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Tough sport, tougher guys in the NHL

OK, we get it. Hockey is a tough sport and hockey players are tough guys.

Bob Probert certainly was. Many true hockey fans — and we're not talking about the sanitized version of the game played outside the NHL — believe he was the greatest enforcer ever in the league, spending 16 years with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks largely on the strength of his fists.

When they sliced open his brain a few months back, they found Probert had brain damage when he died of heart failure at the age of 45. Probert apparently suspected as much, which is why he wanted his brain analyzed upon his death.

Sidney Crosby doesn't do much fighting. The best player in the league has teammates who take care of that, but that hasn't stopped him from missing Pittsburgh's past 29 games with a concussion after suffering hits to the head in back-to-back games in early January.

Tough guys playing a tough sport. Maybe not as tough as the players before them who did it without helmets, but plenty tough still.

Like I said, we get it. You don't have to be Canadian to understand that a big part of the appeal of the NHL is watching a game with the anticipation someone could be smashed against the glass or sent sprawling on the ice at any moment.

And if there's one thing you can count on in the NHL is that the hits and fights will keep on coming.

Just last week, Montreal's Max Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and cracked neck vertebra that hospitalized him for two days when Boston captain Zdeno Chara knocked him headfirst into a glass partition between benches in a frightening hit.

Chara was invited to spend the rest of the game in the locker room, but in the true spirit of the NHL there was no suspension, no fine.

Nothing new there, except this time some people took offense.

Canadiens chairman Geoff Molson issued a public letter blasting the league for not taking action against Chara.

More ominous for the NHL, though, was one of the league's major sponsors, Air Canada, threatening to end its involvement with the league because violent play was hurting the airline's image.

Being the de facto leader of all the tough guys, commissioner Gary Bettman immediately responded in a way all hockey players can appreciate — by telling Air Canada to take a hike. If the airline didn't like what it saw, Bettman said, there were other ways to get across Canada.

On Monday, though, there were suddenly signs Bettman may not be so tough after all. Realizing the NHL was taking both a public relations hit and a possible financial hit, he announced new procedures at the league's general managers meeting to help players suspected of having concussions, and said teams and coaches could be fined in the future for players suspended repeatedly for illegal hits.

There was also talk about trying to slow the game down to prevent injuries, and a possible ban on intentional head hits.

"It's never going to be a safe workplace," Toronto GM Brian Burke said. "It never has been. It never will be. But I think it's incumbent on us to see if there are ways we can make it safer without changing the fabric of our game."

Unfortunately, the fabric of the game is violence. It's embedded in the NHL so deeply that no number of concussions, slashings or beatings is going to change the minds of millions of fans that blood and guts is as important to the game as smooth ice.

To them, outlawing dirty hits or fighting would be like outlawing crashes in NASCAR. Take away the fun stuff and all you have is a bunch of guys skating around trying to put the puck in a net.

Never mind that the Olympics gave us one of the great hockey moments ever with nary a drop of blood spilled in Vancouver. The elegance of the international game gave hockey a chance to shine for a few weeks before the NHL's thugs brought us back to reality.

Old ways, though, die hard. Interestingly enough, Don Cherry, the former player and coach whose "Coach's Corner" show on Canadian television influences a lot of thinking on the sport, didn't have anything bad to say about Chara's hit.

Instead, he blasted Molson for having unsafe stanchions on the boards at Bell Centre, saying Pacioretty would have just had a minor headache if they were done right.

And Pacioretty took it upon himself when learning police were investigating the incident to issue a statement saying he didn't want Chara prosecuted for the nasty hit.

"I feel that the incident, as ugly as it was, was part of a hockey game," Pacioretty said.

Yes, indeed. A hockey game.

Tough sport. Even tougher guys.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org.