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The National Hockey League rule book has a lot to say – several hundred words' worth – about slashing, high-sticking and slew-footing, i.e., "the act of a player using his leg or foot to knock or kick an opponent's feet from under him."

The penalties are clear, and if the NHL's referees and their employers were better at enforcing them, perhaps the face of the league would still be playing.

Instead, Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby is out with another concussion. We should all lament his absence, and by extension, what it says about the game.

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Read more: Why Sidney Crosby's concussion could push the NHL to get tough on stick fouls

The Stanley Cup playoffs once again exhibit the NHL's central flaw: Thuggery silences genius. That's not in the rule book, but it might as well be.

The game in which Mr. Crosby was injured was peppered with egregious incidents. That's not unusual; the standard of officiating has been poor this spring, the stickwork appalling. This is not a league that can plausibly argue it errs on the side of caution.

In the first round, Columbus' Matt Calvert chased down Pittsburgh's Tom Kuhnhackl and broke his stick over his head; he sat for one game.

Yes, Washington Capitals' defenceman Matt Niskanen was hit with a game misconduct when his stick, held in the cross-checking position, forcefully crushed Mr. Crosby's face. He was penalized, but not suspended.

More problematic: the reckless disregard, or worse, displayed by Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. The burly Russian knocked the Team Canada captain off balance – and into Mr. Niskanen – with a hefty slash to the arm, a crack on the head and a slew-foot. He wasn't penalized.

Mr. Ovechkin is one of the most talented goal scorers of all time; he's no stereotypical goon. But he has been suspended in the past for dangerous play, including a slew-foot.

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That he and others haven't changed illustrates how the NHL cares less about protecting its marquee players than it does about lionizing the hard-man culture that encourages their abuse in the name of winning.

An enlightened league would do something about it. But this is the NHL. You can knock out the greatest player in the game and get away with it. The NHL has a rule book, but everyone who plays knows what the real rules are. They know, and act accordingly.

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