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The NHL is on Thin Ice

Sports bureaucracies have a storied history of brushing debilitating news under the carpet. So if there was a bet on NHL’s commissioner being reluctant to accept a legitimate link between hockey and brain damage, every sportsbook user would’ve taken it. Recently NHL commissioner Gary Bettman denied any correlation between CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and concussions. Bettman’s denial can be likened to denying any correlation between water and drowning. The commissioner made his ignorant remarks in a 24-page letter sent to US Senator Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal had recently been putting pressure on the NHL for its lack of attention to player safety by writing a letter demanding an answer for why the NHL was not taking the matter seriously.

“As the premier professional hockey league in the world, the NHL has an obligation not only to ensure the safety of your players,” Blumenthal wrote to the NHL. “But to also engage in a productive dialogue about the safety of your sports at all levels – from youth to professional.”

The Senator’s comments deal mostly with the fighting that occurs on the ice. North American hockey has a storied history of encouraging fighting, with unofficial ‘enforcers’ that were signed onto teams to help initiate fights, or protect their star players. Last season there was an average of 0.28 fights per game, a figure much lower than what was common in the past. The league currently has measures in place to help penalize players in an effort to help prevent fights. However, those penalties pale in comparison to the ones imposed by European hockey leagues.

The NHL is currently facing a federal class-action lawsuit against former players who seek compensation for the league’s refusal to inform them of the dangers they face when playing the game. In addition, the NHL also has to deal with a wrongful death suit filed by the family of Derek Boogaard who passed away in 2011 due to a drug overdose. The former ranger is just one of 6 former NHL players who have posthumously been diagnosed with CTE.

The NHL is on thin ice, considering that the NFL was put in a similar situation recently. In 2011 retired NFL players filed a lawsuit claiming the exact same thing. The NFL was aware of a link between brain damage and the sport yet they refused to warn players of the dangers they faced when playing the game, all the while reaping huge monetary benefits from the bone-crushing hits that made for quality entertainment. In 2013 the NFL reached a $765 million settlement. In doing so the NFL forewent having to release internal files regarding sensitive information that would have revealed exactly when and what the league knew. The 2015 Concussion highlights the drama facing aging NFL stars, and the struggle of getting the truth to light. Ultimately, there were too many suicides that were linked to CTE and the league could no longer ignore the issue. With the way things turned out for the NFL, one would be inclined to bet on NHL being more open to the discussion of the link between concussions and CTE. However, that is not the case.
“The science regarding CTE, including the asserted ‘link’ to concussions that you reference, remains nascent, particularly with respect to what causes CTE and whether it can be diagnosed by specific clinical symptoms.” Bettman wrote in response to the Senator’s letter, arrogantly evading the questions imposed by Blumenthal.

At the end of the day you can bet on NHL to be more concerned with sales quotas than the safety of their players. While it is true that CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously it’s even truer that there is a clear connection between accumulative head injuries and the disease. The NHL’s blatant refusal to acknowledge said dangers speaks volumes about the leagues agenda, and perhaps will deter future youth from seeking a career in the sport. For example Calvin Johnson, one of the best receivers in recent times, retired prematurely from the NFL due to fear of brain damage. Johnson clearly understands there’s no reason for owners to profit at the expense of the player’s health.