Gary Bettman thinks the problem he has is with those who think he has a problem. The problem he has is brain injuries in the NHL. He’s managing the wrong problem. He’s fighting the wrong fight.
Today in Boston in advance of the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final, Bettman will hold his annual “State of the League Address.”
Two weeks ago, Commissioner Bettman testified at a Government of Canada parliamentary subcommittee on concussions in sports.
Here is the case he made:
He said that hockey is a game “played in an enclosed environment, at high speeds, by players of different heights, weights and skills,” and is, “[b]y its very nature, a collision sport.” The health and safety of the players is “a top priority” for the league, and that during his tenure the NHL has “pioneered” many safety initiatives, including a concussion protocol to identify and evaluate potentially injured players and to remove them from the game, and a process to diagnose and manage a player’s injury, and his return-to-play.
At the same time, he says, the league stays current with medical and scientific developments in the field, and through education and awareness, along with the NHL Players’ Association, works to foster a culture of greater safety in the game.
To reduce the number of concussions, he says, “while working to preserve the essential physical nature of our sport,” he cites the introduction of Rule 48, which, in his words, “prohibits all hits to an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact was avoidable.”
To those who suggest that all hits to the head should be penalized, he is dismissive. “Such a rule is very easy to propose, but is difficult, if not impossible, to implement and apply in practice.” “[I]t would not be possible to consistently and fairly enforce a rule that prohibits head contact of any kind or nature if the NHL is to be maintained as a physical contact sport.” Rule 48, he says, “strikes the correct balance for NHL hockey.”
The result of all these actions, he says: Concussions occurring because of hits to the head have been reduced significantly. Fighting is at its lowest level since 1964. Eighty-five per cent of the league’s games are now fight-free. Seventy-five or 76% of the NHL’s 700 players “never engage in a fight,” and to the extent many others do, “maybe it’s one fight a season.” As well, the game has never been played with such high skill.
"Except this isn’t about shorter shifts in a game, this is about shorter careers."
All these changes, resulting from only minor alterations in the rules without touching the essence of the game, as he puts it, have been “organic.”
Bettman’s testimony lasted 76 minutes.
Here’s where his case goes wrong:
It goes wrong because most of the league’s actions kick in after the brain injury has occurred, after the damage has been done. But mostly, it goes wrong because the actions applied are to understandings about hockey that no longer make sense, if they ever did. Build a house on a shaky foundation, and the house falls.
CTE and blows to the head? “[T]here has not been that conclusive link” established which connects them, Bettman says. What about the NFL admitting such a link? “A vice-president who is neither a doctor or a scientist made a comment and … one or two NFL owners disputed the statement, so I don’t know what the NFL’s position is.”
Further, he cites Dr. Ann McKee, head of the highly respected Boston University CTE Center, as scientific support. “[She] told me in my office that hockey and football are not the same. We don’t have the repetitive head contact and impact that some of the other sports do.” Two days later, after hearing of his testimony, Dr. McKee issued the following statement:
“Mr. Bettman misrepresented our 2012 conversation. Our research at Boston University … clearly shows that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is associated with ice hockey play. We have found CTE in every former NHL player we have examined and we have also found it in amateur hockey players, some of whom had no significant fighting exposure.”
Fighting is down, Bettman says, yet here too he has a problem: If fighting is a natural part of the game because of its speed and enclosed ice surface, and if fighting, and the threat of fighting, is an “important thermostat” that offers players at “an emotional moment” a much less dangerous alternative act to “a cross check to the head, or an elbow to the head, or a hit from behind.”
If fighting is natural and important, why is it down? Why aren’t there fights every game? Isn’t every game “emotional”? Why do only 24 or 25% of the players fight, and many of them only once a season? Why don’t 100% of the players fight? Do they not play in the same enclosed space, at the same high speeds? Do Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and the vast majority of the league’s stars and non-stars not have “emotional” moments? Did Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux not care?
And if taking fighting out of the game would lead to more cross checks or elbows to the head, why, as he told the subcommittee, are the number of hits to the head and the number of fights both down? Does this mean that if you reduce fighting further you will reduce the number of hits to the head further still?
Head hits are inevitable, Bettman says, and he offers himself as an “absurd example.” If he were a player, if “you eliminate all head contact every time a taller player … would check me, there would have to be head contact, and if that would result in a penalty every time, there would be no more body-checking.” But there have always been shorter and taller players. And using Bettman’s logic, when highsticking and elbowing penalties were introduced a century or so ago for hits to the head, taller players would be penalized all the time. Body checking would end. But it hasn’t. Head hits will happen, just as tripping, slashing and hooking happen. But head hits can occur much less often, and when they do, more severe penalties can be imposed which reflect the actual, now impossible-not-to-see-or-to-comprehend danger they present, and be reduced even more.
Bettman expresses pride in NHL’s new skill game. Yet what is the biggest risk to this high-skill game? Hits to the head. Hockey is compellingly physical. It is a struggle. A test. And that will not change, and that is great. But do damage to a brain and the rest of the body doesn’t work so well. High skills become lesser skills. A fan might not even notice this happening, because as great stars come off the ice, great new stars jump over the boards to replace them. Just as in any game.
Except this isn’t about shorter shifts in a game, this is about shorter careers. Magic in. Magic out. Lives changing on the fly.
What is truly “organic” in today’s game is jaw-dropping skill. Let that happen. Don’t let mind-twisting, logic-contorting arguments confuse and distract. Don’t allow the very few – players, advisers, decision-makers – to stand in the way of the vast majority, and of the game itself. This game, not the one played 30 years ago.
As a last question, Bettman was asked, “What would you do … if you had carte blanche to make any changes to the game right now … to reduce the number of head injuries?” His answer: “I like the way the game is being played right now … I don’t believe there’s much we could do.”
Whenever Gary Bettman talks publicly about brain injuries, which isn’t often, his measured, thoughtful manner wobbles. He knows that Gary Bettman the lawyer, questioning Gary Bettman the commissioner, would rip him apart.
He has been the NHL’s commissioner for 26 years. During his first decade, the consequences of brain injuries in hockey might not have been broadly appreciated. There can be no such argument about these last 10 years. Ten years of willful blindness, 10 years of drinking your own Kool-Aid, 10 years of ragging the puck, of managing not doing, are enough.
If Bettman keeps refusing to do what needs to be done, and there is no evidence he’ll change, maybe it’s time for a few of the NHL owners to say to him, “Gary, you’re a great fighter. Let’s fight the fight we need to win.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019