Calling Crosby a coward misses point

The image is good, as Photoshopped pictures go. There is Sidney Crosby’s face, with an "Awkward Family Photos" grin, superimposed onto a lion costume. And this pairs with the headline “The Cowardly Penguin.”

Well played, Philadelphia Daily News.

Somebody had to take a stand against the Pittsburgh Penguins captain trying to play smarter with his bruised and battered brain, and good for y’all for being that somebody. So what if a concussion almost ended Crosby’s career? He needs to finish his fights, finish his checks and play like a man . . .

Oh, crap, I forgot this was the week of the NHL playoffs where we go crazy about how violent the league is, how negligent the officiating is and how dangerous the game is. Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa leaving a playoff game on a backboard brought on this round of hockey navel-gazing.

This will not last, of course. Next week, we will be back praising players for playing through pain and coming back too soon and sacrificing for the team. We will talk about how this is what we love about hockey. We will watch good, hard, physical checks against the boards. We will giggle at the injury reports with their upper- and lower-body vagueness. We will talk about how Crosby showed them, helping Pittsburgh to a 10-3 victory that prolonged the series.

This week, though, we care very much about hockey violence — specifically the “dangerous” plays.

I am not defending the hit on Hossa. It was brutal, violent and dangerous. Coyotes forward Raffi Torres is a cheap-shot punk, a repeat offender of stupid who needs a good beatdown, yet will have to settle for being “off” for the rest of the playoffs for what he did to Hossa. Look for the NHL to extend his indefinite suspension on Friday when he and the league sit down to discuss why he thought leaving his feet and aiming at the head of another player was a good idea.

The thing is, if you get that kind of play out of the game, the game is still brutal, dangerous and violent. The dirty secret of hockey right now — football, too, if we’re being honest — is even clean hits are dangerous.

When the Blackhawks came through Dallas in March, their 23-year-old captain Jonathan Toews was not on the trip. He was recovering from a concussion and all that it implies, the initial problems and those that linger.

He missed 22 games in all, his symptoms coincidentally healing just in time for the start of the playoffs.

Toews is not quite Crosby, but he’s close. He is a crazy-skilled young star and marketable talent in a league desperate for them — and also a poster boy for their problem.

If even clean hits can be dangerous, how do you really protect players without fundamentally changing the game? This is what Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and I were talking about one day in March.

Now, Quenneville has been around forever and is a good dude. He also is smart.

“There is no way of taking that completely out of the game,” he said, “or else you do not have the game.”

Why do we keep ignoring this part when talking hockey and football, brain safety and concussions? I know why the leagues do, because the subject is dangerous. What we love about the sports is what makes them dangerous.

“The league is trying to change,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan told reporters after Game 3, repeating a line I have probably heard 457 times covering this league.

My sports-covering trajectory included the Dallas Stars back when they were competing for Stanley Cups. And I was on the scene for a game before the 1999 playoffs in which Stars captain Derian Hatcher left his feet and came down elbow first on Jeremy Roenick’s jaw. The hit was hard enough that Roenick’s jaw was wired shut.

The fallout included Hatcher being suspended for what amounted to five playoff games — and almost winning the Conn Smythe, as MVP of the playoffs, for returning and playing exactly as he had before.

The irony is Roenick was the one involved in an epic argument with Mike Milbury on NBC Sports Network about why Eric Nystrom’s hit on Kris Letang was clean.

What made it epic was how personal it got and how closely it parroted the inner battle of the game right now. Those hits absolutely are interwoven into the very fabric of hockey. Those hits also are insanely dangerous for the men playing the game.

The way the game is played has not really changed. The way we portray the action has. What were once thought to be good, solid hockey plays are now viewed as dangerous because of what we know about concussions.

Suddenly it is not quite as funny to think about Edmonton Oilers forward Todd Marchant joking about missing a playoff game so many years ago because “Derian Hatcher gave me the flu.” The long-term effects of so much untreated “flu” is killing players, changing their quality of life after they hang up their skates.

We are lying to ourselves, though, to pretend this is just the dirty hits. The clean ones are dangerous, too, which is why calling Crosby a coward is embarrassing.

Even by Philly standards.

Stepping on the ice takes guts, and playing scared is playing smart.