With the announcement that Philadelphia Flyers captain Chris Pronger will likely "not return to play for the Philadelphia Flyers for the remainder of the 2011-12 season or playoffs," 2011 has the second of its nightmarish bookends for the National Hockey League.
Sidney Crosby opened the year with two blows to his brain that kept him out from Jan. 5 to Nov. 21, and now out again. The concussion suffered by the Pittsburgh Penguins captain changed the conversation on player safety: The rancor increased about an epidemic; rules were reinforced and made more draconian on headshots and boarding; and the NHL's department of player safety was given new leadership with a mandate to punish the reckless.
In between the bookends came the summer of tragedy for the NHL: Three dead fighters, one in Derek Boogaard now confirmed to have the degenerative brain disease CTE. Scientifically, connecting their deaths to concussions is tenuous; politically, these tragedies were used to forward player safety agendas; personally, hockey fans began wondering if multiple concussions equated to a death sentence.
On Dec. 15, another captain from the Keystone State is shelved based on the diagnosis from Crosby's doctors. He joins an all-star team already out with brain injuries, but like Crosby's concussion this one feels like another tipping point. The loss of Pronger has far-reaching affects on the NHL: on policy, on the playoffs and on the Flyers.
For the Flyers, the impact is rather obvious: They can win without Pronger, but they probably can't win the Stanley Cup without him.
He's one of the best playoff performers of the last decade, bringing three different teams to the Stanley Cup Final; in the case of the 2006 Edmonton Oilers and the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, it was through Conn Smythe-worthy performances. From his leadership on the ice to his cunning off the ice — c'mon, stealing pucks when your team is losing? — you simply can't replicate those intangibles. Nor can you ignore his significant impact on special teams and the Flyers' defensive depth chart.
No matter what they do in terms of adding personnel, more responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the guys they already have. So far, they've weathered Pronger's absence fairly well. Who knows what happens as those minutes pile up (we're not even halfway through the season yet), but at least they have a few other very good defensemen, as well as young players who might be ready to play a larger role. There will be times in coming months where it feels like things are falling apart on the ice. Do the Flyers have the personnel to get them back on track?
GM Paul Holmgren will have a Pronger injury exception of about $4.9 million against the cap on a team that's capped out at the moment. With pro-rated cap hits deeper in the season, they could add a multitude of quality defensemen in that range. One immediately wonders if Holmgren's old dance partner David Poile of the Nashville Predators is keeping one eye on this situation and another on Ryan Suter's salary demands.
Those are the short-term implications. Long-term, if Pronger is forced to retire, the contract Holmgren handed him looks unfortunate: $4,921,429 on the cap through 2017, the product of Holmgren added two [expletive] years to the end of Pronger's deal to massage the cap hit. Via Travis Hughes of Broad Street Hockey:
The first reaction, really, is one of "I told you so." I don't think there's a Flyers fan in the world that actually thought Pronger would finish out his lengthy contract, which still has five years remaining on it after this one. I don't think Pronger thought he'd finish that deal, and I don't think Paul Holmgren did either.
But we always assumed Pronger's downfall would come thanks to one of those "hey, I'm just old" injuries. A bum knee. A bad back. That's not the case here. It's a concussion, and that can really happen to anybody. It could happen to an old dude, a young dude, a baby girl, Claude Giroux or Chris Pronger. It's the kind of injury that doesn't discriminate, and that's also part of what's so awful about it.
What caused it? Was is Mikhail Grabovski's stick? Was it a clean hit by Martin Hanzal?
The source of his head trauma might seem immaterial, but it speaks directly to the ongoing debate about concussions. There are too many people shrieking "EPIDEMIC!" and too few offering solutions; other than the National Hockey League, which has changed its rulebook and its concussion protocol and is still accused of "having done nothing" to curb concussions.
The Toronto Star's Kevin McGran looked at some solutions and reasons why we have an "epidemic" in a piece written before Pronger's shutdown was announced:
It may well be that players have always been concussed at this rate, just these days there's better treatment and reporting of it, and players are less afraid of being labeled soft if they can't play due to a concussion.
"The new protocol has heightened awareness and we're seeing more players being diagnosed with concussions and being treated more carefully," said Jonathan Weatherdon, spokesman for the NHL Players' Association.
Whatever the reason, NHLers are heading off to the injured list with head injuries at a dizzying pace. The question, for the league, is what to do about it.
"We're continually beating the bushes to make sure there's nothing we're not doing that can help players stay on the ice longer," said King. "We're in the business of making sure the game is fair and entertaining and making sure the players are safe."
To that end, softer, smaller equipment is on the way. The hard shells on the outside of elbow pads were eliminated in 2003 and on the outside of shoulder caps were eliminated last season, covered up by a half-inch of foam.
Here's Kelly Chase and Chris Johnston from On The Fly last night:
As Johnston said, the NHL doesn't consider this an epidemic, which is starting to sound a bit like Ronald Reagan addressing the AIDS crisis 25 years ago. These denials do nothing but fuel accusations that their heads are in the sand, when that's not the case.
They're wrong. But so are the critics that claim the League's done nothing to address it. The question the League's facing is what else it can do beyond changing rules, protocols, stanchions, suspensions and education of player on what's a clean it.
In the end, we're left with one of the best defensemen in NHL history with his career potentially over. Love Pronger. Hate Pronger. Call it an accident. Call it karma. Whatever the case, this sucks.