NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was recently quoted (AP Story):
“(He)…. believes the rise in NHL concussions this season is a result of “bad luck”.
He went further in saying:
“I’m not saying that no concussions came from hits to the head, but it appears that the increase is coming from somewhere else,” Bettman said.
Before I critique either of those comments, I will preface this by saying it is possible these quotes were taken out of context of a longer conversion not covered in the AP story. Personally I believe Commissioner Bettman was really stating that it was its “bad luck” that the league superstar (aka Sidney Crosby) sustained a concussion and brought increased media attention to NHL concussions. But regardless of the intent of the comments, this headline should be seen as a negative for the league.
As this blog has extensively covered, this NFL season vaulted ‘concussions’ into the public consciousness and conversation. As a result, many states and organizations are now rushing to create and enforce stronger return-to-play guidelines. I don’t think there are many informed medical professionals that will agree with the Commissioner’s assessment that the increase in concussions is purely related to statistical chance or luck. With the league struggling to regain and retain fans post-lockout and TV viewers post-Olympic bump, many will agree that the speed, the hits and the fights (true even though the NHL will deny it) are the main draws of the sport.
As we have and many other media outlets have reported, the NHL has a helmet, equipment, and/or rules problem it currently does not have a solution for. As in the NFL, many of the serious and high-profile NHL concussions result from hits that are flagrant and simply have no place in the game. See the Marc Savard hit or listen to Sidney Crosby’s take on his recent concussion. Also similar to the NFL, anyone around youth or high school hockey will agree the aggressive hitting style in professional hockey filters down and affects game play at other levels.
In no way am I suggesting that hockey should be a non-contact sport, nor should the game be burdened with rules that stifle fast play and excitement, but the league and its commissioner need to take the problem seriously; not undermine the steps it has already taken by making comments like this. A large part of this “media war” on concussions is going to be PR, saying the right thing and staying on the same message as a league. Yes, concussions MUST be managed better, but the more all professional leagues address concussions as serious injuries versus the “bell ringers” of the past, the more younger athletes will understand that the signs and symptoms of head injury should not be ignored.