Federal lawmakers are balking at intervening to reduce hockey concussions in the wake of a shocking study demonstrating their long-term damage to the brain, instead calling on the NHL and its players to resolve the problem themselves.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said MPs are reluctant to interfere in what's naturally a "very physical game" but acknowledged Canadians are growing increasingly worried over unsafe play in hockey.
"Any politician from whatever party is going to be hesitant to step into the national game, but as a citizen … I think we have to be concerned," he told reporters in Ottawa, citing what he considers rising anxiety "about head shots [and]concussions."
Researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine have determined former NHL player Reggie Fleming, who endured about 20 concussions during his career, suffered from degenerative brain disease at the time of his death. This marks the first time a hockey player has been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and adds to the growing concern about the long-term effect of concussions in the sport. A recent decade-long survey found the NHL averaged 51 to 89 concussions a year over the period.
Ignatieff noted that football already has taken action to lower the rate of concussion injuries and said the NHL should too, whether it means new rules governing play or the type of protective equipment used.
"It's not primarily a thing I think politicians should be involved in," Ignatieff said. "The sport has the capacity to regulate itself and it should regulate itself.
"We don't want people dying out there. We don't want people suffering permanent injury. The NHL has to step up and do its job," the Liberal leader said. "And then if they don't, then we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro said the NHL and its players' association have to address the matter and set the tone for younger players in the amateur tiers of the game.
"I don't think Parliament has a role," the Ontario MP said. "I think we want to play the game tough but also respectfully and it's up to them [the NHL and players]to ensure it's occurring."
Del Mastro said he thinks the armour-like protective gear players wear makes them more likely to deliver hard hits. "Shoulder pads are so hard that if you get hit in the head with them they can cause concussions."
NDP amateur sports critic Glenn Thibeault said while Ottawa may refrain from intervening in professional hockey, it should consider pressing for more preventive measures in the amateur game.
"We can start at an earlier age to make sure head shots aren't part of the game, that they're penalized accordingly and we just eliminate it like we do with checking from behind."