. In a game of action and reaction, players must be conditioned to think twice.

Since the NHL says it has drug testing in place - the Canadian media are largely not interested in the issue and the United States doesn't care about the NHL let alone whether there's rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in the league - you'd like to think this isn't a matter of players being transformed into chemically altered Neanderthals, even though a lot of what you see on the ice sure looks like what we used to call good, old-fashioned 'roid rage. You'd like to think there is nothing preventing reasonableness.

That doesn't mean the National Hockey League Players' Association can do much about blindside hits or head shots either, beyond moral suasion. Donald Fehr, executive director of the association, won't find this argument as muddled as was the role of the Major League Baseball Players' Association in that game's steroid scandal (where there were issues of innocence before guilt and individual rights and freedoms that he was obligated to defend). But at the end of the day, all he can do is say: "Guys, think a bit." You can't hold a union vote on caring about each other.

There is one constituency that escaped scrutiny during baseball's steroid scandal and one constituency that needs to step up during the debate on blindside hits and head shots: agents. They are enablers of the cultures that dominate professional sports, and because they have a foot in several camps, they are best placed to push change.

They must take the lead here, in the way baseball agents failed so miserably with steroids. Other than the players themselves, they have the most at stake, at least as long as the NHL's brain trust would rather excuse thuggishness instead of preventing it.

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