- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Perhaps the fog is the scariest part.

No one knows when, exactly, Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain, suffered a concussion in January. No one knows when he’ll return.

Healing from a broken leg or torn anterior cruciate ligament is obvious; the workings of a concussed brain are wrapped in mystery. Crosby’s ailment, coupled with the offseason deaths of three fighters, pushed the NHL’s concussions out of the fog to center ice.

Blind-side hits to the head were eliminated last year; all hits targeting the head are now outlawed. Equipment has changed, from using soft-cap shoulder pads to Plexiglass replacing tempered glass in arenas. But George McPhee, the Washington Capitals’ general manager, doesn’t think a physical game can be made completely safe without destroying, well, the game.

“It can’t be all finesse,” McPhee, a member of the NHL and NHL Players’ Association concussion working group, said recently. “If you go to Europe … it’s not very entertaining. It’s highly skilled, but it’s like trying to watch two guys fish.”

A study presented at the general managers’ meetings in March revealed 44 percent of the league’s concussions over the past two years came on legal hits. Only 17 percent were from illegal hits. Eight percent came after fights. Almost a third — 26 percent — were deemed accidents.

Another study from the University of Calgary published in April’s Canadian Medical Association Journal showed concussions decline from 7.7 per 100 players in 2000-01 to 4.9 per 100 in 2003-04. Time missed from the injuries, however, steadily increased.

The expansion of Rule 48 — “a lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted” — is a significant step, McPhee believes. During the preseason, he noticed players exercising more care when hitting opponents near the boards.

“It’s kicked in,” McPhee said. “That’s what we needed because the league is so fast now, it’s so physical.”

McPhee sees a string of unintended consequences starting with efforts to open up the game following the lockout. Less clutching and grabbing and rules that favored skill players instead of grinders sped up play. Hits and injuries increased, too.

“Now we have to crack down on some of these hits and make sure they’re more careful and respectful,” McPhee said. “You really have to be careful about how you do things in our business because you change one thing and the players adjust, but something else happens.”

McPhee didn’t shy from contact or fisticuffs during his seven-year career with the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers before he retired to pursue a law degree at Rutgers.

But competing for the puck, not fighting, defines toughness to McPhee. He allows that fighting lowers the temperature in games and prevents more serious confrontation, like stick-swinging.

“Personally, I don’t care if I ever see a fight, but I know why it’s still permitted in the game,” he said.

Those fights, however, took on a different hue after the offseason deaths of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien. Linking the deaths to fighting and concussions was the easy narrative. It didn’t jibe with reality.

“People like to tie one to another, the depression, the concussions while playing hockey,” said McPhee, listing trouble each player faced outside hockey. “I don’t think the job of being a policeman or a tough player had anything to do with those deaths.

“This stuff happens to construction workers, to accountants, to engineers, with depression and everything else. They’re not on the front page of the sports section.”

McPhee, unsurprisingly, said the NHL has set the pace among professional leagues in addressing concussions. But the risk of one hit plunging a player into the fog will always be a risk, no matter how many rules or pieces or equipment change.

“It’s never going to be completely safe — that’s part of the game,” McPhee said. “It is a physical game. These players are volunteers — nobody’s telling them they have to do it.”