On-rink violence casts a deadly shadow over NHL

Three 'enforcers' are dead and the star player is still concussed but finally the head hits are being outlawed

The puck dropped at 7pm local time on Thursday night in the glitzy Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver as the home city Canucks entertained the Pittsburgh Penguins, to open a new season for the National Hockey League. But every thought was for the man who wasn't there.

Sidney Crosby, the Penguins' centre, is by common consent the league's finest player – and beyond all doubt Canada's biggest sporting star – who at the age of 24 has already led his team to one NHL championship and scored the dramatic overtime goal that won the 2010 Olympic gold for his country in that same Vancouver arena. His predicament, however, sums up the promise and perils of a season awaited with a mix of excitement and anxiety as few others.

Ice hockey as played in the NHL is a precarious blend of skimming grace and crushing violence. Crosby embodies the first part. Some say he's a complainer, a whiner – but of his talent there has never been any argument since he burst on to the hockey scene as a teenage sensation five years ago. He is a scorer and playmaker combined, gifted with feathery control of the puck and a prodigious work ethic as well.

Like the greatest performers in any sport, he seems to see things a split second ahead of everyone else. Already, he has been pronounced as good as – potentially even better than – his legendary compatriots Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and he hasn't even reached his prime. All other things being equal, Crosby's career could stretch another 10 or 15 years, time enough to smash every NHL offensive record.

Right now, however, nobody knows. Sidney Crosby is a victim of the other, more sinister element of his chosen sport. Last January he suffered two heavy hits in the space of four days. He was said to have suffered a minor concussion – what macho managers and players would call a "little dinger" or "bellringer". In a couple of weeks or so, it was assumed, he'd be back, just as before.

Nine months have now passed and Crosby still isn't back. Word from the Penguins' pre-season training camp was that he was almost there, but the team has set no date. Some murmur he may never return. Even if he does, they say, Crosby may not be the same player, his skills damaged by the violence that the NHL – propelled by the absence of its biggest single drawing card – is at last tackling in earnest.

Hockey may be at a crossroads. The sport is enjoying a TV ratings boom, and many of the 30 NHL teams play to sold-out arenas every night. But the last few months have also been some of the darkest in its history. The 2010-11 season ended with disgraceful rioting on Vancouver's normally tranquil streets, after the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in the final game of the championship series. But even more than off-rink mayhem, on-rink violence has cast its shadow over the NHL.

For every Crosby in the league, there are a dozen "enforcers" – the gladiatorial hardmen to be found on almost every team, whose prime job is to mete out hockey's unique form of legalised retribution on behalf of their colleagues, and whose prowess is measured by bonecrushing hits, penalty minutes and suspensions.

Traditionally, jarring collisions and brawls have long been seen as integral to hockey's appeal. But matters have gone too far. Players are bigger and faster, and hits have become steadily more lethal. Medical evidence suggests that in terms of the risk of long-term brain injury, hockey is second only to American football.

Over the summer, proof came in tragic fashion. Within the space of three months, three "enforcers" were found dead, one from an accidental drug overdose, and two from apparent suicides. They were aged 27, 28 and 35 respectively. One, Rick Rypien, was a forward for the Canucks the previous season. Another, Derek Boogaard, suffered a season-ending concussion while playing for the New York Rangers.

At 6ft 7in and almost 19 stone, Boogaard seemed indestructible. Known around the league as the "Mountie" or the "Boogeyman", he was voted the NHL's second-most intimidating player in 2007. The "winner" that year was another Canadian, Georges Laraque, who – perhaps in atonement for his excesses on skates – is now a deputy leader of the Canadian Greens party.

This summer, as the deaths of his former fellow players became known, Laraque offered a moving assessment of the secret agonies of being an enforcer. "I hated to fight," he told a Canadian radio station. "I hated the pressure. I hated to be called a goon, and an animal. I hated promoting violence." The worst part was not the fighting itself, but knowing that he would have to fight another enforcer such as Boogaard, game after game. "It's the night before, the day of the game, before it starts," he said. "It's the shivers that it gives you, the worry in the head and the brain. It's pressure that's non-stop that you live with."

Finally, the NHL seems to feel the same way. Over the summer not only were new rules introduced, outlawing hits from behind and head hits from any direction, but those regulations are actually being enforced, by Brendan Shanahan, the new league official in charge of player safety.

Once fines, if meted out at all, were derisory. But after an egregious offence in a pre-season game 10 days ago, James Wisniewski of the Columbus Blue Jackets was handed an eight-game regular-season suspension, and docked $540,000 (£348,000). Even when you earn $5.5m a year, that hurts.

And just maybe, the changed climate may hasten the return of Sidney Crosby, who understandably is an adamant opponent of all head shots. They have to be taken out, he says. "Whether it's accidental or not accidental, you have to be responsible out there."

Fatal Season: The Victims

Rick Rypien

The Canadian joined the Vancouver Canucks in 2005 and was due to move to the Winnipeg Jets prior to the start of this season. He was found dead in his home by a family member on 15 August after committing suicide. He was 27 and had been struggling with depression for 10 years.

Wade Belak

Defenceman who played for the Nashville Predators committed suicide on 31 August this year aged 35. His mother said he had been suffering from depression.

Derek Boogaard

The Minnesota Wild player was found dead at his apartment in Minneapolis on 13 May this year. The cause of death was ruled an accidental overdose. He was 28.

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