Sidney Crosby's absence: An NHL omen

The sports calendar is full, but the best show in town these days without much debate has been the NHL playoffs. Last year's Stanley Cup champion Chicago defended valiantly and nearly came back from a 3-0 hole against Vancouver. Cup runner-up Philadelphia twice faced elimination against Ryan Miller, the game's best goaltender, but scored 10 goals over the last two games to beat the Sabres in seven. And teams including the Bruins, the Canucks and the Sharks are playing with something to prove.

In the 45 years between the 1942-43 and 1987-88 seasons, Boston didn't beat Montreal in a playoff series. This year, the Bruins dropped the first two games at home, but then won four of the next five, including an epic 3-2 overtime clincher in Game 7.

The sport has been moving toward more speed and offense of late, yet the goalies are providing a compelling storyline, as evidenced by the dethroned champion Blackhawks undervaluing Antti Niemi in the offseason and letting him go to San Jose, where he is making another championship run. Tim Thomas, once spectacular then benched during the Bruins' historic collapse in last year's playoffs, is now spectacular again, and the Bruins are again up 3-0 in games on the Flyers. Carey Price, the Montreal netminder, was brilliant in defeat; and the revived, redeemed Olympic hero Roberto Luongo is thriving in Vancouver.

So the hockey playoffs have been a success. Yet in the same sense that the ebullient play of the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets during the NFL playoffs was muted by larger concerns of injuries and labor, the NHL's postseason is being shadowed by its own injury issue.

Last week, while the Tampa Bay Lightning were completing a stunning comeback from a 3-games-to-1 deficit to Pittsburgh, the Penguins announced that Sidney Crosby, the great young face of the game and arguably the greatest player in the game, had suffered a setback in his recovery from a concussion in the Jan. 1 Winter Classic against Washington. When the Capitals' Dave Steckel (now with the Devils) clubbed him in the head from behind, it did not appear to be a vicious hit at the time. But days later, Crosby was also hit head-first into the boards by Victor Hedman of Tampa Bay, and he hasn't played since.

So while we marvel at the raw talent of P.K. Subban, the fury of Alexander Ovechkin, the workmanlike Bruins, soaring Lightning and the driven Canucks, an old, significant tension hovers over the game, reigniting questions about the level of violence in hockey and other contact sports. The speed, size and power of the athletes have outpaced the capacity of the people who play them to protect themselves adequately; at the same time, a draconian macho culture, zeal for corporate profits and unsophisticated attitude toward concussions continue to undermine the potential for reform.

While Crosby's concussion was being diagnosed as rare in its severity, scientists from Boston University concluded that before former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson before committed suicide Feb. 17, he had suffered from the same form of brain damage found in 20 deceased ex-football players. Even as profits soar, empirical evidence builds that the game of football can kill you.

Both sports suffer under the same issue, but there is a distinct difference: The NFL's problem with injuries is inherent. All rhetoric to the contrary, it is unclear whether it is possible, without radical alterations to the game, to make football less violent, less dangerous, less vicious, while maintaining its attractiveness. Football thrives on a form of controlled rage; it is designed in many serious ways to hurt its participants. The culture of professional football encourages the big hit, and the NFL has reached a point in its evolution where only major rules changes regarding tackling, positioning, stance and the demolition derby that is special teams will affect the injury risk in a positive manner. For all its talk about concern for player safety, the NFL has shown a callous corporate side: demanding an 18-game season while privately wondering whether the fans will watch a skill game with fewer bone-crushing hits.

The NHL has a different problem, a cultural problem, and it is has been going on since Jean Beliveau was making his seemingly annual Cup-hoisting skate around the Forum. A tension has always existed on the ice between hockey's rough and rugged lawlessness and the beauty of its athletes' skills. The roots of the game are thuggish in nature: tough Canadian men playing in tough economic conditions. As its glamour and profits increased, the game evolved -- but not on par with other sport businesses, or society at large. Name another sport in which two grown men can beat the hell out of each other as their teammates bang their sticks in approval … and both players remain in the game.

The NHL has simply never quite been comfortable deciding what it wants to be, and has never quite concluded that the sport is strong enough, even among its core, to lose the constituency of fans who are drawn to its frontier justice. Or whether it wants to.

Like football, the athleticism of hockey has increased the violence of its hits, and the result is a sport with a concussion problem that at least rivals the one now vexing the NFL. The NHL has a problem with head shots, players launching and throwing elbows and, most importantly and dangerously, ramming defenseless opponents into the boards.

But unlike football, which to the anger of some of its players protects quarterbacks like the golden geese they are, hockey's violence problem leaves its marquee players facing the most peril. Despite the greatness of the play during this postseason, the NHL is not a better product without Sidney Crosby on the ice. Crosby is the most marketable asset in the league -- like Wayne Gretzky a potential bridge between the old hockey and a new game -- but he hasn't played for five months, and it is unclear whether he will ever play again.

For years the league has attempted to distance itself for brief periods from its roots, with varying degrees of success, and losing Crosby should represent a serious red flag, the same way Tom Brady being knocked out of the 2009 NFL season prompted a change to the rules on hits that target a quarterback's knees.

It is a cultural tension that has existed since Bobby Orr revolutionized the game with his speed and offensive-mindedness some 40 years ago, and continued with Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and to a certain extent, Eric Lindros. Does a game with that sort of skilled athletes need its violent edge?

If you subscribe to the position of Bobby Clarke -- whose toothless smile represented the face of the NHL of the 1970s -- the cultural tension between the old fighting-enforcing game and the new one, in which the commissioner's office hands out the fines, is a more important issue than the simple question of the evolution of big hits. To Clarke, the game has stopped policing itself.

To appease the skill-loving crowd, its rules have essentially eliminated the enforcers, the Marty McSorleys who made sure no one took a big run at Gretzky, the Don Saleskis and Dave Schultzes who made sure everyone left Reggie Leach and Clarke alone (although Clarke could fend for himself), the John Wensinks and Stan Jonathans who made sure Jean Ratelle could work his magic.

"They completely changed the game," Clarke told the Bucks County (Pa.) Courier Times last week. "Players can't protect each other. They can't help each other get even. So nobody is afraid to hit. Every team has players who never hit because they knew that if I run you, someone is going to get even. But all that's been taken out. And now we have concussion after concussion after concussion.

"There are hits that are so violent, they're meant to intentionally hurt somebody. We see it too often. … Something has to be done," he said. "Because we all know there are way too many head injuries to our star players. Nobody wants to see [Tim] Connolly out. He's really vulnerable to any type of hit. And now you've got Crosby. Crosby is the best player in the game and he's in trouble now. I think this league really has to be careful."

Clarke has been accused of nostalgia; in his time, Orr was as much a target of big hits in the neutral zone and beyond as any player on the ice, and he was part of one of the tougher teams in the game. Clarke is also part of the problem. In the past, he has represented the old-school, tough-guy culture by taking macho swipes at Crosby -- questioning his toughness, his finesse style of play, what he considers to be the league's protection of its prized player.

He was also on the wrong side of concussion history with his own player, Eric Lindros. When he was general manager of the Flyers, Clarke openly mocked Lindros' inability to get back on the ice, treating him as unworthy of the "man's man" club.

Clarke, the captain of the famed Broad Street Bullies, represents the NHL's cultural tension: at once touting safety while simultaneously harking back to the days when the ice was strewn with gloves and sticks during another bench-clearer at the Spectrum.

The end of the instigators, the third man in allowances that often led to those classic bench-clearing brawls that defined Clarke's time, he says, has resulted in the great finesse players of today being exposed to big hits and dirty hits and all the sordid elements of the game the enforcers used to address but now are handled by fines from upstairs. Marc Savard's career, as an example, is in jeopardy as much as Crosby's.

A superstar player such as Ovechkin -- possessor of a mean streak that rivals his incredible skill, Rocket Richard-style -- only comes along once every other generation.

There is a belief, though a short-sighted one, that the NHL, like football, cannot be changed. It is tough. It is violent. But the college and Olympic brands of hockey are compelling without the fistfights and full-on cartoonish checking, which suggests there is merit in the Lemieux-Gretzky argument that hockey can thrive without the excessive aggression.

Maybe Clarke is right to some degree, though, that balance is needed. If the league is going to allow the ruggedness of the game to exist, the players must be allowed to police themselves again. With a little more enforcement from the guys on skates combined with enforcement from the guys wearing the suits (Colin Campbell), maybe it would no longer be open season on star players at the red line. Most players would act a little differently if they knew Chris Nilan was waiting for them on their next shift.

Yet we all know this likely isn't true; history hasn't borne it out. Just ask Super Mario or The Great One. The NHL has a choice to make, and it is the same choice facing the NFL: safety in a new and dangerous age, or tradition and ratings. There is no third option.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42