Jets bright light in dark year for hockey

The MTS Centre crowd gets ready for the opening face off between the Jets and the Canadiens in...

The MTS Centre crowd gets ready for the opening face off between the Jets and the Canadiens in Winnpeg, Man., Oct. 9, 2011. (TODD KOROL/Reuters)

DAVE POLLARD, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:00 PM ET

As you might expect in a country obsessed with all things puck, hockey was front and centre in the biggest sports stories of 2011.

From Sidney Crosby's concussion woes that kept him in civvies most of the year to the arrival of Canada's seventh NHL team, the Winnipeg Jets, our national sport was never far from the headlines.

Unfortunately, very little of it gave us reason to smile. Tragedy, not triumph, was the word most used in hockey circles during the course of 2011.

Crosby's concussion as the new year dawned spelled some kind of omen for what was about to happen in the hockey world. Losing the player who has become the face of the NHL for nearly the entire calendar year was bad enough but, incredibly, it only got worse.

Tears flowed when NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard was found dead on May 13 after accidentally overdosing on prescription drugs and booze. The NHL fraternity lost two others later in the summer when newly signed Jets forward Rick Rypien and former Toronto Maple Leafs tough guy Wade Belak took their own lives.

The deaths of three players who threw punches for a living kick-started the debate about whether fighting still has a place in the game, an argument that rages on as we prepare for the start of 2012.

The riots that rocked Vancouver after the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final last June saddened us, embarrassed us and, frankly, pissed us off. Instead of a bright spotlight shining on Vancouver, what we got was the angry, orange glow of flames.

In early September, disaster struck on a scale never before seen in hockey when Yaroslavl Lokomotiv's charter plane crashed on takeoff in Russia, wiping out the entire KHL team. A number of former NHLers died in the crash along with Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon.

A dark pall hung over hockey even after NHL games started again in October. Graham James, once a promising junior hockey coach who has already served time in prison for molesting his players, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two other former players, including ex-NHL star Theoren Fleury.

The issue of concussions reached epidemic proportions in the first half of the NHL season, causing more hand-wringing about what's behind the spike in brain trauma injuries. Right now more than 30 NHLers are out of action due to concussions.


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