In the wake of yet another discovery that a deceased player was in the advanced stages of degenerative brain disease, the NHL still refuses to consider a ban on fighting.
Derek Boogaard, an NHL fighter who died last May at the age of 28 from an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers, may have had advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and many of the league’s governors refused to draw a line between the latest example of brain damage and fighting.
“To know what took place in a person’s life to determine what may or may not have caused a particular injury is something that’s going to take years for people who have the expertise in this field begin doing,” Bettman said. “It’s way too premature to begin drawing conclusions.”
Bettman and several governors gathered in California for their annual meetings said Tuesday that if fighting is a problem, it is taking care of itself. It is not necessary for the league to bow to the demands of those it considers hockey ignoramuses and penalize fighters severely enough that the practice disappears from the game.
Kevin Lowe, the Edmonton Oilers president of hockey operations, said the number of fights this season is down from a similar period a year ago. He implied that fighting is gradually becoming less important in the NHL as the league continues to emphasize speed and skill over brawn.
“The league position from [its hockey operations department]seems to be that it’s regulating itself and policing itself,” Lowe said. “I don’t think there will be any changes and it has to come from the players to push that agenda. From a management and hockey-operations position we don’t want to see a change at this point.”
A push to ban fighting is unlikely to come from the players. Surveys done by the NHL Players’ Association show the majority of the NHL’s 740 players want to keep fighting in the game. However, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr did say he thinks the findings concerning Boogaard need to be taken seriously.
“The findings released by Boston University to The New York Times regarding CTE found in Derek Boogaard’s brain, and the forthcoming medical journal article, should be seriously considered by everyone associated with the game,” Fehr said in a statement. “It is certainly important information that we will be discussing with the players.”
Bettman said, “our fans tell us they like the level of physicality in our game. With some people [fighting]is an issue but it’s not the issue some suggest it is.”
As for the risk to a player’s health posed by repeated blows to the head in fights, Bettman said there is still much to be learned from the study of concussions.
“Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. You don’t know that for a fact,” Bettman said when asked if a hockey fight was dangerous for a player. “Even a legal hit can result in a concussion. People need to take a deep breath and not overreact.”
Bettman said that does not mean the league is not taking the overall issue of concussions in hockey seriously. He pointed out the league’s establishment of a protocol for examining and treating players suspected of being concussed. And he said the treatment programs for substance abuse, concussions and other problems will be re-examined.
“Don [Fehr,]and I actually had a recent meeting on it,” Bettman said. “They are looking at hiring somebody independent to evaluate our programs in terms of utilization and we are thinking about doing the same thing.”
However, not every NHL governor thinks the findings about Boogaard should be disregarded.
“I haven’t seen the results but all information is something that should be used to make things better,” St. Louis Blues president John Davidson said. “You can’t close your eyes to information. If it’s information we can take and try to digest it and use, why not?”
A good part of the fighting debate concerns so-called staged fights. This is when players such as the late Boogaard, whose only job is to fight, pair off, drop the gloves and pound each other for reasons ranging from a hit on a star player to a perceived need to inject some emotion into the game.
Interviews with NHL general managers and governors show they feel such fights are gradually disappearing from the game because those players are getting crowded off NHL rosters by more skilled players. They insist this means an outright ban is not necessary.