The current saga of Peyton Manning, the surefire Hall of Fame quarterback who’s planning to continue his playing career despite a serious neck injury, certainly resonates with fans of the NHL. Not so much the specific injury, but the situation. When is the right time for an athlete to retire?

The NHL has seen several versions of this scenario play out in recent years. Most notably, the case of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, the league’s best player, who has been out of action for more than a year with concussion issues. He returned to action briefly in November and lasted eight games before taking a few more hits to the head and shutting it down again. Crosby has been biding his time until he feels right again and has been cleared to return as early as this weekend, but one wonders if the 24-year-old, who has already won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal, should just retire instead of risk another serious brain injury.

The NHL has lost many players who were forced to retire or take long absences over the last two decades because of concussion-related issues: Eric Lindros, Pat Lafontaine, Marc Savard, Chris Pronger, and Keith Primeau, among many others. Hockey is a full-contact sport played at high speed, and its players are faster and stronger than ever before, which can lead to intentional and unintentional collisions that result in concussions (and that’s not to mention the occasional fight). Sure, the players are clad head to toe in bulky helmets and pads, but a hard hit just ends up rattling a player’s brain around in his skull, regardless of the helmet.

In the last few years, the NHL has targeted so-called head shots, assessing penalties or suspensions for hits that are deemed to be directed at a player’s head. Awareness of the issue has been raised, even if the number of incidents has yet to decline. Some argue that the equipment itself is to blame; most players didn’t wear helmets until the ‘80s and anecdotal evidence suggests there were fewer concussions when players went helmetless. Of course, back then, players would play through concussion symptoms and not admit that anything was bothering them.

Even now, that bravado creeps into the game. The NHL has a set protocol that teams must follow if a player is suspected of having a concussion. But in December, Toronto’s Colby Armstrong waited nearly 48 hours before informing the team he was feeling nauseous from a collision. More than likely Armstrong, who has missed substantial amounts of the last two seasons because of various injuries, didn’t want to be sidelined again and kept his mouth shut, but it was obviously a foolish decision.

Another sad example is the story of Boston’s Marc Savard, a talented forward who in March 2010 was the victim of a nasty blindside hit by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke. Savard recovered in time for the playoffs a month later, but the following January, he sustained a second concussion in a game against Colorado and the team shut him down. More than a year later, Savard still has not played another game and likely won’t ever again, although he hasn’t retired yet.

The concussions sustained by Crosby, meanwhile, have placed renewed focus on the issue. Last season, the Pittsburgh captain was on his way to the best regular season in several years until he suffered hits to the head in games on January 1 and 5. The concussion symptoms he suffered drew even more scrutiny to the seeming preponderance of hits to the head in the league. Meanwhile, some have suggested Crosby not risk his health any further by playing. It’s a difficult position to be in. If you were Crosby and had the skills to be the best player in the game, would you walk away so easily? Putting aside the fact that Crosby is earning $9 million this season (his contract runs out in 2013), wouldn’t you want to exhaust every possibility of resuming your career before you called it quits? Then again, would you want to risk playing hockey when one hit could leave you incapacitated for the rest of your life? These are the questions Crosby is wrestling with on a daily basis, and it’s a position that nobody envies.

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