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By Ken Dryden, Special to Postmedia Network
On Wednesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will appear before a government of Canada parliamentary subcommittee on concussions in sports.
The committee began its hearings in November. It heard, first of all, from athletes — boys, girls, women, men — from many different sports. The athletes talked about their experiences, the brain injuries they suffered, the symptoms they felt, the diagnoses and treatments they received and the life effects they live with — about how their lives have changed and what that means for them and those around them.
It heard from medical people, from researchers who have made the brain their life’s study and doctors who have made the health and well-being of their patients their life’s work, from those who know the most and the best about what is known and isn’t known, about what they are able to do and what they aren’t and what others must do.
It heard from the leaders of other sports, whose job is also to make the decisions that affect the welfare of their players and their games. It asked them what they have done and, more importantly, what they will do to significantly reduce brain injuries in their sport in the future.
Here are some questions the subcommittee might ask Bettman:
1. Is there a connection between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and hockey?
2. Jeff Miller, the NFL’s vice-president of health and safety, when asked in 2016 if there is a link between football and neurodegenerative diseases like CTE, replied, “The answer to that question is certainly yes.” Is Mr. Miller wrong?
3. Scientists can never know something for certain and forever. That is the nature of science. They can only know the best that anyone can know at any particular time. Do you believe it’s the job of any decision maker to make decisions based on the best information available at that moment?
4. Many present and former NHL players have talked about the symptoms they’ve experienced after their brain injuries. Do you believe there is a link between depression, memory loss, anxiety, routine problem solving, anger control and blows to the head such as those that occur in hockey?
5. You were asked in a deposition a few years ago in 2015 if you had spoken to family members of deceased players about the symptoms they had experienced and you answered, “I don’t believe so.” Have you talked to any players since who have suffered brain injuries, not only in a “How’re you doing?” way, but about their day-to-day life, how it has been affected, what they can and can’t do? Have you talked with any of their wives or partners or children?
6. In a letter to Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, you made reference to former NHL player Todd Ewen, who after experiencing many life-changing symptoms over many years and believing he might have CTE killed himself. After a post-mortem examination showed no sign of CTE, you admonished your critics in your letter and suggested “a more measured approach consistent with the medical community consensus would be a safer, more prudent course.” Further examination of Ewen’s brain, done at the initiative of his widow Kelli, however, did show CTE. What do you think now? Have you spoken with Kelli since that time?
7. In an interview you did a year ago with WFAN radio in New York, you were asked, in relation to brain injuries and the NHL, “You’re doing everything you can?” and you responded “We do what we believe is appropriate.” What do you mean by that?
8. You have been the commissioner since 1993, over 26 years, what changes have you seen in the game?
9. Do you have children or grandchildren who play hockey? What do you see when you watch them play? What rules relating to hits to the head apply in their games? Under these rules, the kids develop their amazing skills and playing strategies and someday some of them will play in your league. Many who did grow up this way are there now. When they reach the NHL, why do they have to unlearn what they have already learned so well?
10. Do you believe you have a responsibility to kids who play hockey?
11. Paul Byron of the Canadiens was suspended for three games for a head hit on Florida’s MacKenzie Weegar. Weegar received a concussion and missed the following four games. The next time they played against each other, Weegar challenged Byron to a fight, Byron “manned up” and was helped off the ice with a concussion. He missed the next two games; Weegar wasn’t suspended. These incidents happened more than two months apart — this wasn’t spontaneous, it wasn’t about anger, nobody “just lost it.” This was, as some players and commentators said, about a “code.” An “eye for an eye.” In this case, a brain for a brain. This is 2019. What do you think about “the code?”
12. Do you think there is a difference between a blow to the head from a stick or an elbow or a shoulder or a fist? Why isn’t a hit to the head a hit to the head?
13. Do you believe the NHL has a problem with brain injuries?
14. It is a great privilege to play in your league — the experiences the players have, the money they earn, the attention and esteem they receive. It’s especially wonderful when a player is able to realize the full reward of these benefits for all of his life. For many, their post-career lives are diminished by brain injuries. Why can’t they have both?
15. We have heard about the life effects experienced by your present and former players from brain injuries, we’ve heard about the limits of what scientists, doctors and equipment makers can do. We have asked the other sports decision makers who have appeared here the same question: what steps are you going to take to make the game you lead just as exciting, challenging and wonderful to play and to watch, but less life changing for its players?
Commissioner Bettman, what is your plan?
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019