By Ken Reed
I’m not a big hockey fan. I didn’t grow up with the game like I did with baseball, basketball and football. I don’t pretend to know much about hockey strategies or tactics.
That said, I do like watching some playoff hockey, especially Game 7’s. If the Game 7 is in the Stanley Cup Finals, all the better.
I think the NHL has the best championship trophy in all of sports, the Stanley Cup. The idea of winning the Cup and having your name imprinted on the trophy is very cool. I also like the post-Finals traditions: the teams lining up to shake hands after a grueling, physical series; each player on the winning team getting to take a short spin around the ice with the trophy; each member of the winning team getting to have the Cup in their hometown for a few days in the summer to share with family and friends. All great stuff.
But I don’t like how the NHL remains in the Stone Age when it comes to brain trauma, concussions and CTE.
How can this league still condone fist fighting, given what we know happens to the brain after a blow to the head? In the NHL’s minds, bare-knuckle fighting is still cool. The video game “NHL 19” includes fighting, and the team who “wins” a fight in the video game is rewarded.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and other league execs say — without evidence — that some level of fighting is needed in hockey as a “thermostat” to deter more violent acts on the ice.
Now there’s some archaic thinking for you.
Here’s the thing with hockey: the sport can be fixed, whereas football might never find a solution to the brain trauma crisis. In football, blows to the head are an integral part of the game. Not so in hockey. The game would look very much the same without blows to the head.
Former NHL great and best-selling author Ken Dryden believes the answer for hockey is pretty simple: penalize any hit to the head, accidental or not. It doesn’t matter if the blow to the head comes from a shoulder, stick, fist or elbow, all need to be penalized.
“Football faces an immense challenge — the real answers, they’re tough,” says Dryden. “In hockey, they aren’t. That’s the part that’s so aggravating.”
The NHL has made a few moves with its rule book to address the issue. Hits to the head are penalized if the hit is determined by the officials to be intentional targeting. The onus is on the officials to determine if the hit in question was avoidable or not. That is so subjective and too much pressure to put on officials.
“The brain isn’t impressed by all these explanations and distinctions,” says Dryden.
Why not make it simple like Dryden suggests? Any — any — blow to the head, intentional or not is penalized?
The problem is Bettman and his league remain in a state of willful denial when it comes to brain trauma and CTE science.
Recently, Bettman said, “I don’t believe there’s much we can do” to reduce head injuries. Really? Following Dryden’s prescription seems like a logical, simple and effective place to start.
Joanne Boogaard, mother of former NHL player Derek Boogaard who died at age 28 and who was found to have been suffering from CTE as a result of repetitive blows to the head, had this to say to Bettman: “Just be responsible. Be a leader of the sport.”
Paul Montador, father of 10-year NHL veteran, Steve Montador, who died at age 35 with CTE ravaging his brain, said, “My son would be alive if it wasn’t for the way the N.H.L. handled the concussion issues, and had it recognized the impact of concussions, and eventually C.T.E., has on its players. Had they handled this differently from the start, he (Bettman) wouldn’t have to act like a lawyer,” Montador said. “He could act like a human being.”
Yes, if Bettman and his ilk would just act like human beings and do the right thing, we could very likely significantly reduce the number of NHL parents who lose their sons early to the terrible disease CTE.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
A League of Fans Special Report