A prominent U.S. Congresswoman claims NHL commissioner Gary Bettman “is still in denial,” about the links between concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, but wants to hear from Bettman directly on the matter.
Jan Schakowsky of Illinois was one of four members of Congress from the Committee on Energy and Commerce to sign a letter to Bettman last week asking him for more information from the NHL on its policies and procedures on concussion treatment and prevention. League spokesman Frank Brown told thn.com that Bettman does plan to respond to the letter by the Oct. 24 deadline.
Schakowsky was one of a number of politicians who recently met with former NHLers Dale Purinton and Dan LaCouture and Paul Montador, the father of former NHL defenseman Steve Montador, who died in February and whose brain was found to have extensive signs of CTE. “This was a tearful meeting,” Schakowsky told thn.com. “Their lives were changed forever, obviously except in the case of (Montador), and they felt the NHL didn’t properly take care of them or consider their health.”
You might remember Schakowsky as the person who provided a game-changing moment when she asked Jeff Miller of the National Football League if there was a link between concussions in football and degenerative brain diseases such as CTE. Miller responded by saying: “The answer to that is certainly yes.”
Schakowsky has so far not seen any such admission from Bettman or the NHL. In fact, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal sent a letter to Bettman in June about the link between concussions and CTE and Bettman replied by saying the science around a link between the two, “remains nascent.”
“We want (the NHL) to acknowledge there is a risk,” Schakowsky said. “It looks like Bettman is still in denial that there is any link. There are retired players who are anxious to get the NHL to take some responsibility and that’s really what this letter is designed to do – to get some answers and accountability.”
The other Congress members to sign the letter were Frank Pallone Jr., of New Jersey, Gene Green of Texas and Diane DeGette of Colorado. All are Democrats who are ranking members of a Republican-controlled committee, so it’s unsure when, if ever, Bettman would be called before Congress. The entire 435-seat Congress is up for reelection in November and the Democrats would have to gain 30 Congress seats in order to have control of Congress and all its committees. That is seen as a longshot, even with the negative effect Donald Trump has had on the Republican Party. "Our next step is to ask our Republican colleagues to call a hearing and to have some of the witnesses we recommend," Schakowsky said. I'm hoping we will be able to do this in a bipartisan way."
But it’s also interesting to note that the Committee on Energy and Commerce has the broadest jurisdiction of any committee in the House of Representatives. And Schakowsky said this is an issue of importance to her and the others who signed the letters, not only because of the effects it has on professional hockey players, but the trickle-down effect the league’s policies and attitudes have on tiers below, right down to minor hockey.
“We sent this letter in the hopes that we would spur some action by the NHL and get some answers – force some answers – by Oct. 24,” Schakowsky said. “We think (the NHL) must know this is an issue. We’ll see where this goes, but we’re not going away. There will be continued pressure.” The letter contains a total of seven questions, but it’s actually 14 because several of them are a series of questions. They range from asking what the average time an NHL player spends sidelined with a concussion before returning to play to what led the NHL to impose stiffer penalties for head contact to whether or not the league works with minor hockey associations, “to ensure players and parents understand the risks posed by the game.”
Earlier this week, the NHL announced its updated concussion protocol, which calls for both central and in-arena concussion spotters who will have the authority to remove a player from the game who is exhibiting visible signs of a concussion and require him to be evaluated. He will not be able to return to the game until he is evaluated by medical staff and cleared to return. It also announced that any team violating the new protocol would, “be subject to a mandatory minimum fine for a first offense, with substantially increased fine amounts for any subsequent offense.”
The letter takes direct aim at the NHL, comparing it rather unfavorably to the NFL, Major League Baseball, noting that other leagues have a mandatory minimum time a player must be withheld from play following a concussion. It also brought up fighting in the NHL and the now infamous email thread among league officials on the subject in 2011.
“I’m hoping they’re working on a reply and taking our questions seriously,” Schakowsky said, “because we regard this very seriously.”