The sustainability of the National Hockey League has nothing to do with labour peace between owners and players, with salary caps, HRR or contract lengths. While the new collective bargaining agreement hashed out in the early hours of Sunday morning ensures there will be not be another lockout for at least eight years, the league cannot hope to survive long-term, let alone thrive, unless the NHL and NHLPA get serious about the two real problems sure to destroy the game: concussions and fighting.
During the 2011-12 season, NHL teams lost nearly 90 games and 1,700 man games to concussions. The great defenceman Chris Pronger's career was likely ended by a head injury; the league's most marketable star, Sidney Crosby, spent the majority of the season on the sidelines recovering from multiple hits to the head. A year and a half ago, former Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that turns to mush the brains of those, like professional hockey players, who suffer repeated concussions, died of a drug and booze overdose at age 28.
Researchers also found evidence of CTE in the brain of Bob Probert, the famed hockey fighter who died in July 2010. In the cases of Boogaard and Probert, there is no doubt hockey fighting is responsble for their early deaths; as for Pronger and Crosby, and countless others, concussions have shortened their careers.
The good news is there's a simple solution: All it will take to get rid of concussions and fighting is imposing a crushing punishment on players who hit others in the head and/or drop their gloves. A 10-game-or-less suspension and $2,500 fine, the fairly standard penalty meted out by the NHL last season for illegal and dangerous hits, is clearly not enough to convince players to change how they play the game. But tripling or quadrupling the suspensions and multiplying the fines by 10 would be; players wouldn't be able to afford that level of punitive action (especially with reductions in salary cap and contract lengths), and if teams were made to pay up, too, for players' actions, you can be sure the parsimonious NHL owners would get on board in a flash.
As for fighting, it is inherently dangerous and serves no purpose in the game beyond intimidating the talented players who are what NHL hockey should be about: skill and speed. Every goon in the league means one less roster spot for players who are actually good at hockey. It's time to end the culture of fighting once and for all with a zero-tolerance rule: You fight, you're out.
The NHL is not going to lose many fans because of this latest lockout -- the league, after all, flourished when it returned after the cancelled 2004-05 season. But the ever-increasing violence of the league gives parents reason to think twice about allowing their children to play hockey. And if kids don't grow up playing, they are less likely to watch hockey on TV, go to games and buy jerseys. If they're not playing hockey, in other words, they're not caring about hockey.
The unsurprising news Thursday that retired pro football player Junior Seau was suffering from CTE when he killed himself last year at the age of 43 with a gun shot to the chest has once again pushed the issue of head trauma to the forefront of the North American sporting world. Thus far, the NFL, the sports league most publicly indicted by the head injuries story, has failed to seriously address CTE and alter the game to limit helmet-to-helmet hits -- indeed, football appears more inclined to shove the problem under the rug than confront it. All the more reason the NHL should take the lead on an issue that increasingly leaves sports fans feeling uncomfortable and guilty.
The concussion story is only beginning, and the NFL is already likely doomed in the long-run because of it -- an innovative campaign on the part of the NHL and PA that a) makes a serious effort to limit head injuries, and b) educates the hockey-loving public, especially young fans, about the dangers of concussion and how to avoid them would be a great service to all sports fans (and the league could use the good press).
The NHL has proven it knows how to innovate before, more so than the NFL, NBA, MLB or soccer. After the 2004-05 lockout, the league instituted 4-on-4 overtime and the shootout -- whether or not you liked those changes, there's no denying they represent the most significant attempt by a major sports league to fundamentally change its game in a very long time. The time has come for the NHL to innovate again -- for the good of the game and all those who play it.