2011 NHL Tragedies Continue, Hit Home for San Jose Sharks

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2011 NHL Tragedies Continue, Hit Home for San Jose Sharks
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Sharks 2011 draft pick Daniil Sobchenko was among the 43 people killed in a KHL team plane crash September 7, 2011

Last week, a plane crashed in Russia, killing the entire Lokamotiv Yaroslavl team in the nation's Kontinental Hockey League.

The crash affected the entire hockey world, as almost every NHL player had played with or against most of the considerable list of former NHL players on the flight. The crash had additional impact on the Sharks, as one of those players was Sharks sixth-round pick Daniil Sobchenko, who had taken part in the team's developmental camp last July.

My assessment of Sobchenko's NHL prospects after the draft was based largely on his Central Scouting ranking. However, seeing him in action led almost everyone in the Sharks organization to talk about how impressive his skills were in that camp. (Click the following link to see the team's official statement about his inclusion in the death toll.)

Plane crashes are a hazard of all sports, and teams do the utmost to ensure safety of players. But many of the tragedies we have seen underscore where the game is failing to protect its commodities.

Concussions are a part of any contact sport, but there has been a recent ripple effect from them that shows more must be done. Over the past few months, hockey fans have seen several current and former NHL players commit suicide due to what is presumed to be concussion-related depression.

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It started in January with former San Jose Sharks forward Tom Cavanagh. From May through August, enforcers Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak also took their lives in succession.

Only in recent years have the high-contact leagues like the NHL and NFL made real strides to curb concussions. The attitude used to be to allow a competitor sniff some smelling salts and get back into play if that was what they wanted to do.

But the situation has changed as players get bigger, stronger and faster, making impacts more dangerous. Now, both sports require major tests to make sure a player has fully recovered, even if it is to the short-term detriment of the sport.

For example, Sidney Crosby is the biggest star in hockey. He plays for a perennial contender and thus popular team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yet his concussion forced him to miss not only the All-Star Game, but the entire end of the season and the playoffs.

The problem is that the league still lags behind in punishment, and players will continue to be reckless so long as the repercussions are not severe.

For instance, in the Sharks' first-round playoff series, Jarret Stoll took a shot at Ian White's head. White's injury kept him out for a game, and Stoll sat for a game. White averaged almost five more minutes a game than Stoll did in that series, and the Sharks dropped that game, 4-0.

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In other words, Stoll's team benefited from his actions. So what should deter him from doing the same thing again?

That leads to reckless players like Chris Pronger, who has been suspended by the league nine times in his career. In 2007, he became just the third player in NHL history to get suspended more than once in a single postseason, both on hits to the head.

Why? His punishments were just one game each while his reward was a Stanley Cup, so the consequences were negligible.

Even where consequences have been more severe, they need to be higher.

In 2004, Todd Bertuzzi cowardly and viciously drove Steve Moore to the ice from behind, breaking his neck. Moore's career was not only over, he needed months of rehab before he could walk again.

What was Bertuzzi's punishment? It ended up being just 13 regular season and seven postseason games, as he was allowed back on the ice once the league resumed play after the lockout. He is still in the league today.

Let us take something positive from the tragedies of this offseason. Maybe we cannot prevent plane crashes, but we can make sure players who recklessly or even deliberately put the health of others at risk are no longer allowed to play in the game's most elite league.

Or do we need the career of Sidney Crosby to go the way of Eric Lindros to finally change the protection of the game?

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