Safety Remains a Huge Concern for NHL Players Entering 2013 Season

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Safety Remains a Huge Concern for NHL Players Entering 2013 Season
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The NHL lockout has finally come to an end.

The labyrinth of issues that separated the NHL and the NHLPA has been navigated, and it only took 113 hockey-less days to do it. Points of contention such as revenue sharing, distribution of hockey-related revenue and eliminating "back-diving deals" all appeared on the docket.

And all of them fell by the wayside.

A deal was reached, and hockey can now commence as if nothing ever happened.

Let's drop the puck, right? Let's ditch the NHLPA sweaters and suit up in front of thousands of fans.

Not so fast, because we are missing some people.

Marc Savard, 35, won't be in Boston along with his Bruins when they open the season against the New York Rangers on January 19.

He didn't injure himself playing overseas like some professionals did, nor did he separate his shoulder wakeboarding during the labor stoppage.

No, Savard won't be playing after being on the receiving end of repeated head shots.

But that's hockey, right? Keep your head up or lay down.

The shortsighted thing to do would be to mention that Savard won't be able to play hockey this season, and probably ever again. The long-term view of this issue is, after all, a lot less pretty than only missing a few hundred hockey games.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With hindsight, we may be saying that the lost hockey was the easiest part of the ordeal.

I hope that is not the case, and I am no doctor, but the body of evidence against players taking repeated shots to the head is growing and won't ever go away.

Players who are on the receiving end of concussions suffer various aliments. Some can no longer drive their vehicles, while others can only spend small portions of time out in the sun before the headaches come.

Sadly, this isn't the worst-case scenario for hockey players or other athletes who literally put their skulls and brains on the line on a daily basis.

Let's talk about CTE, the degenerative brain disorder that has destroyed the lives of many professional athletes over the years.

What do Junior Seau, Joe Perry, Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard and Chris Benoit all have in common?

If you guessed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, then perhaps you should work for the NHL, since the suits running the show don't seem to want to acknowledge or deal with this killer.

I'll give credit where credit is due, though.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The NHL is a bit ahead of the crowd in dealing with blows to the head with Rule 48, but anyone watching the latest edition of the World Junior Championships has seen how much work still needs to be done in North American sports as far as CTE prevention goes.

Both Canada and the United States had players suspended or ejected from games for hits to the head, an issue that seemed to plague both teams throughout the tourney. The IIHF made no bones about why the various suspensions were levied and didn't back down from the tough question, either.

IIHF President Rene Fasel explained the suspensions in a video and made what I consider to be the comment of the entire competition: "[Players] must be protected. And there is no such thing as a clean hit to the head in international ice hockey.”

So the question needs to be asked: Is the NHL lagging behind when it comes to protecting its players?

That sentiment, that all hits to the head should be illegal without question, will be met with an avalanche of distaste from old-school hockey proponents, shouting that stripping players of the right to hit to the head will soften the game.

After all, how is Zdeno Chara supposed to hit Martin St. Louis without hitting him in the head?

This is a fair question, but that situation is far and away an outlier in the spectrum of hits. Most of the time, contact will be made between two men when they are within a few inches of each other.

Is the NHL doing enough to protect its players?

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The NHL was aggressive in implementing Rule 48, but the rule didn't prevent concussions. Some may say that this proves that you can't get concussions out of hockey and that the rule has done no good.

I'd have to disagree.

Along with Rule 48 came stipulations for players who are attempting to return from hits to the head during NHL games. The dark room, like it or not, could prevent more souls from joining the likes of Boogaard and Probert on the list of players affected with CTE.

Strides have been made over the last few years, but are these changes enough? How many players need to end up on the receiving end of a degenerative brain disease due to the "culture" of the game before the ante is upped to where it needs to be?

Even the guys who aren't diagnosed with full-on CTE can struggle with depression, or even thoughts of suicide. 

When will the NHL get serious about protecting the guys who make them money?

Gary Bettman and company want to appear to be about player safety, but the time has come to put up or shut up. The CBA is taken care of for eight more years (at least), and this is the next biggest thing on the NHL's agenda.

If it isn't, then we can fairly say that this isn't a league that puts the safety of its players ahead of all.

Especially ahead of some misplaced, brutish mentality that removing hits to the head from hockey will somehow diminish the game.

It's time for fans and the NHL to get real about the issue of head shots or prepare to live with the blood that will surely end up being shed in the long run.

Would removing head shots from the game altogether decrease the entertainment value of the NHL?

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This isn't about SportsCenter packages of hits and highlight reels, and this isn't about some ghoulish satisfaction we get from seeing players knocked out unconscious on the ice while their wives, children and friends look on. 

Make no mistake, when you watch videos of players being concussed, as Savard was, you are no longer watching a sport. You are watching a snuff film of sorts, seeing a man trying to stand under the weight of what has become his new life.

A new life with a brain that doesn't work quite the same as it did that morning.

This is about protecting the men who play the game we love. And if we can't do that—if we can't, as a group, say that the safety of players comes before all else—well, maybe we would have been better off losing hockey forever to the business of yet another lockout.

What's more important? A few thunderous, blood-sportish hits? Or avoiding stories like this forever?

This isn't fun and games anymore, and this isn't an assault on a culture or a game. People's lives and livelihoods are on the line.

So let's act like it.

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