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The NHL exists in two conceptual spaces: It's a Canadian game but an American business.

Its head offices are in Manhattan. For the past 40 years, it has been run by Americans. Twenty-four of its 31 clubs pay their taxes to Washington, D.C.

Despite that domestic pedigree, professional hockey isn't seen in America as one of that country's cultural products. It's a foreign game played by foreigners.

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This is why hockey exists largely outside the concussion continuum, at least in terms of the debate.

But brain trauma, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the misery kicked up in the wake of recent scientific discoveries regarding large men being paid to get hit over and over in the head are a U.S. concern. The problem was discovered there, it is most discussed and fretted over there and first became a political issue there. There are no banner headlines in Europe or Asia about the most recent sports legend to fall victim to a sad, midlife decline because of what he did for a living.

Read more: Awareness isn't enough to stop head injuries in sports, Ken Dryden says. We need action now

Scientists gain new window to mysteries of concussions

Those stories are American – and, occasionally, Canadian.

Since Americans are deeply invested in football and the people who play it, substantial pressure has been exerted in that country to do something about brain injuries in that sport. Or, barring that, to at least seem to give a damn.

The NFL tried initially to wave the problem away, but it all lined up too well – American game, American business, American victims, American customers.

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Avoidance was the first strategy. Then American journalists dug into the problem and exposed the league's sneaky efforts at purposeful ignorance and plausible deniability. In high American style, that narrative proceeded from the sacred (learned articles in medical journals) to the profane (bestsellers and Hollywood films).

Once someone is making a movie starring Will Smith (Concussion) about an issue in the United States, it's time for the villain in the piece – almost always a large, rapacious company – to give in.

The NFL settled its lawsuits, amended its public pronouncements and instituted some small rule changes. It wasn't much of a concession in any instance, but the owners knew they had the ultimate advocates to speak on the league's behalf: the players.

Football players did not want to change their long-standing, warlike protocols. Real men don't come off the field after getting their bell rung. Not for more than one series of plays.

Instead, football players learned to talk in the soothing modern language of wellness and self-care – while continuing to act in a way that is diametrically opposed to it. Though now well aware of the risks, they're still out there trying to kill each other.

What can never be said aloud about the link between head injuries and football (or any other contact sport) is that the only way to eliminate the problem is to stop playing the game. Aside from a few bleeding-heart neurologists, nobody on either side wants that. So it didn't come up.

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The NFL and its employees struggled through the concussion hysteria by attacking its most vulnerable front: vocabulary.

The result appears to be a harmonious detente wherein everyone – league, players, fans and even critics – agrees that concussions are terrible and so ought to be monitored, treated and allowed to continue on as they always have.

It's a serious problem. Not serious enough to stop. But serious enough to call "serious." That's what passes for progress here.

Because professional hockey exists in a bifurcated state, the NHL didn't even have to go that far.

When several NHL fan favourites died young and brain injury appeared to be part of the problem, it became an issue. In Canada. With Canadian media and Canadian fans over Canadian victims.

From the NHL's perspective, it's only a Canadian game when the subjects are video montages and Hall of Fame inductions. When the lawyers get involved, the league reverts to an American business.

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A few serious U.S. outlets did pick up on the problem, but their coverage was treated in that country like an exposé into chronic bone brittleness in jai alai players – a curiosity rather than a cause.

Unlike football, there was no evidence of a vast cover-up – in e-mails revealed as part of legal discovery, the NHL seemed more gormless than nefarious – and so there was no exposé to excite people.

The resultant atmosphere of apathy freed the NHL to retreat back beyond the border into its American redoubt and sit there being very still. Sure, some people were angry, but they were all up there and there weren't that many of them. Not comparatively.

Meanwhile, the public garment rending wasn't affecting sales in the corporation's northern division. In this debate, people talk one way and behave another. The NHL had already been taught that by football.

No one who owns a team in Phoenix or Tampa was going to have to explain himself to his constituents. His constituents didn't care.

There are only two pressures that move a sports league: financial peril and moral outrage from within the institution. The NHL didn't feel either.

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So hockey skipped over the settlement/acknowledgment stage and went straight to its final card, the players. They were just as resistant as NFLers to rewriting The Code.

Having also learned their lesson from football, the players altered the way they spoke in public. Playing hurt was no longer cool (but, really, still cool). Head injuries were a problem (but not, like, a "problem" problem). These new rules were good for the game (but, like all change, probably bad).

If any man considered breaking ranks, he could look over at Sidney Crosby – who was coming back a few days after almost having his head ripped off his shoulders – and course-correct. If the best player in the world is doing it one way, no independent thinker on the fourth line is going to do it another.

What mattered above all was semantics. Do what you like – just watch what you say.

And where's the NHL in all this? Sitting anonymously in its c-suites on the Avenue of the Americas, comforted by the fact that Canada is a long way away.

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