As concussion debate grows, NHL owners remain largely silent
With the link between hits to the head and lasting brain damage becoming clearer, the NHL is facing calls to action to do more, Roy MacGregor reports.
The silence was hardly a surprise.
In anticipation of the public reaction to Ken Dryden's new book, Game Change – a powerful and convincing examination of hockey's failure to address the growing issue of concussions – The Globe and Mail reached out to the Canadian owners of NHL clubs for their thoughts on how the league is dealing with head injuries.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks had no comment.
The Montreal Canadiens "decline comment."
The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames "politely decline."
The Ottawa Senators "respectfully decline."
Two senior sources told Globe reporters that owners had been advised by the league not to speak on the concussion issue. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had been provided an early copy of Mr. Dryden's book and had given owners a heads up at a recent board of governors meeting. Given that the league is dealing with a class-action lawsuit launched by former players who feel they were not adequately protected by the league from injury, Mr. Bettman told them to be careful about going "off script" and thereby undermining the league's position in court.
"The issue of the class-action lawsuit and concussions generally rarely comes up," said one of the sources. "It's something that is in the hands of lawyers, and that's pretty much where it sits."
One league governor, Mark Chipman of True North Sports + Entertainment, which owns the Winnipeg Jets, did offer that he believes the league has taken appropriate action in dealing with head trauma.
"I continue to be very impressed with the level of care and concern that exists among owners and the league on this subject," Mr. Chipman told The Globe's David Shoalts. "Since I've been in the league, which isn't long, it's been a constant issue of a desire to make the game safer. I feel very confident the league is doing all the right things, and the players are, as well. It's a physical, violent game, but I think the league's done a fine job guiding both the teams and the players."
However, while rules have been strengthened, new protocol is in place to deal with injured players and there are medical guidelines concerning an injured player's eventual return to action, Mr. Dryden argues that the league has fallen short of what is desperately needed: a complete ban on hits of any sort to the head.
Mr. Dryden's book tells the harrowing tale of Steve Montador, a journeyman Canadian defenceman who played nearly 600 games with various NHL teams, suffered multiple concussions and, in the late winter of 2015, was dead at age 35. Mr. Montador's brain was found to show significant signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease commonly found in those who have suffered multiple blows to the head. Symptoms connected to the presence of CTE in the brain include aggressive behaviour, irritability, trouble focusing, speech problems and early onset of dementia. In a disturbing number of cases, the presence of CTE has been linked to suicide.
Rising public concern over such relatively recent scientific findings saw a congressional panel convene last week in Washington. Among those giving testimony were researchers from Boston University, where the brains from 111 deceased NFL players were dissected and all but one found to show signs of CTE. Lead researcher Dr. Ann McKee told the panel that the time has come to begin thinking about "very severe changes" to the game of football to make it safer. NFL Hall-of-Famer Harry Carson, a nine-time Pro Bowler, told the panel that he is now so concerned about the game, he will not allow his 8-year-old grandson to play.
Professional football has at least acknowledged the obvious link between blows to the head and brain disease. Two years ago, the NFL reached a $1-billion (U.S.) settlement with former football players who launched a lawsuit. The league publicly acknowledged that there is a link between repeated hits to the head and CTE.
The NHL, on the other hand, has never acknowledged such a link, saying the science has not yet "advanced" to a point where direct cause and effect can be determined.
Writing in Tuesday's Globe and Mail, internationally renowned concussion expert Dr. Charles Tator, professor of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto, said: "The medical and scientific community does not have all the answers. This is a neglected area of medical research, particularly in Canada, where dollars for concussion research are so scarce."
However, Dr. Tator is among a vast number of qualified experts who argue the link is real, undeniable and that action must be taken to make sport more safe for both professionals and, in particular, youths whose brains are still in the critical developmental stage.
Dr. Tator believes that "U.S. football is doomed" unless some researcher can discover a magic pill that puts a halt to the growing crisis. That being highly unlikely, parents will increasingly not permit their children to play America's favourite game, the ultimate result obvious.
Hockey, on the other hand, is not doomed, in the opinion of Dr. Tator and other experts – not if effective changes are made.
"Our great good luck," writes Mr. Dryden in Game Change, "is that in hockey, different from football, there are clear, absolutely doable answers."
Mr. Dryden's solution would never prevent all concussions any more than there will never again be a schoolyard concussion, but it could go a long way toward preventing the worst of the hits that come in this physical sport.
He asks the NHL, and all hockey, to move away from thinking about whether hits to the head are intentional or accidental, move away from talking about the hit player's position or the hitting player's intentions. "The brain doesn't distinguish," he argues. A hit is a hit and should therefore always be considered wrong.
"No hits to the head – no excuses," is Mr. Dryden's call to arms.
If hockey can apply a penalty to a puck being accidentally sent over the boards in the defensive zone, then it can call penalties on head hits, no matter where or why or how. If hockey can penalize a player for a high stick, no matter if entirely accidental, then surely it can penalize a player for a hit to the head, no matter how delivered.
"No hits to the head – no excuses."
Mr. Dryden's hope all along has been that Mr. Bettman, the all-powerful commissioner of the NHL, would embrace this notion and that all other leagues in hockey would follow suit. He still holds out this hope, as does Dr. Tator.
"As a brain surgeon, I am an optimist," Dr. Tator said.
The NHL source mentioned above said that it is wrong for people to think that NHL owners are not listening to this debate over hits to the head. They are deeply concerned about the future of the game because of the negative publicity that surrounds concussion. Nor are owners blind to the reality in the United States, where participation rates for football are dropping and parents are increasingly worried about what the sport they believed they loved might do to their children's brains and future well-being.
They fear this could also happen to hockey, which holds a place in Canada roughly similar to the religious-like hold football has on America.
"You could make the case that hockey is even more brutal a sport than football," said the NHL source, "because the speed is so much greater and the athletes playing it are so much bigger now."
He cautioned, however, that at the moment there is not "anything remotely resembling a consensus on this issue at the ownership level."
Which is why "no comment" remains the preferred response to what is fast becoming the game's No. 1 issue.
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