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There is an aura of success that rings the NHL, at least in a macro sense. The business certainly is growing, boosted by expanding corporate sponsorships, and a Canadian dollar that is currently on par with its U.S. counterpart. When the league returned from a seasonlong lockout in 2005, the salary cap was $39 million per team; now the floor is $9.3 million higher than the original ceiling. Bettman brokered a new 10-year, $1.9 billion deal with the NBC Sports Group, a holy grail for a commissioner who has been on the job since 1993, when the league was one year removed from a single-season, $5.5 million broadcast partnership with SportsChannel America. The Atlanta Thrashers renamed themselves the Jets after the franchise relocated to Winnipeg, a market of 700,000 that might have sustainability issues—the original Jets abandoned the city for Phoenix in 1996—but one that also offers a welcome jolt of O Canada passion. Indirectly, the possibility of a prolonged NBA lockout this winter could give the NHL more access to sports dollars.
But at the dawn of a new season, mourning continues around the league after the grimmest summer in hockey history. Instead of focusing on mundane seasonal concerns—Will the Capitals' players at last wholly commit themselves to winning a Stanley Cup? Have the Sharks run out of next years?—the league is still reeling from the deaths of three players within 16 weeks. Derek Boogaard died on May 13 from a toxic mix of alcohol and painkillers. Rick Rypien, who suffered from depression, apparently committed suicide on Aug. 15. And Wade Belak, who retired last March, died in a Toronto hotel room on Aug. 31 under circumstances that police have not yet revealed. Their principal connection was a shared role as enforcers, which reopened the raw debate about the place of fighting in the NHL. Then, on Sept. 7, a charter carrying the Yaroslavl team of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League crashed and killed 37 team personnel, a disaster that continues to reverberate in the cross-pollinated hockey world.
At least the prospect of Crosby's (probable) return has lightened the mood. After being harder to locate last summer than Waldo, Crosby, who turned 24 in August, resurfaced at a press conference in Pittsburgh early last month, and his I-don't-know-when answer to the question of when he might come back was as vague as it was accurate. The problem with concussions is that they lend themselves neither to time frames nor Twitter. "In modern life we're used to getting information instantly when we want it, but it doesn't work that way with this injury," Crosby says. "If I'd had to report what stage I was at, I'd have been telling a different story every two days." Crosby was asymptomatic in training camp. While his father, Troy, could spot some rust—Crosby's shot didn't seem up to his lofty standards—the NHL's marquee player certainly looked ready to go. The Penguins grade every preseason practice on a scale of one to five; through Sunday, Crosby had yet to grade out lower than four.
"The game needs him back for sure," Rangers center Brad Richards says. "What he was doing before Christmas"—Crosby had 32 goals and 66 points in half a season—"was unbelievable. The way game planning and video and coaching are now, that was the best hockey I'd seen anyone play."
"Maybe you can't yet compare him to Tiger Woods, but what's our game without its best player?" Toews asks. "When he's dealing with a concussion, it definitely centers a lot more of attention on an issue we don't want in the game."
In the past 10 years concussions have robbed the NHL of a raft of marquee players that includes Hart Trophy winner Eric Lindros, goalie Mike Richter, defenseman Scott Stevens and forwards Adam Deadmarsh and Keith Primeau. Savard will not play this season because of postconcussion syndrome; his career is imperiled if not formally over. Kariya announced his retirement in June after sitting out the 2010--11 season, six concussions short-circuiting an NHL career that featured 402 goals and an Olympic gold medal. In what he calls "the dumbest thing I ever did," Kariya returned five minutes after being wallpapered into unconsciousness by Stevens's signature shoulder-to-jaw check in Game 6 of the 2003 Stanley Cup finals. Incredibly, Kariya scored a goal although he has no recollection of that match or Game 7. If there had been no lockout in '04--05, Kariya says he might have retired then. He says, "I needed two full years to recover from the Stevens hit. If you look at my [neuropsychological] testing [results], I never recovered from it."
At the All-Star Game last January, Bettman said that while the concussions were on the rise in 2010--11, the increase came, in part, from "accidental and inadvertent" collisions. (Presumably, Steckel's fly-by shoulder that struck Crosby's head would be considered accidental, although Crosby was not diagnosed with a concussion until after the Hedman hit. Crosby, incidentally, is not so sure Steckel and he met by accident. "If it was [Steckel's then Washington teammate] Mike Green in that path and not me," he asks, "would the same thing have happened?") Bettman credited Rule 48 for a decrease in concussions from blind-side hits, but players seemed as confused as the NHL hockey operations department, which could not always differentiate, even in slo-mo, an east-west check from a northwest-southeast check. Instead of drawing a map, the NHL got tougher. Of course, the revised Rule 48 does not proscribe all head hits. Although a player must be responsible for his stick—a high stick that draws blood is an automatic double minor, regardless of intent—he does not have to be as careful with his body.
Given Shanahan's preseason docket, maybe the more significant rule change will be the redefined boarding call. Rule 41 now penalizes a player for pushing a defenseless opponent into the boards; the violence of the check is no longer the focus. The language of the rule also has been tightened, "defenseless" having replaced "vulnerable." This might be splitting hairs, but for a league that is still coming to grips with concussions 14 years after it became the first North American pro league to introduce baseline neuropsych testing, it is remains laudable.
In conjunction with the players' association, the NHL is lurching toward a safer work environment. But over lunch early last month, Crosby was wondering the same thing about the league that many hockey fans had wondered about him: What's taking so long?
"I'm talking about taking out maybe 50 or 75 hits a year that could really save some guys' careers and maybe the way they live—without changing the game," Crosby says. "Hockey Canada and USA Hockey have zero tolerance for head hits. Kids playing hockey today are not even going to know what hockey was like when there were head hits. This is going to change in the NHL at some point. I just think it needs to be sooner rather than later."