Where do we go now?

Like the plaintive wailing of Axl Rose in “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” hockey fans can only take so much more as they see star after star sit down due to concussions and concussion-like symptoms. The “All Concussion Team” currently wouldn’t fit under the salary cap, so talented and well-compensated are they.

As much as these concussed stars have in common though, the circumstances surrounding each head injury are wildly varied. From textbook, Rule 48-breaking blindside hits to freak occurrences such as taking a teammate’s knee to the back of the head and everything in between, there is no standard way to receive a concussion in the NHL right now.

That is what makes the situation all that more frustrating.

If every head injury were easily associated with a hit that showed blatant disregard for player safety, we’d have a problem we could pinpoint. If every elbow to an opponent’s head was producing concussions and every concussion were being produced by an elbow to the head, we’d simply make elbowing an ejectable, suspend able, fineable offense and watch as concussions started to disappear like the Haagen Dazs in Bruce Boudreau’s freezer.

There is no simple answer, though. And in a world that believes there is no room for grey, only black and white, facing such a confusing situation creates trepidation. As Ken Dryden wrote earlier this week for Grantland, we can not sit back and wait for the scientific evidence of what is happening to players’ brains to stack up until we have no choice but to pay attention. There must be action taken now. And the action must be decisive, leaving no room for interpretation.

Or does it?

Let’s assume the NHL outlaws ALL hits to the head, effective immediately. Will it lead to a seismic shift in the way the game is played? Possibly. Will it lead to a rash of penalties, ejections, suspensions, and fines that, at least initially, seem to be softening the game up? Certainly.

Will it eliminate all concussions from hockey? Ask Claude Giroux.

So rather than going Goodell on the game and altering the way it is played based on a minute sample size of the league’s history, perhaps the league should continue it’s series of adjustments, from Rule 48 to safer rinks, especially near stanchions and other dangerous areas, to soft cap elbow & shoulder pads to considering an expansion of the ice surface to allow more room for 200-lb. athletes moving at 30 mph to avoid bone-jarring, mind-numbing, sometimes career-threatening contact.

In a world where we’ve all become knee jerks, reacting with great swiftness to everything, from a debatable hit to Alec Baldwin getting booted off of a plane, the NHL has done it’s best to avoid overreaction. Some would say they have been far too deliberate. If you’re a fan of the NFL though, think back to last fall and the sweeping changes that resulted from a spate of concussions suffered in the span of one day last October. Remember the monumental fines that followed, and more importantly the flags that started affecting games as soon as a week later. Officials and players were forced to adjust to a new world overnight, the game was adversely affected, and continues to be, especially if you’re a Pittsburgh Steelers fan watching them play without James Harrison in San Francisco.

Have concussions been limited in the NFL since October 16, 2010? No, in fact, according to The Concussion Blog, they are UP 8.7% through Week 14 of the NFL season.

No one will argue that making athletes and the general public more aware of head trauma in athletics, all the way down to youth sports, is a good thing. No one will argue that we should do all we can to limit the amount of head trauma occurring in sports, again, all the way down to the youth level. But you can’t argue numbers either. Cracking down on the things that you think most often cause concussions doesn’t necessarily stop those things from happening. And it certainly doesn’t stop concussions from occurring.

Watching some of the best players in the game, and inarguably the best player in the world and ambassador for the NHL sitting on the sidelines due to concussions is difficult for any hockey fan to watch, and downright heartbreaking for a Penguins fan. To believe however, that drastically changing the game will prevent concussions from affecting the game is naive.

If we have to choose where to go in the battle against concussions, the past year has proven that haste can make more than waste. It can make an already frustrating situation even more confusing. And that in the end there is no simple answer. This is truly uncharted territory.

Put quite simply, and to answer Axl’s question, we don’t know where we’re going.