PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t believe there is enough data yet to draw conclusions about the link between concussions and a degenerative brain ailment that has been found in four dead hockey players.
The league wrapped up its Board of Governors meetings a day after The New York Times reported that former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an ailment related to Alzheimer’s disease.
The 28-year-old Boogaard, who died in May of an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone, was found to have had CTE—which can be diagnosed only after the death of the patient. Boogaard is the fourth former NHL player found to have CTE by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
“They’re still looking at a very limited database,” Bettman said Tuesday. “There’s no control element because you have to look at everything that went on in a person’s life before you can make a judgment as to what a brain may show when you open it up. … There are no easy answers yet. I think it’s unfortunate that people use tragedies to jump to conclusions that probably at this stage aren’t supported.”
Boogaard scored three goals, had 589 penalty minutes and participated in 61 regular-season fights in his NHL career. He also participated in more than 100 fights in the minors.
The disease was more advanced in Boogaard than it was in famed enforcer Bob Probert, who died of heart failure in 2010 at 45. He played 16 seasons in the NHL and often struggled with alcohol and drug addiction.
Reggie Fleming, who was 73, and 59-year-old Rick Martin, were other hockey players who were found to have CTE.
Robert Stern, the co-director of the centre at BU, said in an email that CTE research is still in its infancy but that all confirmed cases of CTE are in people who have had a history of repetitive brain trauma earlier in their lives.
Stern said many people with a history of repeated brain trauma do not develop CTE and it has not been determined why some people get the disease and others do not.
“We cannot ever draw a line of causality between a specific type of activity and developing the disease,” Stern said. “‘And, specific policies and rule changes should not be made without adequate scientific knowledge to back it up.”
But he said that if repetitive brain trauma even contributes to the development of CTE in some people, it would be appropriate to reduce exposure to brain trauma.
Bettman points out many changes the league has made, including cracking down on hits to the head, making it mandatory for players showing concussion symptoms to be examined by a doctor in a quiet area and installing safer boards and glass at its arenas.
He reported that concussions are down about one-third so far this season, but there is no way to eliminate them entirely.
“Even if it’s a legal hit, it can lead to a concussion,” Bettman said. “We play a very fast-paced, physical game in a close environment. I think people need to take a deep breath and not overreact. It’s important to react and it’s something we’ll monitor closely.”
Even though the players found to have CTE were enforcers during their careers, Bettman said there was no discussion at these meetings about trying to eliminate fighting. He said he considers head trauma that comes from fighting different from injuries that come from hits because fighters are willing combatants and not taken by surprise.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league last discussed stronger penalties for fighting from the current five-minute major penalty at general manager meetings two years ago and there has been little appetite for it recently.
“Fighting is part of our game,” Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “It impedes more injuries to happen because of what potentially can happen with people taking liberties they shouldn’t take.”
Boogaard’s father, Len, also told the Times that his son told him the New York Rangers gave him four days’ notice for a drug test. Bettman said he doubted it could be true because teams are not told that far in advance of upcoming drug tests.
The news about Boogaard and CTE prompted another round of questioning in NHL dressing rooms.
“He was a legitimate heavyweight who was fighting every night against the toughest guys in the league,” said Vancouver Canucks forward Viktor Oreskovich. “It’s a very sad story, and everything that happened this summer definitely brought a lot of attention to that issue of concussions and just guys fighting.”
Still, the overwhelming majority of players believe the risks that come with playing a physical sport are worth it.
“This is what I’ve dreamt of since I was a little kid on a backyard rink,” said Blue Jackets forward Derek Dorsett. “I’m fortunate to be where I am and I’m grateful for what I can do in life. There’s a lot worse things I could do and there’s risks in other jobs.
“My brother works in the oil fields with big heavy equipment and there are risks in that. It’s what I do and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
With files from Canadian Press writers Monte Stewart in Vancouver and Bill Beacon in Montreal.