Hockey is, essentially, thought of as America’s winter sport. This year, the National Hockey League started its play for the 2016-2017 season, the 100th season of the NHL (99th season of play), on October 12, 2016 with four games in which the Ottawa Senators, the Edmonton Oilers, the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks won. Since the teams have already started their season, it is relevant now to look at what the government is doing to support safe play for professional and amateur ice hockey players.
This year, on October 6, four members of the Legislative Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to Commissioner Gary Bettman about the issue of CTE, brain injury, and the NHL. Specifically, Hon. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ). Hon. Gene Green (D-TX), Hon. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Hon. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), wrote to Bettman, “to request information on the National Hockey League’s (NHL) policies and procedures for the prevention and treatment of concussions and related head injuries…. [as] there is significant scientific evidence to support a link between the types of concussive and subconcussive hits inherent to the game of hockey and brain injury.” (It seems evident to me that having your head hit repeatedly thoughout the season will result in head trauma.) The Committee members also noted that participation in contact sports as a youth may increase the likelihood of developing CTE.
In response, on October 24, Bettman wrote a letter to the Committee that stated the National Hockey League/National Hockey League Players’ Association is very concerned about the health of its players. Prior to this season, for example, the NHL updated its concussion protocol so that it is now mandatory to remove an athlete from play if the coach sees that the player has been physically or neurologically hurt and to then get the player evaluated by a certified athletic trainer. However, the Committee says that Bettman’s letter of response sounds, “a little bit like the tobacco industry, when it comes to linking concussions with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).”
Ironically though, just as there are some Congress members who are smokers, annually there is a Congressional Hockey Challenge. Begun in 2009, “The Congressional Hockey Challenge is a 501(c)(3) organization committed to ensuring that the incredible and dynamic sport of ice hockey is accessible to everyone who wants to play.” On the Congressional games website, one can note that the game is played for lawmakers’ enjoyment, yes, but also to benefit charity. This year, the game was played on March 2nd and had five Congressmen on the ice. Even Bettman, who criticizes Congress, as the above paragraph notes, attended the event in support of the team and the cause.
Personally, just as I believe should be true for all other sports, I do not believe it should be the role of Congress to determine the rules of professional sports, especially one that they enjoy themselves. Education is the key. Players need to be informed, by the team and by former players who have suffered the horrible lasting effects of brain injury, of the possible consequences of violent defense in the game and post-game fights. More so, the National Hockey League needs to fully enforce its concussion/head injury rules.