Day Before NHL Draft, Blumenthal Presses NHL on Concussions

Pointing to the recent attention given to football concussions, Blumenthal decries the lack of that same attention to hockey—another full-contact sport. Senator: NHL understands the prevalence and danger of concussions in the sport but has chosen not to take them seriously.

[WASHINGTON, DC] – A day before the National Hockey League’s annual draft begins, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is pressing the NHL on its failure to address the prevalence of concussions in the sport. Pointing to the recent attention given to preventing concussions in football, Blumenthal decries the lack of that same attention to preventing concussions in hockey—another full-contact sport. In a letter to the NHL, Blumenthal said the league has demonstrated it understands the prevalence and danger of concussions in the sport, but has chosen not to take them seriously. Blumenthal calls on the NHL to clarify recent comments made by top officials that dismiss the problem of concussions in hockey and presses the league on the action it is taking to reduce concussions in the sport.  

“Earlier this year, the National Football League (NFL) admitted for the first time that there is a link between playing football and CTE. Unfortunately, the NHL’s response following the NFL’s admission has been dismissive and disappointing. While hockey and football are certainly different, both are full-contact sports that likely present risks to their participants,” Blumenthal wrote. “As the premier professional hockey league in the world, the NHL has an obligation not only to ensure the safety of your players, but to also engage in a productive dialogue about the safety of your sport at all levels—from youth to professional.”

“For too long, the problem  of concussions in hockey and the National Hockey League’s denials regarding the risks have gone unaddressed,” said Len Boogaard, father of former NHL player Derek Boogaard who was found to be suffering from CTE after his death in 2011. “Today, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut did an enormous service to this generation of hockey players and the next, by raising the issue in his letter to Commissioner Gary Bettman.  We have tried to get Commissioner Bettman to discuss the safety of his game and the impact it has on the long-term health of its players and have been met with only repeated denials regarding the risks.  It is my hope that Senator Blumenthal’s advocacy helps to raise public awareness of this issue and leads to answers to these important questions facing hockey.”

Blumenthal is a leader in protecting Americans from the dangers of concussions. He has helped lead legislation, the Youth Sports Concussion Act, which would ensure that safety standards for sports equipment, including football helmets, are based on the latest science and curb false advertising claims made by manufacturers to increase protective sports gear sales. This legislation was voted out of the Senate Commerce Committee in April. He also recently filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to address concussions at United States Service Academies.

Full text of the letter is available here and below:

Dear Mr. Bettman:

As Ranking Member of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security, which has jurisdiction over sports, I write to seek clarification regarding recent comments made by top officials in the National Hockey League (NHL) that appear dismissive about the link between head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the game of hockey.

Earlier this year, the National Football League (NFL) admitted for the first time that there is a link between playing football and CTE. This was a significant admission from a league whose sport has a high frequency of concussive and sub-concussive hits to its players. Unfortunately, the NHL’s response following the NFL’s admission has been dismissive and disappointing.

In fact, you recently stated, “I think it’s fairly clear that playing hockey isn’t the same as football. And as we’ve said all along, we’re not going to get into a public debate on this.” The New York Times recently published emails from top officials in your league discussing concussions and the NHL’s abstention from working to ensuring safety in the game.[1] In one e-mail, a top official said, on the topic of fighting in the sport: “Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies.” Those emails demonstrated that the NHL understands the prevalence and danger of concussions in the sport but has chosen not to take them seriously.

While hockey and football are certainly different, both are full-contact sports that likely present risks to their participants. Furthermore, it is clear from the deaths of six former NHL players—Derek Boogaard, Reg Fleming, Bob Probert, Rick Martin, Steve Montador, and now Larry Zeidel—whose brains have been determined to contain evidence of CTE, that the risks are certainly real.

As the premier professional hockey league in the world, the NHL has an obligation not only to ensure the safety of your players, but to also engage in a productive dialogue about the safety of your sport at all levels—from youth to professional. Furthermore, given the number of NHL teams who play in arenas financed in part or in whole by taxpayer funds and the hundreds of thousands of American children playing hockey, government oversight into the safety of your sport is appropriate, and a matter of public health. Accordingly, I respectfully request answers to the following questions:

  1. Do you believe there is a link between CTE and hockey? If you do not, please explain how head trauma in hockey differs from head trauma in football.

  2. Do you dispute that the documented CTE of former NHL players, like Derek Boogaard, is linked to injuries sustained while playing in the NHL?

  3. What changes could be made to the game to better protect athletes’ long-term health? Has the NHL considered eliminating fighting from the game? How can the league reduce fighting?

  4. Have you considered adopting changes to the game similar to those recently implemented by the International Ice Hockey Federation, such as establishing penalties that more seriously aim at eliminating fighting? Why or why not?

  5. Can you outline the process by which a player is disciplined for an illegal headshot, starting immediately after the incident occurs?

  6. Can you speak to any education the league has provided for officials to be better equipped to call illegal plays that often end up with players getting hurt?

  7. Do you believe players are adequately informed about the risks of concussions in the league when they join? What could the league do to ensure that players understand this risk?

  8. Do you believe that if there was more information about how players would be disciplined for illegally hitting another player that it would reduce the incidence of head trauma in the NHL?

  9. What is the current protocol for diagnosing and treating concussions? Will the NHL commit to using the latest concussion diagnosing standard, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

Thank you for your attention to this critical matter. I respectfully request a response by July 23, 2016.

Sincerely, 

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