RALEIGH, N.C. - Thirty-one players recorded a point in the NHL all-star game. None of them was named Sidney Crosby.
Or Marc Savard.
Crosby is dealing with the serious effects of a concussion for the first time since the Pittsburgh Penguins captain became the face of the league in 2005. For Savard, a Boston Bruins forward, the problem is all too familiar and comes back all too often—so much so that the career of the talented playmaker is very much in doubt.
So who is to blame? That depends on who you ask. And now based on new preliminary data revealed by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman this weekend, perhaps the biggest culprit threatening the health of hockey's best players and all the rest is simply bad luck.
Bettman said Saturday that concussions are up this season, but quickly noted the increase seems to be caused by accidental or inadvertent situations, instead of by head contact from another player.
"I'm not saying that no concussions came from hits to the head, but it appears that the increase is coming from somewhere else," Bettman said.
No one benefited this weekend when the All-Stars were on display for three days without Crosby. There was a first-time fantasy draft to form the teams, a skills competition, and Sunday's 11-10 shootout won by a club captained by Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom and named after him.
Crosby would have been featured prominently in each of those events, but the reality is he has just been cleared to begin light workouts. There is no timetable for his return. He already has missed nine Penguins game because of hits sustained in back-to-back contests against Washington and Tampa Bay in January.
"He's the best player in the league, so people are going to start talking about it," Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin said. "It shouldn't matter if it's him or if it's someone else—a fourth-liner. It's the same kind of injury. It's just a matter of taking care of it and looking over the rules."
Outside of a total ban of all contact to the head—intentional or accidental—the hit Crosby received from Washington's David Steckel in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day wouldn't have been deemed illegal. But when Crosby is involved, people notice.
"If it was (Maple Leafs forward) Mike Brown that got this concussion, do you think there would be this uproar in the media instead of 87?" Toronto general manager Brian Burke said. "So it's Sidney, and it was an inadvertent hit. I don't believe that David Steckel meant to hit him. I think he was looking past him and it was incidental contact.
"I hate seeing Sidney Crosby hurt. He's our best player. We want him on the ice. This guy sells tickets, he's a champion, he's a great kid. But he's playing hockey. If he hurt his knee, would we have the same uproar that we need to look at knee injuries? Just because it's Sidney, it's kind of created a magnifying-glass effect. That's not all bad, either, because it forces us to focus on it."
The issue has moved to the forefront of public debate because these serious injuries are affecting most notably NFL players, along with their hockey brethren.
Studies upon studies have been commissioned to determine where the biggest risk factors lie and what measures can be taken to lessen the likelihood concussions will occur. It's bad enough concussions often sideline players for long stretches of time during their career, but more is being learned about the long-term damage from such injuries.
It's a problem when anyone goes down with a head injury, but the NHL and its fans hurt even more when the biggest name in the game misses All-Star weekend—an event on the calendar simply for fun and celebration.
"You're talking about one of the best players in the world, if not the best, and clearly the best player in the league this year, and he's missing games because of a head injury. So that's a major concern," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "It certainly spotlights the issue, but there's a concern about the issue generally.
"It's not a concern about the issue for superstar players, it's a concern about the issue for all our players."
As hot as discussions were about concussions before Crosby was injured, the spotlight is now shining brighter because the highest-profile player is now featured in the conversation. At least rule 48, which bans lateral blindside hits to the head, appears to be working in its first full season in effect.
"The one thing that I have said all along is when we put new rules in the league, the players are so good they adjust to it," Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. "If you look at the blindside hits now, the fact is there is still some, but there's not nearly as many as there were before and as time goes on there will be less."
Yet, the number of concussions is rising. Bettman declined to cite the specific number of concussions during the 2010-11 season or what percentage the rate of such injuries are going up.
"This is a flash news story for everybody: there's going to be concussions in the NHL," Burke said. "It's a full-contact sport and there is no out of bounds. If you have the puck or you just released the puck, you're fair game. We have to find a balance on how much hitting we want, because we want contact in the game.
"Our job is to make it as safe as we can without taking the hitting out."
So the discussion of whether rule 48 goes far enough, or if all contact to the head should be banned from the game, is centre stage. If the information is correct, and head shots aren't a major cause of concussions, then why should or will the NHL feel compelled to make the rule even tougher?
"The game is getting pretty tight the way it is," Atlanta defenceman Dustin Byfuglien said. "You've got to let us play. You've got to just go out there. You know the game is going fast. I would say 99 per cent of the time you're not trying to injure anybody. You're going out there and playing and doing your job and stuff happens fast.
"Sometimes you get a little out of control, but for the most part the game is all right and I don't think we need too many different rules."
That will be up to the NHL's 30 general managers, who came up with rule 48 last year. They will meet again in March and talk—and most surely argue—about what else, if anything, needs to be done.
"At any given time, we've got two, three, four, players hurt," Burke said. "Right now on our farm team we've got nine guys out: one with a concussion, the other eight guys have injuries. I don't hear anyone screaming about, 'Let's look into all the reasons the guys are hurt,' but the concussions are the flavour du jour."
So much so with Crosby's absence that the public outcry could urge the general managers to take further action to try to make the game safer.
"I expect that there will continue to be differences of opinion on that issue, and you work through the political process of trying to build a consensus," Daly said. "It clearly highlights the issue more. There are a whole host of issues why concussions are in the forefront. It certainly is a hot topic among the media and that makes it a hot topic on our major constituents."
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