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Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins walks out to the ice before the 2011 Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field on January 1, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Penn. (Jamie Squire/Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins walks out to the ice before the 2011 Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field on January 1, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Penn. (Jamie Squire/Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Stephen Brunt

Sidney Crosby leaps head-first into head-shot controversy Add to ...

When reporters who cover the Pittsburgh Penguins were told team captain Sidney Crosby would be speaking to them for the first time after it was confirmed he had suffered a concussion, no one got too excited.

Like so many modern professional athletes, Crosby mastered the art of talking while saying nothing much at all when he was still a kid. In his public life, he has uttered hardly a discouraging or interesting word. Steer clear of controversy, keep it bland and keep it friendly: That's how it is in the world of the sound bite.

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But this might be different, the scribes were told. This might be something. You might want to ask him about his brain injury, about the hit - or hits - that caused it. He might have something to say.

He certainly did. Crosby took a simple open-ended question and ran with it, he went off-script, he said there was something fundamentally wrong with the way the NHL identified and penalized head shots.

"I didn't like them. … When I look at those two hits, you talk about blindside, that's a big word, unsuspecting player, there was no puck there on both of them. It was a direct hit to the head on both of them. If you go through the criteria, I think they fit all those," the 23-year-old centre said. "I know it's a fast game. I've been hit a thousand times. When you get hit like that, there's nothing you can do. There's no way to protect yourself."

Not exactly a call to the barricades, but startling because it was the NHL's meal ticket talking, its poster boy, its current great hope for expanding the game's reach beyond its hardcore following.

Hockey players have traditionally been good, dutiful, company men, just happy to be paid to play the game. The instances of them deviating from the party line are few enough - Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull criticizing the clutch-and-grab style of the 1990s, for instance - that they stand out for years afterward.

Crosby speaking up could be the catalyst for something far more significant than making obsolete the neutral zone trap.

It is now certain he will not be one of the captains in the corporate schmooze-fest that is the NHL all-star game, as he surely would have been, and though he is putting out the word that he will show up and play if he can, that seems unlikely.

If head shots, unpenalized by the league office, were the cause of that, if the game's No. 1 star feels alienated and unprotected and is willing to say so, even amidst all of the glad tidings and glad-handing in Raleigh, it will certainly be hard to ignore.

Are there some qualifiers here?

Absolutely. For starters, as has been pointed in out by many, Crosby only got religion after he was victimized. The Matt Cooke hit on Marc Savard last March, for instance, which he saw up close and in person, somehow didn't move him to speak out.

And the notion we have fully evolved into a zero-tolerance society when it comes to blows to the head and sports entertainment simply isn't true: they are tolerated as inevitable and effective in football (with some recent attempts to mitigate the worst of them in the NFL), they are encouraged and celebrated in boxing and mixed martial arts.

Change comes through education, sometimes change comes after a shock. (Ring deaths at least created enough public outcry to force boxing to shorten title bouts and mandate new safety regulations.)

And often change requires a charismatic leader.

NHL careers have been prematurely ended, lives have been forever altered, and it hasn't been nearly enough to defeat the conventional wisdom that the primary responsibility falls on those being hit rather than the hitter, that finishing a check long after the puck is gone is a fundamental of the game, that if you're skating around with your head down, you're asking for it - no matter what it might represent.

There are all kinds of people in the sport who will defend the status quo, some benefiting from great platforms, whose every utterance on nearly any subject related to hockey (and many that don't relate at all) is treated as though it matters.

But they'll have a heck of a time shouting down Crosby. He has sold millions of dollars of licensed product, has had a huge hand in again making Pittsburgh a great hockey city, he is the idol of many a hockey-loving kid, and the hero of a gold-medal winning country.

And now, he has a chance to be so much more than that.

 

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