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Crosby's concussion troubles alter the state of the game

A custodian cleans the cases containing items from Sidney Crosby at Cole Harbour Place in Cole Harbour, N.S., Jan. 4, 2011.

Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail/paul darrow The Globe and Mail

Amid the memorabilia of a glittering career – a hockey stick, NHL jerseys, a ticket from the 2010 Olympic final and photos of his Stanley Cup ring and Olympic gold medal – is a small sculpture of the word "believe."

But one year after the concussion that took the sport's biggest star out of the game, it's hard not to note the desperation lurking in the inspirational message at the sprawling sports complex in suburban Halifax where a young Sidney Crosby worked on his shot, hustled in practice and began to chase his dream, in earnest, to play for the NHL.

The youthful players at Cole Harbour Place idolize Mr. Crosby. But many of the parents who had a front-row seat to Mr. Crosby's meteoric rise are terrified now when they see their own children playing.

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"After every game parents are saying 'I'm just so glad my son got out of there without a concussion,' " said Glen Smith, seated high in the stands of one of the rinks, whose son plays for the Dartmouth Whalers Bantam AA. "You go to your daughter's game and you don't have a worry in the world. And you go to your son's and you're like 'glad he made it through that.' "

At a mid-day practice for several local high school teams, the notion of concussions, nuanced rule changes and debate of the very nature of the game seem worlds away. But chat to some of those lining the boards, or coming off the ice, or sitting in the sparse stands, waiting for their kid, and worries that Sid the Kid will never again play the game at a professional level begin to surface. Mr. Smith said the superstar's injury has made everyone aware of the risks faced by boys playing an ever-faster and harder-hitting sport. Some of the skaters say they have become more careful on the ice.

Officials and experts across hockey-playing nations have weighed in with suggestions, including baseline testing for concussion and calls for a ban on checking.

Paul Mason, who coached the young Crosby for four years, finishing when he was 14, said that minor hockey in Nova Scotia now uses tougher rules in cases of suspected concussions. He said the next steps could include looking at some of the equipment players wear and driving a change in culture from behind the bench.

"I think the onus is on the coaches as well," he said in a phone interview. "They have to say, 'as a player on my team, it is unacceptable to hit someone in the head.' "

Players at the Cole Harbour Place rinks Wednesday were quick to play down their own fears, though some admitted concerns and many said their parents were worried about them.

Luke Stienburg, 12, took a break from practising with his Maritime Hockey Academy team-mates to discuss the impact of Mr. Crosby's injury. He said referees are stricter about calling penalties now and that, as a player, he's more conscious of keeping his head up and avoiding damaging contact.

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But he finds it disheartening to see the local star out of the game.

"It's sort of hard because he was a role model to look up to," said the right-winger, as the smell of sweat hangs over the rink and the sound of pucks hitting the boards echoes the arena. "All the players liked to say 'you play where Sidney Crosby did.' I think we care more here because it's his hometown."

Cole Harbour, a suburb of Halifax, is Crosby-country and affection runs deep. Only minutes away from the rinks is the home where he played ball-hockey and shovelled snow for neighbours. People on his street who remember him from those days are still fiercely protective, telling a reporter early in the concussion saga that they will gently steer away autograph seekers and celebrity hounds.

"He's the local boy," said David Bedford, who played goalie for 18 years in Nova Scotia, rising to Midget AAA, as he waited with his four-year-old son for a skating class at Cole Harbour Place. "He's something of an icon here. Once the face of the NHL gets hit and put out, everyone pays attention."

Mr. Bedford is keen for his young children to play hockey. But he notes that his son was in a helmet as soon as he was old enough to slide down a snowy hill.

That concern about head injuries is visceral throughout this building. Strangers will spark up conversations with "do you think he'll be back" and even people with children far too young to play hockey are concerned.

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Nick Blair and Jen Appleby are the parents of Carter Blair, only 16 months but already excited at the sight of the Sidney Crosby memorabilia cases. The boy sleeps with a small plastic hockey stick and his parents would love him to play the game. They're hopeful the attention generated by Mr. Crosby's injury will ultimately help clean up the sport.

"For every parent ... instead of it being at the back of your mind, it's putting up front the risks that you take," Mr. Blair said. "By the time [Carter]is playing it'll be a different game than it is now."

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