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The Ottawa Senators’ Chris Neil, right, fights with the Anaheim Ducks’ Clayton Stoner in Ottawa on Saturday. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Ottawa Senators’ Chris Neil, right, fights with the Anaheim Ducks’ Clayton Stoner in Ottawa on Saturday. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The NHL needs to finally put an end to the concussion debate Add to ...

What a glorious opportunity for the National Hockey League to celebrate its coming centennial in style.

By 2017, the league might actually step into the 21st century.

We have reached the eve of that landmark birthday and, surely, we have reached the point where the most troublesome point of the concussion debate is that there remains any debate.

We can be excused our collective ignorance on the matter as we simply did not know what we know now. And what we know now is irrefutable: Head trauma and concussions are not just short-term delays but long-term dangers.

This was dramatically and tragically brought home in 2011, when three of the league’s roughest “enforcers” – Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – died within weeks of each other of accidental overdose or suicide.

Before and since, scientists in both the United States and Canada have found the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of deceased athletes who suffered head blows during their careers, but it was the deaths of these three hard-core “fighters” that raised serious questions both in public and, it turns out, in the private offices of the league that, unlike other sports leagues, has traditionally refused to ban fighting and has been most reluctant to connect the dots between fists on faces and psychological cost.

Now, investigative work by CTV’s W5 and TSN’s Rick Westhead has shed disturbing light on what was being said in NHL headquarters during this difficult time. Thanks to a U.S. federal court in Minneapolis unsealing e-mails pertaining to legal action taken by former players who believe the league knew about the dangers of repeated head injuries but failed to inform its players, the thinking of the league has been laid bare.

Most significantly, the NHL understood these dangers in 2011, as one e-mail from deputy commissioner Bill Daly clearly links concussions suffered by enforcers to future depression and such “personal tragedies” as suffered by the three deceased.

League officials, including Mr. Daly and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, go back and forth in the e-mails. They speak of eliminating fighting but feel that the players’ association would fight to protect the jobs of “enforcers.”

They speak of the other league involved in concussion lawsuits, the National Football League, and dismiss the NFL’s claim that it is working to make the game safer at all levels as “smoke and mirrors.” They say their league has “never been in the business of trying to make the game safe at all levels and we have never tried to sell the fact that this is who we are.” At one point, a chilling question is raised: “What could we possibly achieve without throwing millions of dollars at education”?

Readers needn’t suggest this is rather “cynical” – one of the NHL’s own says it out loud in another e-mail.

Cynicism, however, is hardly new to professional hockey.

There was a time when Tex Rickard, owner of the New York Rangers, would park ambulances outside Madison Square Garden to attract fans to games.

In the 1960s, Montreal Canadiens owner Hartland Molson called on his fellow owners to put an end to the violence only to be dismissed, as he predicted, as a “pantywaist.”

A generation later, then-Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden led a charge to bring an end to fighting and “goons” – but got nowhere.

It is different now, though. Mr. Molson and Mr. Sinden had good arguments, but they did not have science on their side. Good arguments can be countered – science, surely, cannot be.

When it comes to proof, science even trumps incriminating e-mails.

It’s time for professional hockey to act professionally.

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Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

NHL unsealed email

The recent cache of unsealed, internal NHL email that was released during an ongoing lawsuit launched against the league by former players

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