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The NHL has suspended Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith five games for an illegal hit on Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin. REUTERS/Brian SnyderBRIAN SNYDER/Reuters

For the NHL, it is a somewhat stiff punishment: a five-game suspension of Chicago Blackhawks' star defenceman Duncan Keith.

The Vancouver Canucks' Daniel Sedin, whose head took a direct blow from Keith's elbow on Wednesday night, remains off the ice. The Canucks won't discuss the status of their star goal scorer, whether Sedin has a concussion, or when he might return.

"We respect the league's decision," said team vice-president Laurence Gilman. "Our primary concern is Daniel's health."

Keith will be back with two games left in the regular season.

In a decision rendered late Friday, Brendan Shanahan, chief of the NHL's new Department of Player Safety, called Keith's elbow to Sedin's head "dangerous, reckless." However, Shanahan did not say that Keith struck an intentional blow, instead using the phrase: "delivered an elbow to the head." Shanahan cited Keith's clean history (no prior suspensions) and also noted that Sedin was injured on the play.

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The balance, in Shanahan's calculus, equals five games, stiffer than most suspensions this year- yet it is hardly a huge hammer. In no way does it declare that direct shots to the head – intentional, accidental, or in between – will be hit with a severe punishment.

The decision is a major moment for the NHL, as the Keith-Sedin situation involves two of its best players. Keith won the Norris Trophy for best defenceman in 2009-10, and Sedin was top scorer in 2010-11. Both are Olympic gold medal winners, Sedin for Sweden in 2006, and Keith for Canada in 2010.

Pro sports that have violence entwined in their games – hockey, and the NFL – are at a crucial point in their histories. Public opinion is shifting. The bloodlust of yore, among fans, and tolerance amid the broader populace, had waned, underpinned by the fact that concussion science has revealed frightening findings.

The NFL, facing lawsuits from former players for negligence, was declarative in its position this week when it laid the gavel on the New Orleans Saints for three years of bounty hunting, the team's defence explicitly aiming to injure opponents. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's punishment of the Saints – starting with a full-year suspension of head coach Sean Payton – makes football's aim clear, a message of epochal change.

The NHL's suspension of Keith is business as usual.

The NHL has tried to crack down on undue violence this season but the ardour has seemed to have eased.

Suspensions in the NHL have soared almost 50 per cent this season, 42 to date (including Keith) in 2011-12, compared with 28 at this point a year ago. However, the average length of a suspension is static at about three games. And Shanahan was much busier earlier this season. There were 17 suspensions in September, October and November, 18 in December and January, and seven in February and March.

For hockey, and football, containing violence is a delicate balance, as violence is one of the main factors that draws fans and makes the whole enterprise profitable. Todd Jewell, an economics professor at the University of North Texas, notes that "violence is an intrinsic part" of hockey, in the 2011 book he edited, Violence and Aggression in Sporting Contests: Economics, History and Policy.

"Since the goal of an owner or league is to generate as much interest in their game as possible, there is reason to believe that teams and leagues will encourage violent and aggressive play, as long as the leagues' chief assets (i.e., the players) are protected to some extent," writes Jewell in an introductory chapter.

Goodell worries about the long-term future of the NFL, even if football is by far the richest and most popular sport in North America right now. The likes of writer Malcolm Gladwell and others have speculated that pro football, because of violence and concussions, could eventually wither and disappear. It would start with parents refusing to put their children into football – or hockey.

The NHL, with a much more precarious business position in the United States, has been more tentative on the safety front, seeing competition for young male viewers in outfits such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

After the 2004-05 season lost to lockout, business has year-by-year improved, and last April the NHL scored its best-ever TV deal in the United States, $2-billion over 10 years with NBC. Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, gushed, calling the NHL playoffs "perhaps the most unique post-season that exists anywhere in sports."

"It absolutely vibrates with a passion," Ebersol said on a conference call in April, 2011, when the deal was signed.

Keith will be there for Chicago. Sedin might be, too, though that is as yet unknown.