Right now, there isn’t much for a hockey fan to be happy for. The NHL hasn’t played a game since June 11, 2012, and the 2012-2013 season is very much in jeopardy. A new Collective Bargaining Agreement seems like it is far away, and with the lack of movement on either the NHL’s or NHLPA’s front, all kinds of hockey fans are fearing another winter without hockey.

Because of the lockout, there are more issues that could be moving forward in a very positive way, but cannot because of the labor dispute. One main issue that the lockout is keeping from moving forward is player safety.

Over the past few years, the NHL has received a lot of heat from the media and fans alike about player safety. The majority of the awareness has come from four specific incidents that forced everyone to talk about the uncomfortable issue of brain trauma and the physical nature of the game. Those incidents were the deaths of Bob Probert, Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard.

Bob Probert was a NHL enforcer that player from  1985-2002 for the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Probert has said that his role as an enforcer was not one to just go out at and attack players, but rather stick up for his teammates. In hockey, fighting is the most common form of “protection” within the NHL. And while fans say that fighting is allowed in the sport, executives and officials like to point out that fighting results in most severe penalty, and can often be combined with misconducts.

Probert was seen as one of the most feared enforcers of his time, and is the Red Wings’ leader for career and single season penalty minutes (2,090 and 398, respectively), and is 5th all time in penalty minutes (3,300). Probert had a brief stint with Blackhawks media, and was writing a book about his career until he passed away on July 5, 2010. His death would springboard the talks of player safety and concussion problems in the NHL.

Probert donated his brain to science to see how playing hockey had affected his brain. The results were not favorable. Probert suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease whose symptoms can include dementia, memory loss, aggression, and depression. CTE is developed later in life because of repeated injuries to the head; in hockey, mainly concussions.

Probert’s incident was not just a single isolated incident. The next summer, the hockey world was rocked when two current players and one more retired player died. Derek Boogaard was the first of the three tragedies, and was the most profiled of the three.

Boogaard was a fighter for nearly half of his life, accepting the role of enforcer when he tried out for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey league. He played in the WHL for just years before being drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the 2001 NHL draft, but wouldn’t make it to the NHL until the 2005-2006 season. Boogaard would play for the Wild for five years, quickly becoming a fan favorite. After his five seasons, Boogaard would sign with the New York Rangers.

But Boogaard’s life would be cut short. Boogaard had a problem with prescription drugs, and on May 13, 2011, Boogaard would overdose on  a combination of painkillers and alcohol. His brain was given to the same study that Probert’s brain was donated to, and Boogaard had CTE just as Probert had. Boogaard added more validity behind he statement that concussions can lead to serious brain trauma.

Unfortunately, this would not be the last incident the NHL would have. Rick Rypien was a forward for the Vancouver Canucks. He spent six seasons with the Canucks, but they were not without problems. Rypien was an enforcer for the team, frequently getting into fights. These fights took a tool, as Rypien was diagnosed with depression starting in 2008. He would continue to battle depression throughout his career, until committing suicide on August 15, 2011.  Wade Belak  was a retired player that had played for five NHL teams during his 15 year career. Belak was an enforcer for his teams, appearing more in penalty box than the stat sheet. In 549 career games, Belak amassed 33 points and 1263 penalty minutes, and much like Rypien, also had a history with depression. Belak was found dead in his Toronto apartment on August 31, 2011, of an apparent suicide.

These four deaths are not the direct causation of concussions, but it does show a terrifyingly interesting trend within hockey.  Does the physical nature of hockey and the repeated hits of fighting cause players to suffer from CTE and other mental health disorders that are severely shortening the lives of players? Or are these four deaths just haunting coincidences that create an availability heuristic, or the ability to recall something based off of the ease the examples come to mind?

The NHL has had its fair share of high profile concussion cases. Three that come to mind are Eric Lindros, Marc Savard, and Sidney Crosby. Lindros had a total of eight concussions throughout his 13 year career, and was forced to retire at 34 because of his reoccurring concussions. Crosby was out for a total of fourteen months because of two concussions. While he seems to be completely healthy now, there is no telling hos his first two concussions will affect his gameplay for an entire season. And finally Savard had two concussions within nine months of each other. He has been experiencing post-concussion symptoms since January 21, 2011, and it is unlikely that he will ever play hockey again.

So the NHL has had research show that concussions can cause CTE, and there have been high profile concussion cases that have inhibited players to a significant degree. What has the league done to protect its players, and what will it continue to do?

The first major step that the league has taken is Rule 48. Rule 48 as a result of Matt Cooke’s elbow that caused Savard’s second concussion, just a mere 21 days after Crosby’s first concussion. Rule 48 eliminates all blind-side hits to the head, and punishes players for directly targeting the head when checking their opponent. The NHL knows that it cannot completely eliminate hits to the head, so Rule 48 is meant to punish those that make the head the principle target of the hit, and have videos to show players what hits will be considered legal and which will be illegal. Since Rule 48 has been instituted by the NHL, the number of concussions have not significantly decreased, however, the league has seen numerous examples of players pulling up from a hit or reducing the ferocity of the hit in an effort to not cause injury to the opposing player.

Rule 48 is a step in the right direction for the NHL, but with the lockout in full swing, the NHL has not been able to continue making strides to better player safety, and life after hockey is an important part of the NHLPA’s bargaining. This does not stop fans and writers from speculating what additional steps can be taken. One Bleacher Report article discusses five ways that the NHL can protect its players, ranging from making mouth guards mandatory, to making hitting coaches part of each club’s coaching squad, to making any hit to the head an automatic match penalty. Meanwhile, some former enforcers and fans are calling for fighting to be banned altogether, which would change an integral part of the game. The NHL does not see fighting leaving the game because there is already a punishment in place for fighting, and does not have any plans for creating and further rule changes at this time.

The problem with the league and player safety is that the game and the players have changed. With the introduction of the trapezoid and the removal of the two-line-pass in hockey, the game has become more open. There are more plays designed to get out of the zone and through the neutral zone quicker, and the players themselves are built bigger, stronger, and faster than they were even ten years earlier. Today’s youth, because of the added importance placed on player safety by the league and the continuous media focus on player safety, recognize just how dangerous concussions can be even at the high school or collegiate level. During games, players don’t think about possibly getting a concussion or what a certain hit can do to a player; they just react. But with added importance on player safety, the thought process going into a hit now has a split second where a skater will think if it’s a legal hit or not, and then continue depending if that answer is yes or no. Concussion prevention is now part of the equation.

Concussions and player safety is not a comfortable topic of discussion for players and NHL officials. With the physical nature of hockey, there are bound to be injuries, but the fact they can have lasting effects has forced the game to continue to support player safety. It comes not only from the executives, but also from the players and their actions too. The game is still the same, but players recognize their actions can have consequences that can last longer than the final horn.