- Associated Press - Monday, January 31, 2011

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.

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