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.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game