The 2018 Stanley Cup may rest for a bit as the pride and joy of enthusiasts in the nation’s capital and of its title-winning team. But as fans of the pro and amateur game look to the future, they may have reason to be downcast about hockey’s most important component: its players.
Author Ken Dryden (photo above, left) has important things to say about them, because he was a goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens and has been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The onetime Canadian parliamentarian has pointed out that owners and bosses in the National Hockey League, as illustrated by videotapes of their sworn testimony in a long-running court case, are locking arms and taking a counter-factual position on the damages that players may suffer due to blows to the head they receive in games.
In “infuriating” fashion, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (photo above, right), Boston Bruins owner and chairman of the league’s Board of Governors Jeremy Jacobs, other team owners, senior league executives and doctors are playing ostriches, Dryden wrote in a recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post. They’re sticking their head in the sand, insisting that hockey has no issue at all with “chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. That’s a degenerative brain disease that has been found in athletes including professional hockey and football players, as well as soldiers and others who have suffered repeated brain injuries. Symptoms of CTE include cognitive impairment, depression, emotional instability and suicidal thoughts.”
Bettman says, counter factually, that the medical evidence about long-term damage from head injuries is too spare, and, meantime, the league has no responsibility to warn or safeguard players about CTE risks from concussions and other head harms — this, though Dryden points out, fans have watched with dismay the “premature deaths in recent years of several NHL ‘enforcers’ such as Bob Probert , Wade Belak , Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard.”
Dryden said owners like Jacob, and billionaire and Kings owner Phil Anschutz, all have testified with obliviousness about hockey players risks from head injuries, a stance that the onetime player finds unfathomable:
Bettman, Anschutz and Jacobs are smart people, and everybody who sees them in these depositions knows they are smart. But almost anyone who sees the videos has heard of CTE and has heard of athletes damaged by concussions. Hockey fans have seen players go down hard, never to play the same way again. They have seen the obituaries for players only a few years after they retired. Hockey fans know something is going on.
The players’ legal action against the NHL is crawling through a federal court in Minneapolis, where it started four years ago, Dryden reported, saying that others — like referees and especially fans — need to push hard on pro hockey to protect its players better, for the sake of the game.
He’s got a point. While stars like the Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin and TJ Oshie may be riding high today — deservedly so — will they suffer from an array of medical maladies in the days ahead due to their hard play? In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services and the damage that can be wreaked on them by spinal cord and brain injuries, especially due to blows to the head.
Americans may be big-spending, rabid sports fans but they’re rapidly accepting and trying to deal with the medical carnage that contact sports can inflict. As Dryden notes, it took wide media coverage and congressional interest to get the National Football League to fess up and to step up to start to deal with concussions in its game. Players reached a $1 billion settlement of their lawsuit with the league in 2017, but the charges and counter-charges continue to fly as to whether the deal is fair and reasonable, and, with its complexity, whether it will help harmed players as they will need for the rest of their lives.
The NFL and NHL, meantime, both have played dubious roles in their funding and, critics contend, manipulating of medical and scientific research about sports-related head injuries.
Their mendacity or feigned ignorance about CTE, of course, not only isn’t helping the league or its players, it also can be detrimental to sports’ lifeblood — the next generations of talented athletes. Kids adore sports stars and make role models of them. They and their parents, though, are smart enough to see that it can be dumb to take inappropriate risks with their lifetime cognitive capacities for a relatively brief period of youthful athletic play. Football persists as the king of games, with its broadcasts and merchandise raking in billions of dollars for the NFL. But as youth leagues, correctly, try to protect vulnerable youngsters from head harms, many players and their parents are skipping away from the game.
This flight may be fueled by tragic reports such as the news stories emerging about Tyler Hilinski, a Washington State quarterback who died by suicide in January. His parents say that an autopsy confirmed the 21-year-old had CTE, with a medical examiner telling his mother that he “had the brain of a 65-year-old.”
By the way, as we all sit and watch and enjoy the World Cup, it’s worth noting that international soccer may soon have its own reckoning with head harms.