Bettman's CTE Dodge Will Cost Him And NHL Dearly With Public
The end of the hockey world as we know it: Jiri Hudler is taking a pass on the World Cup of Hockey.
Okay, maybe that’s not so earth-shattering. There are other players taking a pass on Gary’s World Cup of Cash, and they won’t derail the supercalifragilistic display of hockey supremacy either. But there are factors at play that could sabotage what should be the future of NHL involvement in international play.
At the risk of repeating myself (when has that ever happened?), the idea of an under-23 team thrust into the middle of what is being advertised as a showdown between nations is contrived. Bogus. Laughable. The only thing missing from this notional attempt at getting the young folk involved is Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, Mel B and Heidi Klum doing intermissions. What happens if the under-23s win? Do they get an American Idol ticket to Hollywood?
With the Olympics still fresh in our minds, how would Canadians have felt if the women’s soccer or rugby sevens teams had won a medal against a team of players with no national affiliation? An all-lefthanded team. A team from the francophonie. A team of big-name players from other sports.
A World Cup is integral to the NHL keeping up in global sports. This is not the way to achieve that.
Okay, we’ve tilled this soil before. Bettman believes the sweats will put it all to the side and root for Canadians versus other Canadians. Embedded media will sing from the NHL hymn book. Life will go on, even if the tournament is capotée. With the amounts of cash involved and Rogers’ slavish hype to rescue its increasingly onerous TV deal, none of this misbegotten concept is likely to stick to his teflon self.
But Bettman faces another threat to his credibility— and his future as NHL commissioner. That would be his dogged insistence on asserting that there is no link between concussions in hockey and CTE, the serious brain condition said to be caused by blows to the head in competition. ‘There is no proven link between head injuries and CTE,” he declared in a written deposition to U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a ranking member of the Senate’s Consumer Protection subcommittee.
He then called the whole thing a media contrivance. While he may not know this from riding in private jets and limos, many families consider this a game changer. So does Blumenthal, who tweeted, “Disappointed @NHL continues to deny link between concussions & #CTE. I will continue to press for real answers… #Hockey is a fast-paced & exciting sport w/int'l popularity. That's why @NHL should be looking for real ways to improve safety—not oppose it... @NHL has an obligation, not only to its players, but to countless parents & children to uncover real dangers of consistent head injuries.”
One need only look at the reaction of the other contact sports to the perception that they’re grievously wounding their top stars. Even the mighty NFL has moderated its unequivocal stance on the connections between concussion and CTE after the Will Smith film Concussion. While far from a satisfactory response to the retired heroes, the NFL knows it can no longer bafflegab if it wants the support of corporate sources and fans.
By contrast, Bettman is doing What, Me Worry? His public appearances have conveyed a cavalier attitude to the PR crisis surrounding his sport, wounding himself with smarmy comebacks when asked by reporters about the league’s position. He’s barked that he’s not there to talk about concussions. Or that reporters are simpletons who’d never plumb the depths of his legal wisdom. The impression, compared to even the beef-witted Roger Goddell, is highly unflattering to him and injurious to the NHL.
Bettman is doing is lawyerly best to nuance the problem in which the owners find themselves. (He says the CTE link is “nascent”, a ten-dollar lawyer word if there ever was one.) We understand that the commissioner is taking comfort in this legal position at the moment. There is a great deal of money at risk if the league is found to have been negligent in protecting its workers from a disabling, even fatal condition.
Here’s the rub: Like Hillary Clinton niggling over obscure points of law in her stumbling presidential campaign, the NHL commissioner is mistaking legal for right. Should he need clarification on that strategy, he might check out her plummeting ratings since Hillary became enmeshed in another Clintonesque semantics exercise over her truthfulness on emails and national security.
It is not her lengthy experience in government or her family foundation that is causing the drop. It is her 65 percent untrustworthiness that’s sinking her polls. That’s what Bettman courts for the NHL with this strategy.
No one is saying that Bettman faces immediate danger of losing the perch he’s held since 1992. With only one NHL owner preceding him in the job, he controls many strings inside the league office. But the concussion issue is a brushfire that is erupting exponentially. With his competition making provisions, Bettman will be more isolated as he plays cute on evidence and law.
He’s playing a dangerous game with public opinion. One that, if it switches quickly, will leave the owners needing someone to blame. The fall guy won’t be hard to find. Just follow the booing of the fans.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).