- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

OK, we get it. Hockey is a tough sport and hockey players are tough guys.

Bob Probert certainly was. Many true hockey fans _ and we’re not talking about the sanitized version of the game played outside the NHL _ believe he was the greatest enforcer ever in the league, spending 16 years with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks largely on the strength of his fists.

When they sliced open his brain a few months back, they found Probert had brain damage when he died of heart failure at the age of 45. Probert apparently suspected as much, which is why he wanted his brain analyzed upon his death.

Sidney Crosby doesn’t do much fighting. The best player in the league has teammates who take care of that, but that hasn’t stopped him from missing Pittsburgh’s past 29 games with a concussion after suffering hits to the head in back-to-back games in early January.

Tough guys playing a tough sport. Maybe not as tough as the players before them who did it without helmets, but plenty tough still.

Like I said, we get it. You don’t have to be Canadian to understand that a big part of the appeal of the NHL is watching a game with the anticipation someone could be smashed against the glass or sent sprawling on the ice at any moment.

And if there’s one thing you can count on in the NHL is that the hits and fights will keep on coming.

Just last week, Montreal’s Max Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and cracked neck vertebra that hospitalized him for two days when Boston captain Zdeno Chara knocked him headfirst into a glass partition between benches in a frightening hit.

Chara was invited to spend the rest of the game in the locker room, but in the true spirit of the NHL there was no suspension, no fine.

Nothing new there, except this time some people took offense.

Canadiens chairman Geoff Molson issued a public letter blasting the league for not taking action against Chara.

More ominous for the NHL, though, was one of the league’s major sponsors, Air Canada, threatening to end its involvement with the league because violent play was hurting the airline’s image.

Being the de facto leader of all the tough guys, commissioner Gary Bettman immediately responded in a way all hockey players can appreciate _ by telling Air Canada to take a hike. If the airline didn’t like what it saw, Bettman said, there were other ways to get across Canada.

On Monday, though, there were suddenly signs Bettman may not be so tough after all. Realizing the NHL was taking both a public relations hit and a possible financial hit, he announced new procedures at the league’s general managers meeting to help players suspected of having concussions, and said teams and coaches could be fined in the future for players suspended repeatedly for illegal hits.

There was also talk about trying to slow the game down to prevent injuries, and a possible ban on intentional head hits.

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