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Amid threats to the NFL, is the NHL next?

There was a ray of sunshine in the NHL this weekend: Andy MacDonald of the St. Louis Blues returned to action without incident.

MacDonald has missed 75 games in the past three seasons because of concussion issues, and he chipped in an assist Sunday in his return from a 51-game absence that dates back to the first week of the regular season.

Tampa's Victor Hedman, Philly's Danny Briere and Winnipeg's Evander Kane also recently returned from concussion, but for every player who comes back, another goes down - Blues forward Matt D'Agostini was officially placed put on the injured list the day MacDonald returned.

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According to people who track these things, the NHL has seen a 60 per cent rise in concussions this year, only two teams - Montreal and Anaheim - haven't had at least one player felled by the demon head injury.

This is not the same thing as saying they haven't had a player suffer one; NHL teams are, ahem, somewhat less than transparent in describing the exact nature of their injuries.

Despite all that, it's a problem that isn't going away, no matter how sick readers get of reading about it and reporters get of reporting on it.

To try and divine where the puck is headed, it suffices to look at the NFL.

In the past week or two, some people have started to ask uncomfortable questions about the world's most profitable sports league.

(That, of course, echoes what a certain wild-haired Canuck, who always seems to have his finger on the zeitgeist, posited a couple of years ago.)

Could the world soon have to live without the NFL?

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This is not an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin question, it's a real possibility according to a couple of economists called Cowen and Grier, who in their Grantland piece indicate that the "slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years."

Nothing is eternal, they say, pointing to the death of horse racing and the fact 40 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies in 1984 have since gone bust.

Hockey isn't football, but it's close in per capita terms when it comes to concussions.

Is it a coincidence that now some of the efforts to increase awareness and limit concussions are coming from an industry that stands to lose catastrophic amounts of dough because of head injuries?

And that they've hired a former NHL player who retired because of concussions to be their pitchman?

As Paul Newman once said, I think not.

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Insurance is, of course, the sword of Damocles hanging over all contact sports, professional and otherwise.

About 15 years ago, Canadian rugby clubs took one in the teeth after a bunch of spinal injuries forced the amateur rugby unions to take on hugely expensive insurance premiums - the game's popularity among kids and their parents has suffered correspondingly.

Quick conversations with some insurance law types in the U.S. suggest that the NHL isn't about to have its group plan cancelled any time soon - under the CBA, the league must take out insurance for the players and venues, individual teams insure their players' contracts.

The NHLPA, the league and individual teams also each carry death and dismemberment policies on each player (you can find the gory details here)

The premiums have shot up in recent years and will certainly continue to climb, presumably resulting in a corresponding increase in ticket prices.

Will it be fatal? Not unless and until the insurers say 'no mas' - and that seems a ways off, there's always an actuary out there computing the possibilities surrounding even crazy risks, just look at ski resorts.

Nor do many class action experts south of the border believe that a successful NFL-style lawsuit against the NHL would bankrupt the league - even a $1-billion damage award would be manageable. Costly, yes, a real drag for owners in places like Phoenix and Columbus, but not an existential threat.

Nope, the death of hockey, should it happen, won't be a decapitation.

It will come from trampling the game's green shoots, as Cowen and Grier argue will happen to football.

Minor hockey is already less popular in Canada than other sports and kids in general today are less likely to take up organized sport than in previous generations.

Blame Playstation and the fact parents are working too damn hard to drag their kids to midweek practices and games.

If insurers decide that hockey is simply too risky a game to be played by kids, it will choke off the pipeline of emerging talent.

The NHL has unprecedented number of U.S.-born players this season (Canada's contribution to the hockey big-time is dwindling with each passing year), which bodes ill for the future should a heavy rain of negligence lawsuits start falling.

It will get worse when if and when a definitive causal link is found between concussions and wasting diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy - many in the scientific and legal communities think it's merely a matter of time, the NHL disagrees.

It might not take more than a couple of $20-million damage awards to shatter the U.S. minor and amateur hockey system.

So to follow Cowen and Grier's reasoning and transpose it to hockey, it might not take more than a couple of $20-million damage awards to shatter the U.S. minor and amateur hockey system

It will come from trampling the game's green shoots.

And that, friends, would be a Very Bad Thing for hockey.

Canada is a less litigious society, and the game survived a minor epidemic of deaths in the early 20th century, so it's almost impossible to imagine some version of the NHL wouldn't continue to exist.

But big, dark, storm clouds are nevertheless gathering.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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