Slow-moving NHL must tackle player safety

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      The National Hockey League is celebrating the centennial of the Vancouver Millionaires’ 1915 home Stanley Cup win over the original Ottawa Senators—albeit more than a year early—by dressing up the Vancouver Canucks in Millionaires maroon for a B.C. Place Stadium meeting with the contemporary Senators.

      The fans paying $104.20 to $324.70 each for tickets to the March 2 spectacle will also be treated to a reunion of the 1994 Stanley Cup runner-up Canucks. Likewise, it is three months shy of the 20th anniversary of their epic seven-game showdown with the New York Rangers.

      The NHL is bending the calendar for its first game at a retractable-roof football stadium, hoping to capitalize a week after the close of the Sochi Olympics. The Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic is also bound to overshadow next week’s 10th anniversary of a repulsive moment in hockey history that took place right across the street.

      It was March 8, 2004, at what was then called General Motors Place. At 8:41 of the third period, Canucks power forward Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punched Colorado Avalanche rookie Steve Moore on the side of the head and plowed Moore into the ice. Players dog-piled Moore, who was bloodied and unconscious, with three fractured neck vertebrae, after the defining moment of the 9-2 Canucks loss. The clip showing the last moments of Moore’s NHL career is one of hockey’s most-seen plays on YouTube, with more than two million views.

      For exacting revenge for Moore’s unpenalized concussion-causing hit on captain Markus Naslund the previous month, Bertuzzi received an immediate match penalty, and a league suspension, and he eventually pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm. The B.C. Supreme Court plea bargain included 80 hours of community service during a year on probation but no jail time or criminal record. Bertuzzi returned after the lockout-cancelled season, played for Canada at the 2006 Turin Olympics, and remains active as a Detroit Red Wing.

      Moore launched a charitable foundation last year to support research, prevention, and treatment of concussions. He awaits a September civil trial against Bertuzzi and former Canucks owner Orca Bay Hockey Ltd. in a Toronto court where he will seek $38 million in damages. Moore did not respond to interview requests for this story.

      “It’s been a long road and a difficult journey, but I focus on the positives and I’m doing pretty well,” Moore told Team 1040 radio host Barry Macdonald in Vancouver last December. “I still have some of the classic postconcussion symptoms, but I’ve certainly come a long way from the days of when I first got injured, so I’m very appreciative of that.”

      Sociologist Jay Coakley, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, says the NHL’s sixth and final stadium game of 2014 isn’t just for box-office profits and high TV ratings: it is about enchanting viewers with a spectacle based on an idyllic vision of hockey. How it was played that night 10 years ago, though, shocked and disgusted Coakley.

      “There’s no woman I know who would allow her child to play hockey if that is a possibility within the game,” Coakley, author of Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies, said in a phone interview.

      “It hasn’t been a turning-point incident in the lives of spectators, for the most part. It may have shocked NHL executives into thinking they better do something to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

      The stadium showcase games are an effort by the league to focus on skills and excitement rather than injury and the damage done, Coakley said. If the game doesn’t adapt, the quantity of players seeking professional careers, and the quality of play for which fans are expected to pay high prices, will both decline.

      “Parents are not going to encourage their kids to participate in sports that are organized around the expression of brutality,” Coakley said.

      Statistics indicate a shift has begun.

      Canada’s population grew by almost four million between 1998 and 2010. According to Statistics Canada, age-15-and-up hockey participation peaked at 1.4 million in 1998 but had fallen to 1.2 million by 2010. Hockey Canada sponsors RBC and Canadian Tire did their own market research that blamed, in part, rising costs for families. The Department of Canadian Heritage, in a 2010 report on issues and trends, noted the physical toll.

      “Even hockey, long known and appreciated for its fighting and rough plays, has garnered as of late a great deal of debate about the need and/or consequences of violence,” the government report said. “Opponents claim that violent behaviour diminishes the sport of hockey and sets a bad example for lower levels and encourages young players to mimic these violent practices—to the detriment of skills—in hopes of one day being capable of playing at the highest level.”

      University of Calgary researchers monitored Alberta and Quebec peewee leagues in 2007 and 2008 and found the 11- and 12-year-old players were three times more likely to suffer a concussion from a bodycheck than those in no-hit leagues. An Angus Reid Public Opinion study, commissioned in 2013 by the Rick Hansen Institute, found that 16 percent of parents had pondered moving their children to no-bodychecking leagues and 11 percent had considered moving their children out of hockey altogether. Hockey Canada voted last May to ban bodychecking in the pee-wee category.

      Another study, from the University at Buffalo, found that two-thirds of injuries, including fractures, dislocations, and concussions, were the result of unintentional collisions. “These findings were not expected given previously published research,” the study said.

      Brain injuries can trigger serious depression in professional athletes.

      Coakley said the NFL marketing machine is endeavouring to engage women, who have the sway when it comes to whether or not their children can play potentially harmful team contact sports. The NHL will, inevitably, follow suit.

      “The fathers are willing to bet their kids’ heads on playing youth hockey,” he said. “Mothers are not, and that’s a family dynamic that professional teams have to be concerned with if they want future players.”

      “This is the biggest and most important issue facing hockey, football, and lots of different sports,” warned Hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden, the former Liberal MP and Toronto Maple Leafs executive, during a January 28 Chan Centre symposium on concussion in sport.

      Dryden backstopped the Montreal Canadiens to six Stanley Cups in the 1970s. Forwards and defencemen, he said, used to spend two minutes at a time on the ice back in the 1950s, coasting, waiting for a chance to get the puck, pass it, or shoot it. Now shifts are as short as 35 seconds.

      “Players are moving a lot faster, continuously faster. There is very little space, there is a whole lot less time, there are more collisions, and there are more forceful collisions,” Dryden said. “Players are going faster; they’re also bigger. Games change.”

      The frequency of punishing collisions left former Canucks enforcer Gino Odjick feeling addicted to the violence. “If you don’t get hit in the face for a while, it kinda bothers you as the feeling you get used to,” Odjick said in conversation with Dryden at the symposium.

      Odjick revealed that during his playing career, he once sat in a penalty box with temporary blindness after a blow to the head, sometimes forgot his way to arenas, and was a popular card-playing opponent on road trips. “Everyone wanted to play against me because I couldn’t remember the numbers.”

      Odjick lamented that the symptoms worsened with successive concussions. Still, for a player in concussion recovery—even while following doctor’s orders to remain in a darkened, noiseless room—the anticipation of returning to play is overwhelming.

      Decades from now, Dryden said, Canadians will look back and ask: “How could they be so stupid?”

      “Could they…imagine, given the nature of the brain, given the nature of the collisions, the force of the collisions, the frequency of the collisions, that nothing would happen?” he said. “That there would be no effect? How could they possibly have thought that? That’s really what haunts me in all of this.”

      Between 80 percent and 90 percent of concussions are resolved within seven to 10 days. Some can take months. It took Moore five years to realize that doctors wouldn’t clear him to return.

      “Obviously, I was not expecting to be in this position looking back over the last 10 years, I was expecting to be sort of in the middle of my career right now,” Moore said in the radio interview. “As everyone knows, life doesn’t always play out that way. You just kind of have to respond to things as they come up. That’s what I’ve tried to do, to do the best I can.”

      Dr. Jack Taunton, the chief medical officer of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and director of sports medicine at Burnaby’s Fortius Sport and Health centre, said it would be much easier if clear guidelines existed.

      “Although we’re looking for markers and looking for changes that can predict when an athlete can return to sport, we still don’t have that marker,” Taunton said at the January symposium attended by Dryden and Odjick. “It’s not like measuring your blood pressure, it’s not like measuring your blood sugar—you’re diabetic [or] no, you’re not.”

      The message is to get the athlete, whether a child or an adult, off the field of play immediately. They should then go through a period of rest, wearing earplugs and blindfolds in dark, quiet rooms. Doctors used to believe in restricting exercise until all symptoms disappeared. Some disagree.

      “We’ve heard depression is a component [of concussions],” Taunton said. “You take a look at the athletes that are exercising every day: you take that away from them and there’s an element of depression, anxiety that comes from not doing what you normally do.”

      Former National Football League star defensive back Dave Duerson fatally shot himself in the chest in February 2011. A suicide note asked for his brain to be examined.

      Doctors found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition believed to be caused by repeated concussions. Scientists also found CTE in the brains of deceased NHLers Reggie Fleming, Rick Martin, Derek Boogaard, and Bob Probert. Last August, two-thirds of Canadian Medical Association delegates voted in Calgary to condemn the NHL for complacency toward violent acts.

      The National Football League’s hand was forced last summer by 4,500 players in a 2012 class-action lawsuit. The league, with annual revenues of about $9 billion, settled for $765 million, but Judge Anita Brody of Pennsylvania’s Eastern District ruled in January that this wouldn’t be enough to pay medical bills for ex-players suffering from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. “Not all retired NFL football players who ultimately receive a qualifying diagnosis, or their related claimants, will be paid,” she said.

      The NHL is facing a similar lawsuit. It didn’t receive as much attention because only a day after it was filed, the NHL announced a record $5.2-billion, 12-year broadcast deal with Rogers Communications.

      Thirteen ex-players, including former Canucks Gary Leeman and Bob Manno, are named in the class-action lawsuit against the league, which boasted 97-percent attendance at its arenas in 2012-13 and annual revenue of about $3.3 billion. The lawsuit seeks damages for negligence and fraud, alleging that the NHL promotes a culture of violence in which players are encouraged to play through injuries.

      “The NHL persists in this conduct to date by, among other things, refusing to ban fighting and body checking and by continuing to employ hockey players whose main function is to fight or violently body check players on the other team,” the statement of claim said. “The time has come for the NHL to elevate long-term player safety over profit and tradition.”

      The filing said that from 1997 until 2008, an average of 76 players per year suffered a concussion on the ice. In the 2011-12 season, 90 players suffered a concussion on the ice, with a loss of 1,779 man-games.

      The NHL responded with a statement that vowed to fight the lawsuit and said it was “completely satisfied with the responsible manner in which the League and the Players’ Association have managed player safety over time, including with respect to head injuries and concussions”.

      In a 2011 interview on CBC with George Stroumboulopoulos, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman boasted that the league was the first, in 1997, to take steps to increase player safety. The league enacted a new protocol for concussion evaluation and management in 2011, but the lawsuit colourfully stated that the NHL really “sat on the bench” for those 14 years.

      History shows the NHL moved slowly to require helmets, in 1979. That came 11 years after Minnesota North Star Bill Masterton’s death from hitting his head on the ice after a bodycheck in a game. Not until Sidney Crosby’s career was in jeopardy from a 2011 concussion—suffered less than a year after his Olympics-winning goal in Vancouver—did brain-injury concerns reach a tipping point.

      But how will the game change, if it ever does?

      “Contact with the head is something you just can’t legislate out of the game when you’re encouraging physical contact,” Bettman told Stroumboulopoulos. “If it’s a full bodycheck and you happen to have incidental head contact, if you start punishing that, we’re going to start looking at a very different game.”




      Feb 26, 2014 at 11:34am

      Re: Player safety & "one of hockey's most seen plays on YouTube with two million views"...

      This makes me wonder about the full video clip of the Buffalo Sabres goaltender's neck injury, which currently has 3.6 million views.

      Revenge of the Beta

      Feb 26, 2014 at 12:51pm

      Steve Moore is the pinnacle of hypocrisy. He was a reckless, low skill player who spent his career running around trying to injure players. You should ask Torts what he did to St Louis weeks before Naslund. I'll tell you. He ran the defenseless St Louis from behind, head first, into the boards almost paralyzing him. (hmmmm from behind, reckless, head shot, broken neck sounds familiar) That is just one of many attempts to injure by St Moore. You can't run around giving other people concussions then become the high priest of player safety after you get one. Unlike the media who just regurgitates whatever rhetoric is spoon fed to them the lawyers will tear this clown alive. He will never get a dime from this lawsuit because of HIS own violent actions on the ice.

      Will society be better off when all sports are banned in the name of political correctness? Where were the most serious injuries during the Olympics? They didn't happen playing hockey. They were on the mountains. So, you like skiing? Too bad, BANNED for safety issues. How about swimming? Too bad, someone drowned last weekend. BANNED. Do you like soccer? Soccer is the leading cause of concussions in young girls. BANNED. How about running? It MAY cause CTE so just to be safe BANNED. Biking? Someone fell and died last week. BANNED. Hiking? You can bump your head and get a concussion. BANNED. You know better to safe than sorry.

      For the first time in history younger generations will have shorter lifespans than their parents, mainly due to obesity, and we want to ban sports in the name of political correctness. It's crazy talk. Who cares if you have early onset dementia if your dead at 45 from a massive heart attack due to a sedentary lifestyle?

      This whole "contact sports are bad" narrative is really just a function of an increasingly effeminate world. Anything manly has become bad. You might as well castrate all men and hang their nuts from a tree as a tribute to the last generation of MEN.

      Martin Dunphy

      Feb 26, 2014 at 2:20pm


      "<em>one</em> of...."

      Bill Matthews

      Feb 28, 2014 at 8:34am

      Please people, are you kidding me. Did anyone have a problem with the great hockey we saw at the Olympics, mind you very defensive, but great. How many concussions were incurred during the 16 days....wait for it....none. End of story. When a non contact league like the NBA is suggesting that they need a bigger floor surface to play on because of increased player size, the NHL should have been all over this a long time ago. But alas, a gravy sucking pig named Gary Bettman is running the show, proves the NHL doesn't give a RATS ASS about players safety. The government can mandate seat belts to save lives whatever the cost but the capitalist pigs running the NHL (into the ground I might add)have no clue about doing the right thing because it would be money out of their pockets. I am sure we don't need ice the same size as the Olympics but how about somewhere between the two. Let's just say we take out the first 2 to 4 rows closest to the ice. Let's figure out the percentage of lost revenue to the owners and add that to the salary cap. The players for their own safety would forfeit whatever that percentage is. Win, Win. The loss would be shared by both parties and I would have to think, head injuries would come down. I'm no genious, but I am a thinker. I watched the Olympics and loved it. I haven't watched a minute of NHL hockey since the lockout and won't watch another minute until Gary the Rat is relieved of his duties. The game is for the fans not the GREEDY owners who get tax dollars to build arenas. we can and will stop watching. What is next The Christians versus the Lions League.....headed up by who else Gary the Rat. I'm done!