NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday that there was not 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. ”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 reportedly participated in 61 regular-season fights in his NHL career. He also reportedly 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 center 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.
”The findings released by Boston University regarding CTE found in Derek Boogaard’s brain, and the forthcoming medical journal article, should be seriously considered by everyone associated with the game,” NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said. ”It is certainly important information that we will be discussing with the players.”
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 5-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 major news from the meetings came Monday, when the board gave Bettman the authority to realign the league from its current six-division format to four conferences of seven or eight teams.
The NHL Players’ Association said it needs to agree on any plan and wants more details about how it would affect travel, competitive balance and revenues. Daly said the union can’t withhold consent ”unreasonably” and that he doesn’t anticipate any issues that will prevent this from being resolved in a few weeks so the league can make a schedule.
Among other topics discussed was the status of the upcoming labor negotiations with the union. The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Sept. 15, 2012, and discussions are scheduled to begin shortly after the NHL All-Star break at the end of January with new union head Donald Fehr.
The NHL locked out the players at the start of the 1994-95 season, forcing a 48-game regular-season schedule. When labor problems lingered in 2004-05, Bettman shut down the league for the entire season.
”The system was broken and needed to be fixed,” Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe said. ”I don’t think the NHL is talking that way this time around but there needs to be some changes inevitably like there always is. We haven’t heard from the union yet.”
The owners were briefed on recent labor deals reached by the other three major North American professional sports leagues. Only the NBA missed regular season games because of labor issues, having the season reduced from 82 games to 66.
But both the NFL and NBA were able to win significant concessions from players, with owners keeping a larger share of the revenue. In the NFL’s 10-year deal, owners will get about 53 percent of the revenue compared to the old CBA that provided for close to a 50-50 split. NBA players will have their share of basketball-related income fall from 57 percent in the old deal to between 49 percent and 51 percent in the new agreement.
NHL players are currently receiving 57 percent of league revenues.