Tom Wilson (left) and Kyle Clifford (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI via Getty Images)
Fighting in the NHL is at historically low levels, but they have been even lower before than they were in the 2015-16 seasons. It's one of the 'facts' Gary Bettman chooses to ignore when it comes to debating the subject.
As long as the NHL faces a concussion lawsuit from former players, you can expect NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to get his back up about the issue of fighting. And if that means he has to go to the same age-old clichés about its place in the game and provide nebulous information, so be it.
That was the case when Bettman was asked about it in an interview with an online broadcast of Sports Illustrated Now. Bettman was responding to questions about a letter he received from Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who accused the league of appearing, “dismissive about the link between head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the game of hockey.” Blumenthal, who is a member of a Senate subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security, posed nine questions to Bettman about how the league handles concussions and whether he believes there is a link between CTE and hockey. Blumenthal asked for a response by July 23 and Bettman complied.
“I plan on doing it a lot sooner than that,” Bettman told the program. “Senator Blumenthal doesn’t have his facts straight and we’ll use this as an opportunity to explain to him why he’s so misinformed.”
Fair enough. But when the questions turned to fighting and whether or not Bettman could ever envision the day during his tenure when fighting would be eliminated, that’s when he came out like an enforcer who’d just been speared in the gut. “Fighting is at the lowest level, I believe, in the history of the game,” Bettman said. Someone might want to set him straight on that one. There was an average of 0.28 fights per game in the NHL in 2015-16, which is as low as it’s been since the league expanded to 12 teams in 1966-67. But there were times in the 1950s and 60s where fighting was significantly lower than that. In 1961-62, for example, there were just 39 fights in 210 NHL games for a per-game average of just 0.19.
Then Bettman went on to repeat the well-rehearsed and well-worn arguments of the pro-fighting crowd. “What’s the point of the question?” Bettman said. “The fact of the matter is fighting has been a part of the game. It does act as a thermostat in the game – this is a very physical, fast-moving, emotional, edgy game.”
The fact of the matter, also though, is that there are other games that might not be as fast as hockey, but are every bit as emotional and edgy and some of them are even more physical. The notion that hockey needs fighting as an “emotional outlet” has been debunked by logic for years. Football players make significant physical contact on every play. In rugby, 15 players on each team spend every play trying to crush each other, then help their opponents up and have a beer after the game with them. As long as we’re talking about facts here, the fact is that hockey is no more emotional or physical than a lot of other games.
Then comes one of Bettman’s whoppers. When it was suggested that eliminating fighting is one rule change that could possibly reduce concussions, Bettman said, “What percentage of concussions, do you think, come from fighting in the game? The statistics will tell you that this is a physical game and that fighting isn’t the only issue and, in fact, fighting may help prevent other injuries.”
All right, if we continue to deal with facts, the fact is that unless Bettman and the NHL are hiding a mother lode of statistical evidence that they haven’t shared with anyone, nobody knows how many concussions are due to fighting. We don’t know, but the hockey world doesn’t know, either. And fighting helps prevent injuries? Where is that coming from, other than from anecdotal evidence and the assertions of people who want fighting to stay in the game? Where is the statistical proof that statement is even close to being true?
And how do you quantify that against the culture of violence in hockey, in which fighting plays an enormous part, that justifies the presence of enforcers and applauds players who seek out retribution as part of the attitude that the players must police the game? How does that account for hockey operations vice-president Colin Campbell once stating, “We sell hate”?
There are some things that might give us a clearer picture, but even those are contradictory. Blaine Hoshizaki, head of the Neurotrauma Science Impact Lab at the University of Ottawa, concluded five years ago that if a player absorbs a punch to the jaw by a skilled fighter, he is likely to suffer a concussion and can expect up to 900 pounds of pressure from the impact. About the same time, Dr. David Milzman, a professor of emergency medicine at Georgetown University and an on-site emergency doctor for the Washington Capitals, conducted a study which documented 710 fights in 1,239 pre-season and regular-season games, and counted 17 injuries for a rate of 1.12 percent per combatant per fight. That led him to tell the National Post in 2011, “The fights aren’t causing the concussions. I can say that without a doubt.”
And in 2013, the league conducted a study, the league and not an outside body, that concluded that 44 percent of concussions were the result of legal hits and eight percent were the result of fighting.
Beyond that, we do have emails sent by both Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly, also in 2011, that talked about the links between fighting and concussions leading to depression. “I believe the fighting and possible concussions could aggravate a condition,” Bettman wrote in an email chain. “Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies,” Daly wrote in another.
When the league did away with touch icing and introduced hybrid icing in 2013, it did so because there had been a couple of very serious, very gruesome injuries to players. But in the grand scheme of things, when you account for the thousands and thousands of icing calls that had been made before that, the number of injuries was infinitesimally small. But that did not stop the league from making a change it felt was justified, one that has robbed fans of seeing players take part in a spirited race for a loose puck. “Ultimately the (GMs) believe it’s a safety issue,” Daly said at the time. “It makes the game safer for the players and we think it’s important.”
Of course, the anchor did not have the numbers on fighting because no one does, but to her credit, she said Bettman’s words did not pass the smell test. To which Bettman replied, “If you don’t have the facts, you don’t get to condemn the smell test.”
And just like that, Bettman wins again. Because Bettman has the facts, or at least he says he does. So we continue to wait for the day when he makes those public, when the hockey world gets to find out that there is in fact a statistical evidence that debunks beyond any doubt that there is a link between fighting and concussions. And that having fighting in the game does indeed lead to fewer injuries.
Only then will we have a smell test worth discussing.