Will Gary Bettman’s legacy be ignoring head injuries?
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was among the six new members named on Tuesday to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and there is no doubting his impact on the game, in particular the painful implementation of the salary cap and the humongous booster shot of revenues that has seen said cap more than double, from $39 million to $79.5 million, since its implementation following the lockout-abandoned season of 2004-05.
Bettman is a worthy inductee. No doubt. To say otherwise would be as absurd as the perpetual booing he suffers every time he utters so much as a single syllable in any of the 31 rinks under his domain. Such inanity was on full display again last Saturday in Dallas when Bettman, as is his custom, oversaw Round 1 of the draft, while unremitting boos cascaded down from the American Airlines Center stands every time he stepped up to the microphone.
Every June, as the ever willing piñata, Bettman takes to the ice in some Original 31 barn and presents the Stanley Cup and gets pelted with a similar torrent of booing. In the game’s happiest moment, even when it’s the “home” rink where the Cup is presented, fans can’t resist shouting down the smiling Bettman. It is both painful and comical to witness. Nonetheless, he persists.
Inarguably, Bettman has been great for NHL business, and ultimately, with the cost of an expansion franchise set at $650 million (welcome, Seattle), all league commissioners in 2018 are first and foremost CEOs rather than, say, the good and benevolent shepherds of the games we love.
Nonetheless, it sure looks like Bettman and his cohorts (read: administrators, minions, and team owners) will end up decidedly on the wrong side of history when it comes to their posture regarding head hits and the inherent dangers, specifically CTE, of playing the game.
Bettman, who rightly is the league’s commanding voice in this discussion, remains fixed on his position that the science behind chronic traumatic encephalopathy is inconclusive and therefore — to his attorney’s eye — unconvincing. Until the doctors and lab technicians connect the dots beyond the shadow of a CT scan, Bettman is copping to nothing, and likewise the Lords of the Boards, including Jeremy Jacobs, owner of the Bruins and chairman of the league’s board of governors.
It must be noted, of course, that as of July 2018, CTE only can be diagnosed posthumously. Which is zero comfort to those living every day with the basketful of symptoms, including loss of memory, impaired sleep, acute mood swings, and more — similar to such debilitating illnesses as ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
Meanwhile, the league’s CTE position in short: your head, your risk, puck drops at 7:08 p.m.
Ex-players with addled brains have lined up, as they did in the NFL, with lawsuits based on charges that they weren’t made fully aware of the game’s injury risks. They want help. In many cases, they need money to help pay medical bills, to help cope with life. Ex-Bruin Nick Boynton joined the growing brigade recently, after detailing his years-long battle with depression and addiction in the wake of what he estimates might have been as many as 30 concussions over the course of his career.
“In so many ways,” Boynton wrote in his sobering piece for The Players’ Tribune, “my life after hockey has been a living hell.”
The NFL lived this hell, of course, eventually leading to the 2015 settlement in which the league agreed to pay out as much as $1 billion over 65 years to players dealing with dementia-related issues. It took years to reach that settlement with the similarly obstinate NFL, and even though football has amended the rule book and general practices to help reduce the risk of head injury, it remains a dangerous game with head contact inevitable.
Per the scientists, CTE is not necessarily a big-bang disease, its onset triggered solely by concussions. Rather, prolonged exposure to subconcussive hits also can lead to the disease, which makes interior linemen particularly vulnerable. They butt heads with nearly every snap of the ball.
During Bettman’s 25-year reign, the NHL in recent years also has improved its protocols and rules around hits to the head. It was at the vanguard of spotting and monitoring potential concussions during games. When Matt Cooke tried to decapitate then-Bruin Marc Savard (a hit that went unpenalized on the ice), league general managers and the board of governors finally amended the rule book, penalizing targeted hits to the head. In their meetings last month in Las Vegas, GMs again discussed the idea of penalizing all hits to the head, be they targeted or not, but came to no conclusion. They need to pick up the pace.
Bettman knows where this could go, and in a hurry, which in part is why he obstinately maintains his “no proof” position. The NFL’s billion-dollar payout, hammered out before a class action suit went to trial, set a precedent and no doubt emboldened the attorneys now representing ex-NHL players who present with similar symptoms. He doesn’t want to be the commish telling his 31 owners it’s time to pony up a billion bucks.
To admit there’s a link between hits to the head and the onset of brain disease would be premature, Bettman has said, despite the likes of Boynton and scores of others presenting otherwise, despite Boston-based research in recent years that has studied the brains of many dead hockey players and found ample cases of CTE.
If Bettman‘s position proves wrong, or at least imprudent, his formal induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 12 could be viewed, at the very least, as premature. The science appears to be catching up.
Years from now, if there is irrefutable proof of NHL players being insufficiently protected from life-altering brain injury, then Bettman’s legacy could change from brilliant business strategist to that of the guy who willfully ignored the opportunity to do more to protect the brains and lives of the working help.
GIANT OF THE GAME
St. Louis was not short on talent
As your faithful puck chronicler here over the entirety of his NHL career, I always wished Martin St. Louis one day would find a home on the Bruins’ roster. Consummate pro. Feisty, dynamic game. Saw him play a little bit during his University of Vermont years (1993-97) and, like most, questioned whether what he did in the NCAA could translate to the NHL.
That question was answered long ago, of course, and stated all the more emphatically Tuesday when St. Louis, age 43, was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
“I don’t know if I was a trailblazer, but I definitely felt that I helped — like others before me,” said St. Louis, reflecting on succeeding at the highest level despite those who doubted him because of his 5-foot-8-inch frame. “I mean . . . my idol was Mats Naslund. He was a little guy. And when I got older and in college, I’d watch Theo Fleury, Cliff Ronning . . . even Dougie Gilmour, I think he was 5-10 or something, a smaller player. Those were the guys who inspired me. I always felt, ‘If they’re there, well there’s exceptions, why can’t I be one?’ I knew it was possible. It was hard, but it was possible. So I really fed off that.
“There were people who tried to discourage me along the way, but that’s just life — it can be anything. It doesn’t have to be size. Sometimes people don’t want to see others do great things.”
St. Louis finished with 391 goals and 1,033 points, and will enter the Hall as one of 87 players to reach the 1,000-point plateau. He also is one of only six players during the draft era (which began in 1963) to go undrafted and ultimately make it to 1,000. The other five:
Wayne Gretzky — 894-1,963—2,857
*Adam Oates — 341-1,079—1,420
Peter Stastny — 450-789—1,239
Dino Ciccarelli — 608-592—1,200
*Joe Mullen — 502-561—1,063
* — Like St. Louis, first played in NCAA, Oates at RPI and Mullen at Boston College.
After finishing his studies in Burlington, Vt., St. Louis signed with Calgary and spent most of his first two pro seasons in the minors. After three seasons, and only 20 NHL points in 69 games, he became an unrestricted free agent at age 25, and ultimately caught fire with the Lightning.
“I could see myself getting better every year,” said St. Louis, thinking back to his college days. “So I felt like I was tracking, and at least having an opportunity to get looked at — I didn’t think I was going to have this Hall of Fame career. I was just trying to get a regular spot, and hopefully build from that. With time, I did.”
Hamilton again on the move
Three years after refusing to sign an extension after three promising seasons with the Bruins, defenseman Dougie Hamilton last Saturday was traded again, shipped to the remodeling Hurricanes in a swap that in part netted the Flames ex-BC standout Noah Hanifin, the left-shooting defenseman believed by many to be on Boston’s wish list again this summer.
Rightly or wrongly, Hamilton, now 25, has picked up a reputation for being, shall we say, quirky. Only 19 upon his arrival in Boston, and ballyhooed as a potential franchise defenseman, he showed flashes of offensive brilliance in Claude Julien’s strict defensive system. He also was prone to boo-boos (like most kids) and could be thin-skinned when criticized (like most kids).
When it came time to re-up in Boston, with GM Don Sweeney just days on the job, Hamilton snubbed Boston’s offer, got traded to the Flames, and quickly signed for six years and $34.5 million, virtually the same buck he was offered here. He wanted to be somewhere else and Sweeney hastily accommodated him, flipping him for the three draft picks that became Zach Senyshyn, Jeremy Lauzon, and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson.
To date, the Bruins have but JFK’s lone NHL game to show for that trade. Unless things change soon, history will show Sweeney would have been far better to make peace and a deal with the 6-foot-6-inch Hamilton, although that may have been impossible.
Meanwhile, in his three years in Calgary, Hamilton put up 137 points, including a career-high 50 in 2016-17. Torey Krug, taking full advantage of the Hamilton void in the Boston lineup, produced 154 points in that same span.
The Hurricanes came away with the best player in Hamilton, at least as of today, but the gem here could be the fleet Elias Lindholm, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 draft, who accompanied Hanifin to Calgary. The 6-1 center is only 23 and already has played five NHL seasons, and has the skills to be a franchise pivot.
A restricted free agent, Lindholm is looking for a big raise over the $2.7 million he coined each of the last two seasons, and the low-budget Hurricanes were not convinced they could get him to re-up at a cap-friendly number. It’s likely going to take the Flames something like the five-year, $26.25 million deal that J.T. Miller signed this past week in Tampa. They also have to give Hanifin, a restricted free agent, a big boost over his $925,000-per-year entry deal.
Along with left winger Michael Ferland, the Hurricanes also acquired 5-10 Adam Fox, who will be a Harvard junior in 2018-19. Fox averaged 34 points in his first two seasons with Ted Donato, after being selected 66th by the Flames out of the National Team Development Program in 2016. He could be the guy who one day soon replaces Justin Faulk, who has two more years at $4.83 million per and has been rumored in trade talks since season’s end.
Ex-Russian star Alexander Yakushev, once a high-scoring winger with the CCCP, was the sole European player named Tuesday to the Hall of Fame. Now 71, he was playing hockey in Russia when the Hall’s Lanny McDonald called him with the good news. Still on the ice at the time, he had to ring back to McDonald in Toronto. “Didn’t sound like a pickup game, more like a league game, or whatever,” said McDonald. “We asked him how the game went and he said, ‘Oh, we won the game.’ And then we tell him why we’re calling, and he said, ‘Ah, this is the best day of my life, this is so good!’ So he won the hockey game, got inducted into the Hall, and he’s still playing. Yeah, that is a pretty good day.” . . . Following the league’s recent board of governors meeting in Las Vegas, commissioner Gary Bettman said Seattle, expected to be fully approved as an expansion city this fall, could be rubber-stamped to play its first games in October 2020, only some 27 months down the road. “Things seem to be progressing without any hitches at this point,” Bettman said, later adding that a firm start date is more a question of how soon KeyArena can be made ready for play. “The timetable on finishing the application and doing what we need to do — we can do that as quickly or as slowly as appropriate. And that’s a matter of weeks or months, not years. The bigger issue is going to be their timeline on the building.” If it is 2020, it will mean the NHL will have gone through two expansion drafts in 36 months, with real assets (see: Vegas) to be exposed.
Ex-Bruins defenseman Joe Morrow, dealt from Montreal to Winnipeg at the February trade deadline, re-upped with the Jets this past week on a one-year deal at $1 million. JoMo remains a talent, one in constant need of refinement now seven years removed from being a first-round draft pick (No. 23) by the Penguins . . . Count me confused now that Daniel Alfredsson, with 1,157 career points, has yet to be named to the Hall of Fame after two years of eligibility . . . Now 20-plus years of trying to convince inner-city kids to give hockey a try, ex-Bruin Willie O’Ree (named to the Hall in the builder’s category) has an easier time with his sales pitch these days. “I can see the influx these programs are having,” he said. “There’s more boys and girls playing hockey today than ever before and that’s just due to the fact they’ve watched it on the telly and there are more rinks being constructed to get these boys and girls the opportunity to get on the ice. And those that can’t get on the ice are playing roller hockey and street hockey.” . . . Of the 87 players to reach the 1,000-point plateau, including the group of six (above) with Martin St. Louis, a dozen of them, including ex-Bruins John Bucyk and Jean Ratelle also were never drafted. Like Bobby Orr (915 points), they signed with NHL clubs prior to the start of the entry draft in 1963 . . . As the weekend approached, Phil Kessel remained on the Pittsburgh roster, albeit with GM Jim Rutherford committed to shedding salary. Stay tuned.