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What If Concussions In The NHL Are Actually Down?

Here's a scary thought:

Sidney Crosby (again). Claude Giroux. Jeff Skinner. Kris Letang. Chris Pronger. Ryan Miller. Joni Pitkanen. Nino Niederreiter. Brayden Schenn. Andy McDonald (again). Guillaume Latendresse. Two pairs of brothers - Milan and Zbynek Michalek and Kurt and Michael Sauer.

All relevant, for one reason or another. Established stars, emerging talents, reliable veterans.

All out indefinite periods of time, sidelined by concussions. Varying amounts of damage dealt to their brains.

That's not the scary thought, though. It's reality. 

The scary part is this: What if concussion numbers are actually down in the NHL?

Concussion management has become a priority in the league. Awareness of the problem is everywhere. Players who suffer a hit to the head are quickly ushered off of the ice and examined by doctors. More often than not, they do not return. More often than desired, they're diagnosed with concussions.

Players who wantonly deal head shots are swiftly punished. Brendan Shanahan is the NHL's new chief disciplinarian, succeeding the wildly unpopular Colin Campbell.

Shanhan has become the league's executor general, prescribing punishment and clearly describing what symptoms led to his diagnosis.

Players who don't change are kept off of the ice, their paychecks hit hard and playing time neutered. Others, like notorious headhunter Matt Cooke, have apparently repented, and cleaned up their game. (To date, Cooke has only 12 penalty minutes in 31 games, tied for 12th on the Penguins. He is on pace to accumulate only 32 penalty minutes this season.)

As of Wednesday, NHL teams are averaging 12.00 PIM per game this year, down from 12.25 last year. That may not seem like a lot, but over 2460 games played per team in a season, that equates to 615 PIM in a season. Broken down further, that's 123 major penalties, or 307.5 minors, or 61 misconducts. In 2009-10, teams averaged even more in-game infractions, averaging 12.795 PIM per game. That's a difference of 1,956 PIM compared to this year.

You get the gist. 

Despite penalty minutes being down, suspensions are up. Only accounting for regular season games lost, the NHL has suspended players a total 73 games this season. Last year, 127 regular season games were lost due to suspension, a significantly lower rate. In 2009-10, only 78 games were lost to suspension, barely surpassing what's already been doled out this season.

In short, players are being punished more severely for transgressions, and, as a result, penalty accumulation is actually on its way down. Fewer penalties occur in game, because the real punishment is being doled off of the ice, and players who commit dirty acts are briefly removed from the equation.

Meanwhile, seemingly more and more players are being diagnosed with concussions. Now that the league is better able to analyze the aftermath of head shots, it is only natural to assume cases are easier to identify.

But what about all the cases that weren't identified last year? The year before? Before that? Further back through the league's history?

That's the scary thing. All these players sitting out, healing from concussions, would probably still be playing only two short years ago. Maybe even last year.

The NHL is clearly on the right track. What's frightening is that by seeing how much the league has improved, we can now clearly see how lacking it once was. And how much was missed.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.