Bettman: Banning hits to head would mean end of all hits

OTTAWA, Ontario (AP) — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hit back Wednesday at the notion of banning any kind of head contact, telling a Canadian parliamentary panel that such a rule would be impossible to enforce and lead to the end of hitting.

The league has faced calls to penalize any head contact in the hope of eliminating potentially debilitating concussions. Those calling for a strict rule include Ken Dryden, the former Montreal Canadiens goalie and cabinet minister in Paul Martin’s Liberal government.

In sometimes combative testimony, Bettman said such a rule at the NHL level would mean larger players would inevitably land blows on smaller players’ heads in the normal course of play, leading to penalties. Ultimately “there would be no more body checking” — something that players and fans feel is an “exciting, appealing, entertaining” and important part of the game.

Bettman decried what he called “blanket statements about changing a rule” on head contact that might not address “where the injuries are being caused.”

He said the game is safer for players and different in terms of physical contact from football, where there are repeated blows to players’ heads, and he questioned any direct link between multiple hockey concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a brain condition associated with repeated blows to the head. CTE can be profoundly debilitating, with symptoms that include memory problems, personality changes, aggression and depression.

“I don’t believe there has been, based on everything I’ve been told — and if anybody has information to the contrary, we’d be happy to hear it — other than some anecdotal evidence, there has not been that conclusive link,” Bettman said.

When asked if there were any rules or changes he would make to the game to reduce head contact, Bettman told parliament he likes the way professional hockey is being played, adding: “Right now, I don’t believe there’s much we can do.”

The special committee has spent months holding hearings on the issue of concussions, including options for treatment, prevention and what, if anything, the federal government should be doing about sports-related head injuries. Experts and athletes have appeared before the cross-party panel, as well as high-profile figures such as CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie and Eric Lindros, the former NHL player whose Hall of Fame career was cut short by multiple concussions.

Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly were the final witnesses of the committee’s study before it tables a report in the coming weeks. Although attention has focused on amateur athletics, the committee could recommend concussion protocols for professional sports.

“I’m hoping that’s not the case,” Bettman said after the meeting about that possibility.